April 16, 2007_____
We prayed in the room off the sanctuary before church, and she lingered in the room. My husband went to her, "Lila, can I have a hug?" "Yes!" she exclaimed in her old-lady voice. "I love you..." She held him as long and as hard as her ninety-one-year-old arms could, until I barged in for my turn. "I need a Lila hug too."
Lila does not hug briefly, carelessly. She embraces. She stands firm, and time stands still. In comparison I am a quick embracer, and the hug might have gone on much longer had I not kissed her cheek and pulled back to look at her. Lila also looks, sees, fearlessly. Her old body wavers now, her watery eyes struggle to focus, but they never leave my face. "I love you," I say, pleased to have beaten her to it. "I love you," she says, but not as an ending--she seems to have more to say; she does not lift her gaze. She takes my face in her soft, wrinkled, precious hands. "You are so precious..."
I am taken aback, though she has heaped such kindness on me before. I want to say, Why do you love me so much? What have I ever done to be precious to you? It makes no sense, the passion with which she cherishes me. She once told me, "I loved you before I knew you!" Why? I have no words in response, but today I feel tears coming to my eyes. My heart aches with love for this old saint and the thought of losing her, aches to see her growing frail and to know that behind her constant smile--honest and sincere though it is--lie more frequent losses in the battle to keep her body going strong.
We stand face to face for another minute, me groping for words, she contentedly searching my face as though seeking to remember it forever. But it is I who must remember.
Someday we're going to lose her. And she's so, so precious to me.
Last week we lost her, and today an overflowing church gathered to remember. Two weeks ago at church we knew she lay in the hospital, waiting to go home, and the weight of it hung over the congregation. I couldn't hold back the tears when Terry sang "Give me Jesus" (have I ever not cried when Terry sings this?).
She was more with us today than that day, for she sits now in the third pew of the great cloud of witnesses, grinning her ever-present smile and swaying and bobbing her head to the music. But her hands and eyes and voice are strong again, and next time I am sure to bring Anna over to see her, she will be strong enough to hold her in her arms, take her face in her hands, and jubilantly proclaim, "I loved you before I knew you!"
And she did. Lila loved and prayed for many, many around the world--vast networks of missionary friends from her days in missions in Peru and a lifetime of remembering and entreating others to remember in prayer those hungry for the gospel and those setting it free all around the globe. And she loved and prayed for us, before she even knew us, for our little piece of gospel-work here in humble SmallPort. And she loved and prayed for Anna, before she even knew her.
In May we had a garage sale with many items donated by friends to help raise adoption funds. Lila told me before the sale that she was looking for an adding machine that printed onto tape. I was tickled to find one in a box of donations and present it to her at church the next week. She said, "I will give you 25 dollars." I laughed and said, "Lila, you don't have to give me anything! It's only worth 25 cents." In the mail the following week I received a check for $25.25 and this note:
I posted it on my wall to encourage me through the difficult final weeks of our process. I think it will be a long time until I can bring myself to take it down. We miss our spunky, gracious, encouraging, ever joyful Lila already, but this good and faithful servant has earned her rest. As our pastor and his family members always say, I want to grow up to be like Lila Smiley. Which is really just another way of saying, You can have all this world--Give me Jesus.