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Grandma’s Last Amazing Grace: Reflections on How a Christian Dies

We knew the call would come but even so, it was a hard call to take. “Grandma is not doing good at all. She is struggling to breath. You should come as soon as you can.” I’m sure it was a hard call, as well, for my sister Becca to make. I told her that we would leave as soon as possible.

My wife Tanja overheard me on the phone and she came up to me in her familiar way, wrapping her arms around me. “I’m sorry, Babe,” she said.

“I’m okay,” I said. But was I?

***

Lucille Brewer was in her 80s. She had enjoyed a long full life. She had married young to a hardworking and vibrant “people-person” husband. But, due to complications during heart surgery, he passed away in his early 50’s. She’d been a widow for most of the time I had known her. When I was in middle school, her apartment was a short bike ride from my home, and I pedaled her way often. Her joy in seeing me was contagious and she spoiled me with her homemade sugar cookies and sweet iced tea.

She was a wonderful cook but could never take a compliment. No matter how much you praised the meal, she would always reply by stating that she put too much of this or that ingredient or had cooked it too long. My brother-in-law once said, “Just say thank you, Grandma,” and the whole family soon picked up on that and said it often with laughs all around.

Grandma Brewer loved to laugh, never more than when she was with her two daughters. She, my mom, and Aunt Sue were always very close and if you happened upon all three of them together, you could count on a steady diet of deep and throaty laughter. Grandma loved all three of her children deeply though she suffered several years of heartbreak over her son Don.


“Grandma loved all three of her children deeply though she suffered several years of heartbreak over her son Don.”


You see, faith in Jesus was the highest priority in Grandma’s life. She loved her Lord and his Word and his Church. While her daughters had always been faithful to the Lord, married Christian men, and even gone to foreign lands to do mission work, her son left the church soon after leaving home. He had married a woman who did not believe in much of anything but herself. They did not have any children as they divorced after a few years of upheaval in their relationship. He then fell into heavy drug and alcohol use and later got messed up with some biker gangs.

Grandma moved in with us just before I went into high school. I was the youngest of five kids and the rest of my siblings were out of the house by then. Grandma and I were upstairs together, and she had two rooms across the hallway from my room. She put up with my rock music and I put up with her Lawrence Welk shows.


“She put up with my rock music and I put up with her Lawrence Welk shows.”


I can still remember the sound of her tearful prayers and pleading cries to God as she faithfully prayed for her son, night after night—the persistent widow. There were times that her son would show up, usually needing some money and usually finding a way to get it from Grandma and then disappearing again….and still the prayers would come and the tears would flow.

***

My wife and I packed up some travel-bags for us and our children and we all quickly loaded the car for the four-hour drive to the hospital in Searcy, Arkansas. As I merged the car onto the highway, I thought about how good it was that Grandma Brewer had lived long enough to see her most heartfelt prayers answered.

***

The phone rang and my father got up from his La-Z-Boy and walked toward the kitchen. “Where’s the phone?” he asked with the tone of frustration that came whenever our new modern cordless phone had not been put back in the charging cradle. I had just gotten back from school after football practice and was slumped down in the couch trying to recover some energy. It was my junior year in high school and life was pretty much all about sports at that time.

Dad finally located the phone and answered it. He suddenly got a solemn look on his face and called out to mom, “Joyce, it’s Don.” This sounded a bit funny as my father’s name was Don but so was my mother’s brother. Grandma Brewer, who was sitting next to me reading a Good Housekeeping magazine, sat up straight and looked over at her son-in-law.


He suddenly got a solemn look on his face and called out to mom, “Joyce, it’s Don.”


My mom picked up the extension in her room and said, “Hi Don, where are you?” They had not heard from him in quite some time. Dad began walking toward the bedroom and, just before the door shut, I heard my mom say, “You’re in Los Angeles?”

My Uncle Don had called, once again, asking for help. He had just been released from jail for stealing candy bars. He felt like he was in danger with some elements of organized crime. Some of the “Hell’s Angels” gang he’d been with had stolen his motorcycle. He was at rock bottom. With a note of desperation, he asked my father for money for a plane ticket. “I just want to come home,” he told them and they could tell he meant it.

