Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray thee Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my soul to take.
God bless mother and father too.
Help all the children be honest and true.
His chair sits empty now. The pillows are arranged to fit the small of his back and to support his arms. His dark plastic glasses rest on the table. His absence fills the room.
Her chair is filled with the best of my world. My Mammaw, Ruth Mathis. We step around the side and enter her peripheral vision. Her head is tilted slightly down. Her eyes are closed and I can't bring myself to speak interruption into her rest. My mother is there and she breaks the silence.
Mammaw opens her eyes and immediately glances over to the empty chair. I feel her pain as the realization of his passing sweeps over her in a wave. I imagine this is her ritual. My mind is considering the pain that she must be feeling, when her gaze turns towards us.
The transformation of her face was nothing less than majestic, like watching the sun break over the horizon of the ocean. She began to raise her left arm. It was shaking and slow, but she extended her hand and her finger uncurled towards us. Her smile intensified as she pulled in a steady break, fixed her eyes, and said, "Sterling."
Words come with great difficulty, and memory can be a challenge for her. Through all of these obstacles, she recognized the face of the family's newest member, an adopted little girl from China.
The moment was exquisite. I went from tears of empathy to tears of joy. I once read that the chemical composition in tears is different based on the emotional reaction. The full periodic table must have been on my face.
The day continued with a pool outside, amazing burgers and dogs with sauces from Frisch's and Skyline. I went outside to briefly sit with the family and to snarf down 3 burgers. But I couldn't sit out there in the sun with my Mammaw sitting beside the empty chair. In my mind's eye I could distinctly picture two empty chairs. This time is precious.
I walked into her room and passed by the chair that seemed sacred. Mammaw slept as I rearranged the furniture of the room, removing a magazine rack and pulling a third chair directly against hers. She woke up with her hand in mine as her favorite video played and I sang softly along with an old hymn.
The day went by too fast. With my talking... a run-through of my favorite memories with her. Days of hot-wheels, shared chilitos, ice-cream, and lots of desert. I teased her about hiding from me to eat the final cheese-chilito from a Zantigo bag. I told her, "I have a question I've wanted to ask you for years and years. Did you hide so that you could have the whole chilito to yourself?" Her entire body shook with laughter as she brought her head up and down in a beaming smile nod!
In that moment... we were transported back to those days.
She grew tired. My uncle Stephen rounded the corner and it was time to get her some dinner, and then tuck her into bed. He helped her into her bed as I sat back in the glow of the memories.
I walked down the hallway into the darkened room. I passed Pop's empty bed. His Bible was layed open at the top and I paused to consider that nearly every word was underlined, and the pages were worn thin. My eyes looked over to Mammaw, tucked in the bed, the blanket up to her chin.
Her eyes were closed and her breathing was peaceful and quiet. I knelt down beside her and was overcome with the symmetry of the scene. Nearly 4 decades ago, her and I experience this moment like a reflected image. It was always her kneeling at the bed, praying with me.
Her eyes opened and we exchanged a smile. I could see the outline of her hand underneath the quilt and I place mine over hers. I told her about my memories of us praying together at night when I stayed with her as a small boy. We both had falling tears as I talked through those memories.
I asked her if I could pray with her. I can't remember the words I used, but the emotions were powerful. It was a holy moment. Somehow, our memories, our shared history, our faith, and the sincerity of the moment was recognized by heaven. I have no doubt that we were joined with the very presence of God.
My prayer ended, and the moment was somehow fragile. I felt like we were somehow transfigured to something outside of time. We simply were present together... and nothing could separate us from the shared experience. I understood that I would never lose her.
It was at this moment that I told her I wanted to sing to her like she had sung to me countless nights. I leaned in close, tears of eternal joy mixed with tears of human grief... the air constricted in my throat as I sang out from decades past,
"Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee Lord my soul to keep." The next line came hard as my mind grasped the significance... "If I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take."
Yes... I am so thankful. The empty chair is evidence that my Pop is with the creator, his God, our Father.
I sang on...
"God bless mother and father too."
I pictured my mom and dad... I am so thankful for this life they've given to me. I prayed for their continued days. I love them more than I know how to show. I hope to show it with my life.
"Help all the children be honest and true."
Caleb, Aleksandra, Sterling... soon this will all pass to you. It will be me in the bed, with all the others gone before me. I am so thankful to pass on this faith, this legacy, this song...
-To Continue the Story-