Saturday, October 27, 2012
Aunt Mary passed away eight days ago, on October 19th, but her spirit lives on. She helped raise me, and I know that without her in my life, I would not be the person I am today. At her funeral last Tuesday, I shared my reflections. This is my tribute to the life of someone who had a tremendous impact on my life:
I’m honored to represent my family—the Rosses and Millers—to give remarks about my aunt Mary.
I told Aunt Alma there was no way I could reflect effectively on Aunt Mary in 2 minutes, and she assured me that those two minutes do not apply to me, so I’m going to take my liberty, and you can blame her for the extra time that I take.
Actually, there is no amount of time I could be allotted that would be ample to do justice to who my aunt was and what she instilled in my life—in the lives of so many—but to my life in particular. I’m convinced that whatever I am, whatever I am to become, I owe to those who have left an imprint on my life: my parents, yes, who gave me life; my Aunt Alma, too, who enriched that life, and Aunt Mary who refined, and one might even say, defined, my life. The story I’ve been told is that when I was born she told my mom, “Name her Adrienne because she’s going to be a school teacher,” which of course came to pass. I tried to run from it then, and still I’m trying to run from it, but here I am. I’m not sure what connection she saw between my name and what has become my profession, but clearly she spoke something into my life that came to pass, which is a lesson in and of itself about the power of the words that we speak. And she never let me say no when asked to do something in the church. That, too, was God’s will. For so many reasons, and in so many ways, Aunt Mary left an indelible mark upon my life.
Her impact for me was unique in that it spanned some of the most vital years in my development—beginning prior to and into my formative years. She shaped my values, solidifying a faith in Christ that would not be shaken. She taught me what it is to respect my elders, to value of an education, and to work hard—and I got to see the fruit that hard work yields by watching her life and benefitting from that life. I’m not sure if I totally understood this as a child, but as an adult looking back, I realize that she epitomized the spirit of parenthood, and what I mean by that is all good parents want their children to go farther, soar higher, achieve greater than they ever did. And that’s what she wanted for us—for her son Bennie, for her sister, her brother, my sister, my brothers, for me. She wanted us to have a better education than she ever had—even if she had to beat it into us! And often she did! She didn’t want us to have to do the kinds of jobs that she willingly did to make a living and provide a very good lifestyle. Whenever I talk about my upbringing, I always say she and my Uncle Cleveland blessed us with the beautiful house, with the white picket fence, and the two dogs in the yard.
With all she managed to teach me, there were things she tried to teach me that I wasn’t interested in learning and now wished that I had paid better attention to: I know this is small, but I remember so well something she repeatedly said: “A lady always carries tissues in her pocketbook.” I never got the message. #1: I hardly ever carry a pocketbook, and #2: You’d be hard-pressed to find tissues in there if I did. I won’t ask how many of you qualify right now, based on that definition! We’ll leave that alone! But there were various lessons she wanted me to get that I was too stubborn to latch on to: She took care of a house like no one else could, she was a gracious hostess, she was a phenomenal cook, and a classier, jazzier dresser never existed. She personified style, and some of us wish we could look as good in a hat on our best day as she looks in hers—right now!
But the truth of the matter is what the Bible teaches us—that a man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses. And as much as Aunt Mary enjoyed her share of things, she understood what really mattered. People matter. Loving people matters. Now, she was not perfect. Was she stern? Yes! Could she speak her mind? Yes! Could she put you in your place without uttering a word—with just one look? Do I even have to ask?! But she also possessed something that is so unique—and sadly, it’s growing increasingly unique: She had a servant’s heart. She spent her life taking care of others, raising children who weren’t even her own, nurturing people who needed her care. Hers was a life of true sacrifice. There were times when we clashed, times when I thought she was too strict. She was! But I couldn’t deny the servant’s heart. I may not have known then to call it that, but that’s what it was. Some of us talk about it; she lived it. She didn’t have to do it. She chose to do it. There had to be times when she didn’t want to do it—she was human, after all. But she did it—and I am who I am because she did it. I cannot even fathom where I’d be without her. God is God, and He knows how to get things done, but one thing I’ve learned in this life is that God uses people, and He used her.