In the past, I remember overhearing Dad sharing with Mom how angry he was with the many times Uncle Don had manipulated and cheated Grandma Brewer out of ever more money. “She’s just got to learn to say no,” he would tell Mom. “She just can’t keep giving in every time he calls.” “I know, I know,” Mom would say.

Though Dad talked a tough game, his merciful nature would always shine through in the pinch. It did this time as well. He paid to get an airplane ticket for his prodigal brother-in-law.


“He paid to get an airplane ticket for his prodigal brother-in-law.”


Don Brewer ended up turning his life around with the help of his two sisters and their husbands, other faithful friends and, of course, his mom—my Grandma Brewer. He went through rehab in the Northeast where my Aunt Sue and Uncle Frank lived. He met a wonderful woman, Fran, and they married. They ended up coming back to the Searcy area near family here, including his mom. His last years were spent faithfully serving as a prison chaplain, leading many lost souls to the Lord before he passed away. His years away from the Lord had damaged his body extensively and it caught up to him.

In the New Testament, James tells us that the faithful prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. Grandma Brewer taught that lesson to me in living color. Though she outlived her son, she knew that she had not lost any time with him because of the certainty of eternity together with Jesus.

***

We were on the highway headed for Searcy to see Grandma, likely for the last time on earth. A few miles down the road, I remembered that I had just purchased a new CD from the Christian group Jars of Clay. Tanja unwrapped it and opened the case. It was a two-disc set.

“Which one?” she asked.

“Either is fine,” I replied and she popped one in. We talked for a while, only slightly listening, until the third song began.[1]

“You have led me to the sadness.

I have carried this pain

On a back bruised, nearly broken,

I’m crying out to you.”


“I have carried this pain on a back bruised, nearly broken, I’m crying out to you.”


I remember thinking about how amazing it is when a specific song at a specific time can speak to the deepest part of your soul, like a lifelong friend who knows just what you need before you even know it yourself.

Every word of these verses (“When death…comes to steal what I love…I will still look to the heavens”) seemed to take me a step deeper into a place where sorrow and joy merge into a beautiful dance of strangers who have somehow known each other for a very long time. There, on the highway with my family watching the dimming burnt-orange sunset in the Ozark mountains, I was being ushered into a Holy Place. But it was the chorus that brought me to a place even more sacred—a place I needed to enter but had not allowed myself to step into.

“I will sing of your mercy that leads me through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy.”

The band continued to sing it over and over and I continued to venture into that Holy of Holies.

“I will sing of your mercy that leads me through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy.”

My grandmother loved to sing, and I inherited that gift from her as did my family. The chorus continued and we all began to sing through the tears that now flowed freely.

“I will sing of your mercy that leads me through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy.”


“The chorus continued and we all began to sing through the tears that now flowed freely.”


I did not listen to any other song on the CD during that trip. I just continued to play that song over and over and over. It never grew old. For those hours, we all just continued to drink it in.

When we arrived into town, I called my sister to ask if I should bring our young children to see their great-grandma.

“No,” Becca said, “she really seems to be in pain and is struggling to breathe and she doesn’t seem to be conscious of any of us in the room.”

We dropped them off at Tanja’s sister’s home and went on to the hospital.

***

Grandma Brewer’s latter years had been full of joy even as her body grew old and full of aches and pains. I can still hear her breathing hard and moaning a bit as she would struggle to walk up the stairs to her bedroom. “Oh, me!” she would exclaim once she reached the top.

She loved being with her grandchildren. Though many of us were spread out across the world, some were still nearby. After being in college in Nebraska for a couple of years, I returned to Searcy to finish out at Harding University and, once again, lived across the hallway from her. When I began dating Tanja, whom I would soon marry, I could tell right away that Grandma Brewer liked her. One day Tanja was helping my mom with the laundry at the kitchen table and grandma was sitting nearby visiting. Tanja was folding a fitted sheet in the precise way that she is good at. Grandma Brewer smiled and said, “I always knew that you were the kind of person who could fold a fitted sheet well.” It blessed me to know that Grandma blessed our marriage.


“She loved being with her grandchildren. Though many of us were spread out across the world, some were still nearby.”


Grandma Brewer found a special joy in her many great-grandchildren. Being the youngest, we were late-to-the-game in adding to the number of Grandma’s flock of “greats.” “They truly are great,” she would exclaim when talking about her great-grandchildren. All of our three children at the time loved being with her, especially my second daughter Bethany. She called her “Gamaw Boo-er” and she loved climbing up onto her lap and getting kisses from her.

