Saturday, August 25, 2007

In Memoriam: Mary

I remember Mary. She wore the draping black lace veil over her hair during prayer. She put it on right as her husband, Colin, announced that it was time for the congregation to offer their prayers. Colin's French had a wonderful British quality to it. And distinctive to their church, he always allowed time for spontaneous congregational prayers saying simply after the announcements: "Prions."

Various church members would lift up their loved ones with impassioned voices - a sick aunt who needed surgery, a friend who moved out of town, a child about to wed. Some offered praises to God. Mary prayed in her Americanized French fluently. Her voice had a distinct quality to it - almost grating, yet tempered by kindness. Hard to describe except that I can still hear it in my head, both the French and English versions of it.

She and Colin welcomed me into their church family during my junior year abroad in Montpellier. They showed interest, they introduced me to their children, they had me out to their home for a meal (the only church family to do that besides the missionaries in training). Colin led the college Bible study I attended every Saturday night (and often drove me to it). He had this incredible way of fostering a lively atmosphere while managing to create a sincere attachment to the Bible and faith. As an Englishman in France, I found it remarkable how well loved he was.

Likewise, I'd see Mary after services intently conversing with other members of the church, her little veil tucked away with her Bible under her arm. She had an air of unhurried interest. And she always greeted me.

I asked her one time why she wore a veil and no one else in the church did (after all, she was a pastor's wife and usually congregations model themselves after their leaders). She replied simply: she didn't wear her veil as a matter of obligation, but because it drew her closer to God when she prayed. The point was how one felt related to God, not what one wore or didn't wear on one's head. (I wish I had taken that philosophy a little more to heart in the years immediately following my time at the Centre Biblique.)

I returned to the states in June, ready to complete my senior year in the fall. The Crows, who had foreign exchange students visit their church every year, didn't forget about me. In fact, they wrote to me, sent me Christmas cards. The following summer when I went on a mission trip to central Africa, little Centre Biblique was one of the few churches to support me. They sent 600 francs (about $100 at the time) - a most generous contribution.

On my way back from what was then Zaire, I stopped in to see Colin and Mary... and the church. They let me give a report in French to the gathered assembly. I still remember clicking along in my story when I noticed to my delight that I had been speaking French nearly fluently for ten minutes, and in front of an entire room of French people, and wasn't that amazing? and wasn't I doing so well? when all of the sudden, in my momentary self-congratulatory euphoria... I lost my place in the sentence.

I froze: a dangling French 'r' hanging off my tongue without any syllable to follow, eyelids blinking open, closed, open, completely at a loss for how to get to the end of the word let alone sentence. Dozens of pairs of suspicious French eyes stared at me, waiting. Oh no, I thought. I always knew I was one misspoken word away from confirming to the entire nation of France that I could not, in fact, speak their language well enough.

That's when I saw Mary smiling up at me, nodding encouragingly. Colin, in a smooth step forward, put his arm around my shoulders, chuckled and finished my thought on my behalf (whatever "pearl of wisdom" it was supposed to have been). The congregation broke into gentle laughter and I found a seat, grateful again to the Crows for being there at the right time.

I went home with the Crows that afternoon and stayed with them for three days (they even welcomed my traveling companion, Craig, who they'd never met). We ate the most delicious French dinners under the grape arbor in their backyard, kids joking and teasing, Mary laughing, fussing over details and serving, Colin happily hosting. What an image of it I still have!

I marked one such night in my memory promising myself that my future would hold a happy husband and outdoor dinners in summer with perfectly at ease, talkative teens. (I still think of the Crows when we do eat outside and enjoy each other.)

Each night after dinner and dessert, the teen girls and younger boy got ready for bed. Mary went from one bed to the next spending as long as each child needed to unwind and talk to his or her mom. Not even company prevented Mary from being available to her children.

As it went, the Crows were the ones who hooked me up with my mission agency (Frontiers) which eventually led to my meeting and marrying Jon. Mary's sister was married to the founder of the mission agency and ironically lived in the same community house as Jon. When Jon and I married and traveled through France, Jon was treated to a short stay with the Crows and the same wonderful outdoor dinners again.

Shortly thereafter, their kids started marrying and having babies. I've followed along all these years, knowing the Crows were about 15 years ahead of me in life. Somehow through it all, the Crows continued to care about keeping in touch with this forgettable foreign exchange student. Only they didn't forget.

Over the last three weeks, Colin has sent word to supporters that Mary has been suffering through radiation therapy to treat cancer and as a result, had brain swelling and a host of other ailments. In the midst of all the challenges Mary faced, Colin's own mother died in England the second week of August. And then, last week, the prayer requests became urgent.

Yesterday morning - an email pinged my in-box whose title merely said "Mary"... and I knew.

Colin phrased it like this:
Mary went to be with the Lord she loves this afternoon at 5pm... She passed away to her reward peacefully as we were holding her hand and praying. The loss is indescribable and certainly not what we were praying for or expecting but we trust that Jesus will be glorified in her departure as He was by her life.
Today, through tears and memories, I wished for it to be so for Mary who loved her Lord and lived in light of that love all her too-short life, and shared some of it with me.


NoVA Dad said...

What a beautiful story -- of love, of generosity, of friendship, of compassion, and of those little moments of salvation that we find in the most unexpected places (like giving a talk in front of a congregation and needing that arm around the shoulder). Thanks so much for posting this.

musing said...

I'm so sorry. *hugs*

julieunplugged said...

Thanks you two. I appreciate you honoring Mary by reading my memories of her.

Ampersand said...

Such a beautiful tribute to such a beautiful woman. I did not want to let this one pass without adding my appreciation.