It was Tuesday morning, and I had just gotten to work when I got the call.
It was Nessie, Lena’s daughter.
“Momma died this morning, Hugh. Can you come over to the house? We are waiting for the funeral home.”
“Of course. I will be right there.”
It’s never convenient. It’s never easy. It never fits in your plans, and it is always emotional and difficult. It isn’t happy.
That’s why I call it sitting in the dark.
* * *
I met Lena what seems like a hundred years ago, but it was actually more like ten. I had only been in town a few months, and was just getting to know people.
Lena was short and stocky, a Black woman with a huge grin and a near toothless lisp who acted like a momma to many of the folks on the street.
When we first met, she was only a few weeks sober, after a lifetime of drinking. She had woken up in the hospital after a blackout, and the doctor told her if she drank again, she would die. This was complicated by the fact her husband also drank, and refused to quit. So she left. She chose life.
Lena struggled to find employment, and bounced around the shelters for a while, but eventually she got a small duplex apartment and a job at a dollar store. Things were going pretty good.
It was sometime around the end of 2007 when she ran into me in the park.
“Hugh, I need some help. I was sick last week, and missed some work. Now I don’t have any money to pay my light bill. Can you give me the money to pay it?”
I had only been in Raleigh a little while. Eventually I would develop a network of agencies, colleagues and friends who could help with a $75 shortfall like this, but back then, I had none of that. I was barely surviving myself, and I just couldn’t do it.
“I’m sorry Lena, but I just can’t do it.”
Lena’s smile turned into a tight-lipped frown, and she put her hands on her hips.
“I thought you were my friend! And now you won’t even help me?”
I got pissed. I was trying, you know? I didn’t know what to do, and felt helpless.
“Dammit, Lena! I am your friend. I don’t have any money, and I can’t keep your lights on. What the hell do you want me to do?”
Lena looked at me with sadness, and resignation, and no doubt, fatigue.
“You could come sit with me in the dark.”
It was from Lena that I would learn about what my work was to become; a ministry of presence. A lifetime devoted to not solving other people’s problems, but of being present with them in the pain. A new way of ministry that was as old as the story of Jesus on the cross: The romans wondered why God did not save Jesus from the cross, but Jesus just wanted to know why he was alone there.
Lena’s sass reminded me that the witness of the New Testament is not that God will get us out of shit, but that we are not alone in the shit, and that while we often pray for success, what we are actually called to is faithfulness.
It would be several weeks before Lena could get her lights turned back on. And nearly daily, we would sit in her cold, dim living room on a couch of questionable provenance and tell stories. She would tell me about her two adult children, about their own drinking problems, about her son’s time in jail, about her ex-husband. She would tell me about the preacher she was convinced was a hustler, and the drug dealer on the corner, and her landlord who she was convinced was also a pimp. I told her about why I had moved here, and about Renee, who I was dating at the time. She wanted to know when we would get married, and why I lived in the “hood”, and what my life had been like growing up.
“I know you grew up poor. I can tell. You aren’t scared of Black people or poor people.”
Back then, the Salvation Army’s shelter was beside the park, and they served a 5PM meal. It wasn’t very good, but it was hot and dependable. And free. I would often run into Lena there, and she would introduce me to folks. Lena is one of maybe three people who made it their mission in the early days to show me around, tell me how the streets in Raleigh work, and gave me credibility among the folks who live outside.
I remember when I told her Renee and I were getting married.
“Hugh, I’m happy for you, but you need to get that girl a good place to live. I know you’re a hood rat, but she ain’t – she’s from Arkansas. You need to move into a good neighborhood. Trust me on this.”
For the next few years, Lena was one of the constants in my life. We were, in every sense of the word, friends. I owed her so much – she had taught me who I was born to be.
* * *
Eventually, she got her disability approved and got into income-based housing, and was seldom on the street and I saw a lot less of her. I would visit her apartment, but she didn’t get out as much as she used to; avoiding the riff-raff, she called it.
One day, her daughter called me to tell me her mom was in the hospital with breast cancer and was in a dark place. Could I come visit?
Of course I can. Sitting in the dark places is what I do.
The next few years was the battle with cancer. First a lumpectomy, then a double mastectomy, then chemo for a while. I probably made 10 hospital visits for various things.
My butt was stuck at the office a lot in those years, so when she was feeling OK, she would come and see me to catch up. We would talk about her noisy neighbors, and she would ask after Renee, and she would talk about her fears around dying and her regrets about her children not getting along.
Back in the winter, Lena got the diagnosis that her cancer was not only back, but had spread all over. She had maybe six months to live, at best.
I wish I could tell you I visited her daily during that time, but I didn’t. I would have a crisis that would throw me into a great depression, and that would occupy much of my life all summer. I would go by periodically, and she would come by, but it wasn’t anywhere near as often as I should.
A few weeks ago I was out of town, and when I got back, the staff told me she had came by looking for me. I meant to call her back, but I forgot, honestly.
So when I got the call from Nessie telling me she was gone, it hit me like a ton of bricks.
“Please come, Hugh. The funeral home is coming for her. Wait with us.”
“I will be right there,” I said.
I was feeling regret and sadness and powerless, but waiting is something I know how to do.
* * *
She and her son were living in a rooming house on a narrow side street. A house designed to have two bedrooms had been cut up and partitioned into seven rooms, all of which were rented out by the week, with a common bathroom at the end of the hall.
When I arrived, there were a ton of neighbors on the porch. The hospice nurse was on the porch, just finishing a phone call.
“Are you the preacher? They been waiting on you.”
We went in together. The house smelled of sweat and fear and cabbage and desperation, the narrow hallway lined with flake board walls pressing in on us as we moved to the back of the house and entered a crowded 10×8 room.
Lena’s son was there, a huge man with tears running down his face. He grabbed me in a bear hug and thanked me for coming. Nessie’s son was there too, a 14 year old boy Lena never tired of talking about. And on the bed was my friend, Lena, who had fought a long time for dignity and respect and sobriety and later, her own life, and who had been tired and was now at rest.
The hospice nurse asked me if I would say a prayer, so I did, and then I read from the Bible:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
I told them that some people believe you aren’t really dead as long as someone remembers your name, so it was important to remember her. For the next 20 minutes or so, we stood around her bed and told stories, and remembered her boldness, her sassiness, her big smile and her determination.
And then it was time. The funeral home guy showed up, and Nessie, her son and I went for a walk while they took Lena’s body out of the house, because there is no way she should see that.
When we got back, there was paperwork to fill out, and things that needed my signature as a witness, and then the car with Lena’s body in it left and we were left in an empty room that contained nothing but a twin bed, a loveseat, a tv and some memories.
Nessie and her brother and I walk to my car.
“I’m glad you came this morning. You been part of our family for a long time. It was right that you were here.”
Her brother hugs me again, and thanks me for coming.
And I get in the car and drive away, having sat in the dark with Lena for the last time.
* * *
Lena didn’t have much in the way of success, at least not as the world measures it. She died without any estate, in a shitty little room in a shitty part of town. But Lena taught me why I was here, and the value of presence. She showed me my calling, my vocation, and she loved me. She changed my life, and for that, I owe her everything.