Family brings such joy.

***

The ride up the elevator and walk down the hallway to the hospital room seemed as long as the drive from home. Tanja and I walked into the room and were greeted with tear-stained eyes and hugs from my mom and dad, sister Becca, and Aunt Fran. The lights in the room were turned off, but there was sunshine coming in through the window, falling on the bed in the corner where a frail, wrinkled woman with wispy white hair lay fighting for her next breath: my Grandma Brewer. My mom was at her side holding her hand, and Tanja and I walked to the other side of the bed and held her hand.

“I love you, Grandma Brewer.” That was all I could say. It was enough.

As we stood around the room listening to each labored breath Grandma made, the song I had been listening to and singing over and over kept coming to mind.

“I will sing of your mercy that leads me through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy.”

I shared with those in the room about this special song we had just discovered. It already meant so much to me. By then, I had the song memorized so I sang it to them and saw the tears flow from their eyes as it did mine.


“We talked about how much Grandma Brewer loved singing, especially songs from the old hymn books.”


We talked about how much Grandma Brewer loved singing, especially songs from the old hymn books. Mom said that one of her favorites was “Trust and Obey” and we started to sing it.

“When we walk with the Lord

in the light of His Word,

What a glory He sheds on our way!

While we do His good will,

He abides with us still,

And with all who will trust and obey.”

The moment we began singing these familiar words, Grandma began to breathe more easily and her features visibly relaxed. Grandma had lived out these words each day that I had known her. I could see why she would love such a song.

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15). Grandma loved her Savior. For her, obedience was a joy, not a burden. To trust and obey was, like the song says, to “be happy.” For her, there was “no other way.”

“Then in fellowship sweet

we will sit at His feet.

Or we’ll walk by His side in the way.

What He says we will do,

where He sends we will go;

Never fear, only trust and obey.”


“Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet.”


In that hospital room, we were already missing our Grandma Brewer, for we loved having her around. Because of that, there were tears but there were no fears. We knew she was very near to the Joy that she had lived her entire life to attain. Why fear when “to die is gain”?

We talked about other songs Grandma loved. One was a song she had come to love in her latter years, taken straight from Scripture:

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.

His mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning.

Great is thy faithfulness.

The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

Therefore I will hope in Him.”

There is a peace that comes over someone who has, for a lifetime, encountered the daily mercies and steadfast love of their Creator. Grandma would fret over lots of little things, but I never got the sense that she worried about the big things like heaven or hell or even death. Her place with God was secure, not because of anything she had done but because of the sacrifice of God’s own Son for her. This was a truth deeply embedded into the fiber of who Grandma Brewer was.


“There is a peace that comes over someone who has, for a lifetime, encountered the daily mercies and steadfast love of their Creator.”


There was another song that grandma loved, one that we along with millions around the world know every word to. We began to sing it together

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,

that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now I’m found

was blind but now I see.”

The moment we began singing those words, God’s Spirit filled that hospital room with a tangible presence.

“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

and grace my fears relieved.

How precious did that grace appear,

the hour I first believed.”

My mom had her arms around Grandma as her breathing became even more relaxed. God was with us. God was with Grandma. Somehow, I knew that angelic hosts had arrived to escort my Grandmother Brewer to paradise.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun.

We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.”

The nurse walked in just as we were singing that last line and walked over to her patient. When we finished, she looked at us and told us that Grandma had taken her last breath just before we finished the song. She just confirmed what I already knew. Grandma was with her Lord. She had left us, but we would see her again.


“Grandma was with her Lord. She had left us, but we would see her again.”


My mom bent down and kissed Grandma’s forehead. We all hugged each other while tears flowed freely, and then we left.

We walked out of the hospital room together, leaving no one behind. That beautiful, old fragile jar of clay—still lying in the hospital bed, which once shown like a bright lamp—no longer held the precious oil of Lucille Brewer’s essence. She was with the love of her life and the lover of her soul. I bet she’s praying for us right now.

Amazing grace indeed.

[1] Jars of Clay. “The Valley Song.” Furthermore: From the Studio, from the Stage. Essential Records, 2003. CD.

For more from Ken, see www.lumenations.org

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