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The author (center) with her sister Bonnie (left) and mother. Photo taken a few months before Bonnie's death. Photo courtesy of the author.

Weeping to Joy

The author (center) with her sister Bonnie (left) and mother. Photo taken a few months before Bonnie’s death. Photo courtesy of the author.

The morning after my little sister died, I found my mom sobbing in her bed. She was turned to one side, her back to me, crumpled atop the blanket on her old, uneven mattress. She wore street clothes, a blouse and soft slacks. I could see her face was red and wet. Now in addition to my own pain was the helplessness of seeing my unselfish, ever-believing mother that way. It didn’t seem right, and I immediately began to cry too.  I hadn’t felt angry about Bonnie’s passing til that moment, and it ignited me, like a hot ember seeking to scald.

“We trusted God! We trusted Him,” I wailed, tears pouring from my eyes. “How could He let this happen? We believed! He was supposed to heal Bonnie! We believed!”

I stood there feeling mocked by the One who was supposed to be the lover of my soul; the One who said we could carry all things to Him and find rest; the One who promised that the faith of a mustard seed could move mountains.

What was keeping a 15-year-old alive just a while longer so she might receive a double lung transplant? That should be nothing to Him. She was healthy in every other way.

We did nothing but praise God. We had turned our lives to Him holding nothing back. We had moved from small town to small town, often subsisting on sacrificial wages so my dad could preach in Quaker churches. I frequently endured ridicule for being the new kid, and I had turned the other cheek. Where was God now?

My mother’s eyes grew wide, and she sat straight up in bed, her whole countenance suddenly clean and bright.

“God did heal Bonnie,” she said with absolute calm. “Just not in the way we expected.”

My anger extinguished as soon as it had sparked. I collapsed into bed with her for the first time since I was a child. Now at age 17, I soaked her shirt with the salt of my tears.

 

The days after that were strange.

First was the body. It was odd to be let into the large, wood-paneled room with an open casket in the center. I was both excited and frightened to see her. My dad had asked me to choose the clothes to bury her in. I remember wanting her to be stylish but not overdressed—cool, hip, yet classic and uniquely her. I wondered if she would be flattered, appalled, or relieved that I was choosing her last outfit. Many kids from school would see her. How does one dress a young corpse? This was never a feature in any of my teen magazines. As I packed the bag for the funeral home, I remember asking myself, “Would she need socks? Undergarments?” I hated having to think of these things.

The mortician had applied thick foundation and makeup to Bonnie’s face. She was a shriveled, cold, firm version of herself. There but not there. I touched her hand. It also had makeup on it.

The wake wouldn’t begin for at least an hour. What would we do? “Let’s pray around her,” my dad suggested.

My parents and two youngest sisters took hands, encircling Bonnie’s large, wooden casket. We bowed our heads.

As soon as we began speaking, I became aware of her presence in the room. I felt her energy, but she was hovering behind me outside the circle. I felt her, this Light of bright radiance. I knew she was there! I felt two other presences with her, this semi-human-shaped orb of presence. My back was turned, but I sensed it as almost blue in color. The other presence was ancient. It appeared almost gray in color, hovering near the top of the room. I didn’t turn to look, and I was not afraid. I was joyful. Bonnie was there—this sudden intensity in both the reunion and the separation.

 

It had never crossed my mind that Bonnie might die, despite the severity of her medical condition: she was on a waiting list for a double lung transplant. We never discussed it. We were assured that she would have a new set of lungs before then. An eventual transplant was assumed, as though she would need braces for her teeth someday.

She was two years younger than me, salutatorian of her class. She was studious and a whiz at math, always ahead of me in that subject. She was taller than me, blonde, had a serious disposition, and was a voracious reader. She had deep friendships, but navigating social scenes was always easier for me. We annoyed one another to no end. Yet when times were tough we pulled together.

Months before she died, Bonnie read a book, Embraced by the Light, about a woman’s near-death experience. I sat on the floor of her bedroom one evening as she described it to me. I was rarely in her room. The author, Betty J. Eadie, described the pre-existence of souls in a heavenly space. Eadie said we choose our bodies and our families.