Aunt Mary’s life was a success. Too often we measure success by man’s definition of success, and although by man’s standards even she did pretty well, the truth is we must measure our lives by God’s measuring stick. Therefore, I define success as fulfilling the purpose for which God called us, and I believe with all my heart that she fulfilled that purpose. I believe with all my heart, her life was an epic success. When you look at her sister, you see her success; when you look at my siblings, you see her success; when you look at me, you see her success. Therefore, she yet lives. She has left a legacy that will not die.
About the end of her life on earth: I spent nearly every weekend with Aunt Mary over the last year, and as difficult as those times were, they were, oddly, some of the most precious times God allowed me to have. It was a season of personal healing and bonding; it gave me a chance to sing to her, to pray with her, to read the Word to her, and very often just to sit there quietly. It allowed me an opportunity to say to her some of what I’m saying to you about her—to thank her for what she instilled in me and to tell her that I am who I am because she was who she was. It was a year of stretching and seeing God take a person beyond her own capability. I experienced that. I grew up in the past year. Who would’ve thought as an adult she was still growing me up. I thank God for the opportunity. Some people don’t get that opportunity. It is something I will always cherish, and I know we made the right decision as a family, in spite of what the doctors thought a year ago. God had a plan—and He worked it as only He can. I can’t say I understand it all, because I don’t, but I trust Him.
As I end, I just have to say this because I have to praise God for how awesome He is: Over the past several years, I saw Aunt Mary weaken and my Aunt Alma take care of her, to a degree of commitment that is unparalleled, by the way. Aunt Mary was no longer the strong, independent, feisty person I had known all my life. She became weak and, at times, forgetful, and definitely more passive—although I do remember the time Aunt Alma had to go somewhere and I tried to get Aunt Mary to do what she was supposed to do, and—knowing her sister was not there—almost immediately after Aunt Alma left, she just looked at me and told me what she was going to do and asked what I was going to do about it! I did the best I could to make her do right, but she had already had me sized up as easy pickings and she knew she had already won. She knew who she was dealing with, and I didn’t stand a chance! But it was not easy watching her turn into a shell of her former self over the last few years.
But let me tell you how good God is: He allowed me to see something incredibly rare: Although I saw her weaken over the years, in the last year, I saw just the reverse. Most people don’t get to see people get stronger in the last year of their lives, but that’s exactly what I saw. After her cardiac arrest, when doctors didn’t think she would make it, I saw miracle after miracle. I saw someone who wasn’t awake at first, then later awake but unresponsive. I saw someone who couldn’t even track you with her eyes—so much so that my sister and I wondered aloud if she could actually see. You’d wave your hands in front of her—and there seemed to be nothing. But over time, I saw her become more and more alert. She began to track with her eyes and follow you around the room with her eye—nosey as she had always been! You’d put a pen in her hand and give her paper, and she’d move her hands and write on that paper. She’d try to speak. She’d grab your hand and over time really grab tighter and tighter. She’d pull you to her. The last weekend with her—the weekend of her 80th birthday—I was playing with her with one of the balls she’d hold in her hands, and I kept making her reach for it to get it from me. She kept reaching and reaching to take it from me. Whereas previously she would do nothing but sleep, it got to the point over time where she was awake for so long, you’d want her to go to sleep so you could leave before 11:00 at night! Before my very eyes, in the last year of her life, she gained strength, gained awareness, and made improvements that caused staff at the nursing home and hospital, and anyone else who had seen her over time, to comment about it. How often does one get to see someone stronger in the last year of her life than she was a year prior? But that’s exactly what happened to her. God allowed me to see miracle after miracle after miracle, and I thank Him for every moment of this past year—where He was steadily strengthening her, and sustaining her, and still using her! He is a miracle working God!
Aunt Mary may have departed this life, but her legacy lives on. It lives on in the lives of so many, and it lives on in me. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the servant’s heart that she had, but even if I possess a modicum of that servant’s heart she carried throughout her life, I will be a much better person—and even then it won’t be because of anything I could ever have been on my own. It’ll be because of the grace of God, and because of those who have poured into my life—and among the most prominent of those individuals is my aunt, Mary Miller.