December 6, 2012 — Recently while stopped at an intersection, I observed an elderly couple in a nearby car. The woman was doing one of those last-minute minute mirror checks: the pursing of lips to ensure that lip color is secure, the purposeful pat of the hair. My own grandmother’s maneuver involved swiping her nose with her compact before she was ready. As a child, I noticed that the beige-colored foundation seemed to make no difference at all to her wrinkled old skin. Yet once she’d swiped her nose and given herself one final look in her compact mirror, I felt that she had somehow achieved beauty.
As I sat at the intersection, I was transported to the bedside of Emma.
I knew Emma only for a few days before she died. I was her hospice nurse. The staff described her as a fiercely independent woman who had always dressed impeccably and took great pride in her personal appearance. She had lived a full life. When informed that continuing treatment for her cancer was futile, Emma had opted for hospice care to help her live out her last days with dignity. As I walked into her room, I noted that her curtains were closed against the late-afternoon sun. Despite the dimness, I could see that her room was tastefully decorated. Emma had recently fallen and her face was quite bruised. I instinctively knew not to ask to turn any lights on.
As I became acquainted with Emma, we talked openly and honestly of her impending death. I’ve learned that secrets and avoiding the truth lose their appeal at the end of life. The day before Emma died, we talked about letting go of past pain. Her pain involved a damaged relationship with her daughter. As we talked, Emma became distracted and her countenance abruptly changed. I sensed that Emma had caught a glimpse of something. I waited for Emma to speak, as I had also learned that dying people very often see people not visible to the rest of us. Then she smiled brightly and commented on my earrings. I was stunned. In the midst of such a painful conversation, Emma noticed my earrings? Not only did she notice them but she actually used some of the final words that she had left on this earth to talk about them.
I began to laugh out loud, which made Emma laugh too. At that moment I realized just how much Emma loved beautiful things. She loved beauty so much that she had to stop and express her find. Emma’s ability to admire something she found beautiful—even now in her final days on earth—made a deep impression on me. In fact, this world is full of reminders of God’s beauty. It’s a gift. Emma’s comment reminded me that we’re never to stop seeking it, appreciating it, or talking about it.
Later, as we continued our conversation, I learned that Emma was a Christian who had lost her way. I reminded her of God’s beautiful promises to her. I told her that although she may have distanced herself from God, he had never left her. That same day, Emma’s daughter arrived from out of state. Before Emma died, her daughter told me, they talked about past hurts and forgave one another. She was with her mother as she took her last breath. When I shared with her Emma’s comment about my earrings, her daughter laughed too. “That was mom,” she said.
The light turned green and the traffic moved. The lady primping her gray hair was no longer in view. But as I drove away, I felt sure that I had witnessed something beautiful, another gift from above, at a traffic light.