We are back in Winnipeg this weekend after the funeral of my mother-in-law in Medicine Hat, Alberta. As difficult as the week was, it also abounded in reflections and experiences of God being with us. Prayers, supportive emails, phone calls and flowers from back home, a hospitable sister and brother-in-law, hearing Lyle’s heartfelt tribute to his mom – all these served to keep us grateful and tethered to meaning.
One thing that came out repeatedly during the reflections was mom’s many acts of service – quilting, sewing, flower arranging, cooking, baking, gardening, house renovations – you name it, her hands were never idle. Lyle and I have a closet full of quilts and crocheted afghans to prove it. It was all in service to others. I’ll never forget the huge box of thoughtful kitchen and household items she got ready for me when I married Lyle. When they used to visit us, our kitchen cupboards would be restocked with canned goods, baking and the most amazing homemade noodles. She was a quiet woman, but if hands could speak, her acts of kindness would have qualified her as an extrovert.
At the funeral, the official minister gave his sermon, but it was “Uncle Leo’s” 5-minute tribute to his oldest sister that stayed with me the most. Mom had asked that her siblings sing a hymn called “Take Thou My Hands Oh Father”. It happens to be one of my favorites, with rich words and beautiful harmonies.
Before they sang, Uncle Leo used the metaphor of the hymn and talked about his sister’s helping hands. They had always been so active, but in her declining years, she had to let others give her a hand. This was not so easy for her to accept. Parkinson’s and other ravages of old age robbed her of the ability to use her hands well. The first thing she had to give up was the hours in the kitchen. It was difficult for her to let others serve her. For someone who had been so busy, it became humbling to let her hands lie still in her lap. When she first had to use her walker and then her wheelchair, she didn’t want to go to church and let others see her in her limited state, but eventually she went. Her hands were fragile by now, and she had no choice but to lean on others.
One of the items from her life on display at the front of the church was the scarf she had been knitting for our son Joel just weeks before she passed away. She had not been happy with it and had unravelled it more than once in frustration. I’ve heard that the Amish intentionally put an error into their quilts, to remember that they are not perfect and to stay humble. Olga’s scarf was filled with errors, but we see it for what it is – a rich symbol of a selfless life. Joel plans to finish it, leaving the mistakes intact, evidence of someone’s display of love even amid difficulty.
Her increasing limitations reveal what is true for us all. Youth and strength can fool us into thinking that we are self-sufficient, but the truth is that we are all dependent on God. Not realizing this leads to pride and the independent attitude that so permeates our culture. The funeral hymn had a very fitting prayer, “Take thou my hands oh Father, and lead Thou me.”
In the days after the funeral, this prayer has become a wake-up call. There is so much I worry about. How often I forget my dependence and try to work solutions out on my own. I have had what feels like an everlasting cold in recent weeks, and it has made me wonder how much my worries have made me more vulnerable to getting sick. I’ve often written about giving my worries to God, and during this week, away from my regular work, I’ve felt called anew to give what is beyond my control to God, trusting that God has my back, guiding me where I am lost with wisdom that is beyond my limited sight.
Lyle prepared a slideshow for the funeral, and one picture stood out for me. Last summer, when his dad passed away, we released monarch butterflies at the graveside. There’s a picture of Lyle’s hands helping his mom’s hands to hold the monarch just before she released it. The contrast between young and old is so vivid and the picture is poignant and beautiful. Mom’s hands are fragile and wrinkled. To me it is emblematic of God’s strength amid our fragility.
I am grateful for Olga’s life, and the faith, trust and humility she exercised as she continued to let God take her fragile hands. It was not easy for her. I pray that I might not fight limitation and worry, but instead offer my hands to God and let myself be guided, like the good hymn says.