I didn’t know her well. I could hardly say I knew her at all.
When I was twelve, we heard about my great grandmother falling ill. This shocking news took my family, especially my mother and grandfather, into shock. And I genuinely felt bad for not feeling a thing at the time, and justified that with the idea that I’d only seen her as a small child.
The hospital where she now laid, was where she’d been her whole life. In her youth, she’d gone up and down the hallways singing hymns as she aged from a nurse to an elderly volunteer. Everything I heard about her, I believed, but it seemed unreal. I was told about this beautiful, soulful woman with faith like a rock, and doubted this description’s reality in the back of my mind. I had never been religious. I had never discussed it. And I never thought I wanted to.
But I was in a bad place, emotionally and mentally. Looking back, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t depressed, but going through my days stagnate and dulled was typical of me. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I’ll never forget how she happened to me.
Granny was not doing well, to say the least. This was not a hospital visit where any real visiting occurred- this was more silence and solace. She wasn't even conscious. And so, we sat. And sometimes we stood. And restlessly, we’d return to our seats eventually. Not much was said, because there wasn’t much to say. The doctor would come in with the same burdened look on his ancient face, and he’d sigh and pet her head for a moment, but then promptly leave. At first, my grandpa asked questions about his mother, but when the news remained the same, even he gave up asking.
I recall wishing I could go home, not knowing why I had to be there to watch my great grandmother on her deathbed when I didn’t remember her. And when we left the hospital that night to head to our hotel, I didn’t realize it then, but someone responded directly to my ignorant questioning of the situation.
When we left the hospital, the awkward almost goodbyes extended were disheartening, and I hated to see my family in so much pain, but even more than that I questioned how heartless I was for not being affected. The doctor had been good friends with my grandmother for years, and the only statement he uttered while fighting back tears was “She won’t make it through the night,” and I could feel the shivering of the wrinkles on his face. So we trudged to the cramped hotel for the last night we’d spend there, and not much was said between my mother and me. I couldn’t imagine how she must have felt to be losing her grandmother, a woman I didn’t know the first thing about. I didn’t come up with anything to say to her, and we fell asleep slowly.
3am, the phone rang.
I could see it in my mom’s face- this was the call. And she didn’t answer right away- no, she took her time, waiting for that last ring, biting her lip with tears welling up in her eyes. And I closed my eyes as she answered, preparing myself for the worst. And as I opened them again, her face had softened. And I was told to get dressed because we were going. I rushed and got a crappy t-shirt and some house shoes on, and rode the two blocks to the hospital puzzled.
Upon arriving, there was a sound that caught my attention. I was making my way down hallways of linoleum heartbreak and was certain I was listening to the soundtrack of defeat. I remember its eerie growl, and it was almost a tune, maybe a song. I couldn’t decipher it, but it had my attention the whole walk to her room. And as we approached the sound was met by a similar one, coming from her room. They molded together and met in a harmonious eerie quality I wish I could put into words. It was when I saw her that I realized what I’d been hearing.
Did you ever hear that old church hymn? The one that goes “Oh, how I love Jesus?” It probably has some other verses, but those weren’t a part of this version. I suppose it was all she could remember. But she was awake. Not only awake, she was singing.
Now, in her day, Granny had a beautiful voice I’m sure, but the voice of a woman on her dying bed was anything but. And that was the irony of it, because at first it had pained my ears to listen to, and three steps later I had determined it was the most beautiful sound my ears had ever heard. And what was so breathtaking was that the only words she had uttered since she woke up were “oh, how I love Jesus” and it had grown into a song, and it hadn’t stopped.
This singing continued through the morning until it was light, until the sun shone through her window on her pale complexion and illuminated her graciousness. We had all joined in, because what else was there to do but be a part of the miracle before our eyes? Some were crying, and slowly they’d reach for someone and smile and hug them or pull them close and say something about how beautiful she was, or how godly she was, or how amazing this all was. And it was. It was the single most powerful experience of my life, and it wasn’t over yet.
The singing came to a slow stop, and although she still mumbled “oh, how I love Jesus” periodically, she began to speak to the family. She called over her sons, and she talked to them about their late father, and how much they’d both loved them. And she called my grandma to her, and held her while she cried. She called my uncles and my mother, and told them how beautiful their children were and how much they’d grown into adults she was proud of. And there was a pause after she’d reached my mom, and she said my name.
Her voice was calm but scratchy, and I was scared, but my mother pulled me to her. She held my hand, and told me how much I looked like my mother, and that she remembered her at my age. And then the unthinkable happened. She asked the rest of the family to leave the room. At that time, I realized the weight of this moment.
When they’d left, it was so silent I could taste it. Her bony fingers stroked my hand softly, and I sat there in silence anticipating what she could possibly have to say to me. What came to be still shocks me: she asked me about my relationship with Jesus.
I offered some nonchalant answer you give your grandma to please her. I knew she believed, and would be disappointed if I didn’t say the same. She squeezed my hand, harder than I expected she was capable of, and asked me to tell the truth.
So I began a serious of statements that went along the lines of: “I don’t know,” “I know I’m supposed to,” “I don’t feel comfortable discussing it,” “I don’t go to church,” “No, not really.”
Expecting a scorning from her, I was surprised to see the smile on her face echoed by the wrinkles covering the rest of its beauty. She didn’t question me. She didn’t scorn me. She loved me, you could see it in her eyes, and it was overwhelming. And she spoke, struggling slowly,
“Jesus loves you, he always has, and he always will. He will love you if you believe in Him or not. But I’ve been around for a while, and I can tell you, I’ve seen things. I’ve seen miracles, Shelby. And these past few days, He’s been with me, and with all of you. He’s here now, and He will be when I’m gone and you’re here on this bed in a hundred years. And He loves you, more than you can imagine, more than even I or your mother can. Just remember that.”
Grandma Brotzman passed away later that night. We were told that she was still singing up until her last breath, “Oh, how I love Jesus.” My grandparents said it was beautiful and peaceful, and that she said she could see him before she went, and that they’d never seen her look so happy as she did staring up at the ceiling right then.
That’s how I like to picture her: Smiling up at Him; letting Him know she was ready for Him; knowing whole-heartedly she’d be with Him soon.
After that, I was not the same, selfish girl who’d traveled to Denton earlier that week. I contemplated what she’d said for days, for weeks. I went to church, and although I didn’t discuss what happened with anyone, I thought about it the whole time. And I continued to attend, and I sat alone and thought about what it meant to believe, and to be here, and to feel what these people felt for something I didn’t understand. I couldn’t believe how public they could be with such a personal relationship, and I decided that the publicized church life wasn’t going to be for me. But the day that I decided I wasn’t going to continue coming back, they played a hymn that was familiar. And as the ominous words “Oh, how I love Jesus” echoed through the pews, I felt something for the first time in forever- I felt loved, overwhelmingly and undoubtedly.
And I took that feeling with me out the door when that song ended. And I didn’t return, and I didn’t need to, because there was a reason I’d been there. There was a reason my great grandmother was taken when she was. There was a reason that she’d recognized me that day. And to this day, I am convinced that God took a second to help me when I needed it most- at a pinnacle point in my development as a person. He stepped in, through Granny, and He loved me when I thought no one else did. She was supposed to remind me of that, and of His presence, and maybe that was what she needed to do before she left. Or maybe it was one of many things, but I believe it was the reason he made miracles happen before my eyes. He knew I was lost, and He needed my attention, so something drastic was in order.
I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe that some things fall apart so others can fall into place, and that lives end so new ones can begin. I believe in miracles, and I believe every word that beautiful woman said to me that day. Most importantly, I believe in something.