There were so many things that were hard about our family at the time, and I found it amusing to consider that I had somehow wanted the life around me. Through squinted eyes I said, “Why do you think you chose to be my sister then?” Quickly she replied, “If we weren’t sisters, there’s no way I would hang out with you on purpose.”

A heavy pause led to bubbling laughter. I knew this to be true for both of us.

After her death, I wanted to know if she had felt pain? What were the last moments like? Was she afraid? Where was she now? What was she doing? These questions plagued me.

 

Late one night a few weeks after her funeral, there was a knock at the door. We weren’t expecting company. I held back, curious and surprised by a visitor.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry to come so late and unannounced.” It was Mama Lewis, a well-known woman in the community. She was a substitute teacher, a local pastor’s wife with a larger-than-life personality and a thick Southern accent. There is an understood level of competition between pastor families in small towns, but there can be an intimacy too, unspoken in the shared experience of a public and private life.

I remember Mama Lewis standing there, her black hair with wisps of gray wildly combed outward above thickly framed glasses. Her body was heavy and strong in the entryway of our aging home. She had never visited here before.

“I just had to come right away. I had to tell you what happened,” she said, her eyes wide and rimmed in wet magenta.

She said it was about Bonnie, and we huddled, mouths open. I stood there confused and intrigued by the sound of her name, which I had been hearing less and less.

“I was vacuuming in my home,” she began. “And I was thinking of Bonnie. As I stood there in the landing of my stairs, I heard a voice, and it quoted the scripture, ‘In my Father’s house, there are many rooms . . .’ and then the voice went on to say, ‘and this one is Bonnie’s.’”

She said she turned and was filled with a vision. She saw my sister in a bedroom. She described the space, and it was nearly identical to my sister’s physical room in our house. She described the rose tones and pale blues, the flowers, the flowing curtains. She said Bonnie was in the middle of the room. Her hair was caught in a breeze and she was shining. She said her cheeks were so pink, as were her lips and nail beds too. This was notable because in the weeks before Bonnie had passed, her oxygen levels had dropped and those parts of her skin were often tinged a slight blue.

I was dazzled by the account—curious and comforted. If there is some sort of afterlife, I don’t think we get permanently stuck in our earthly designs. But I do think there is a message of landing in a place that is comfortable and good, with new healed bodies . . . as mysterious as it all is, this nebulous fate that awaits us all.

I trusted Mama Lewis: the passion in her voice, the way she trembled. When she spoke, I felt her too: Bonnie.

 

My mother tells the story that my sister was nearly four weeks overdue. It was summer, and she was swollen, miserable, and desperate. She found herself reading Psalm 30 alone in the darkness. The psalm is about deliverance and finding comfort and favor in the One. Whatever dismay we feel in our sense of separation will be bridged. The passage assures that God will provide healing—even celebration—turning our weeping into joy. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes the morning” (Psalm 30:5). She vowed to make the baby’s middle name Joy. Her contractions began the next morning.

That same verse is now etched on my sister’s tombstone.

 

The Bible says a day in heaven is like a thousand years for us. I started doing the math: 15 minutes. We’ll all be together again in roughly 15 heavenly minutes, maybe less. Times of prayer and aching sometimes feel like text messages sent back and forth. “On my way.” “On my way!” “I’ll be there soon.”

Together we move, companions on this journey, not knowing when we will arrive, exactly what it will be like, or whom we will encounter when we get there. We simply reach out for connection in any place or person where the Spirit may be found. Joy meets us in the discovery—tiny tastes of what is to come. Lord Jesus, we wait.

Betsy Blake builds websites and communication strategies for companies and organizations trying to do good in the world. Her photojournalism work was recently featured on CNN and NBC news. Betsy lives in Greensboro, N.C., and is a member of First Friends Meeting. Learn more about Betsy at betsyblake.com.

 

This version has been slightly edited from the printed piece.


Posted in: Features, The Art of Dying

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One Response to Weeping to Joy

  1. Cindy Hoback August 5, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    City & State
    Ararat
    This is such a beautiful tribute to your sister, who is living still in the next world with Her Lord and Savior. Thank you for sharing this. It reminds us that we are just passing through this place on earth, learning and trying to make a difference while we are here. Your writing is artfully done, and definitely a gift. Keep up the good work. You must be a special joy to Bob and Becky, our dear friends.

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