Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. ~ Hebrews 13:2
“Entertaining angels unawares” — a fascinating concept to a very young mind, and while I was well aware that Aunt Shirley was not a stranger, I suspected that she might be an angel who was just not a stranger to us. The older version of me was not disillusioned. While I was a bit surprised that an angel would adopt a soft southern accent, Aunt Shirley certainly had the sweet voice of an angel. She had the smile of an angel, the patience of an angel, the gentle goodness of an angel, the face of an angel. She even married a pastor and served faithfully by his side throughout her life.
My mother and Aunt Shirley – though related only through marriage – were more like sisters than sisters-in-law. My mother, who was losing her battle with cancer, knew that she only had a couple of months left to live. It was during this time that she and Aunt Shirley decided to become true sisters. My cousin, Jennifer, had shared with me that her mother had always thought of my mother as the sister that she had always wanted. I was able to convey this sweet sentiment to my mother during a time when she desperately needed an angel in whom she could confide — someone to whom she could express the inexpressible. The closest she ever came to sharing the inexpressible with me was when she told me, “I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying, but I’m not afraid of death.” Her fear was understandable. Her sinus cancer was moving down her throat and relentlessly removing every last vestige of her breathing space. The thought of what she was facing devastated me, devastated all of us. We tried to hide our heartache, but she knew. She was just the kind of loving and devoted mother who always knew. She courageously carried such burdens and concerns alone, trying desperately to shelter her family from the depth of her fear — until Shirley. Sweet, lovely Aunt Shirley was more than willing to help her carry those burdens.
They both embraced the concept of “sisters by choice” with delight and even started addressing each other as “Sister.” Our Texas Covers made frequent weekend trips from Texas to Northwest Arkansas to minister to all of us. Jennifer and I adopted a shop and chat therapy. Brother Stanley would swap stories and memories with my dad, and Reverend Stanley would do all within his power to comfort his grieving ninety-year-old sibling. Mom and Shirley, however, would closet themselves in Mom’s bedroom, sometimes for hours at a time. We never knew what all they talked about, but sometimes we would hear the faint sound of giggles. More often, we would hear nothing — but we understood the silence. Expression of the inexpressible involves the courageous revelation of harsh reality – a revelation quite often accompanied by a reluctant admission of deepest fears. Such unwelcome truth would have been spoken with quiet introspection, and, no doubt, tears. We know that they talked until they were exhausted, and then they would take a nap – Mom in her lift chair, Aunt Shirley on the bed. When they woke from their naps, they would talk some more. Then they would switch resting spots and nap some more. When they emerged for a brief visit or a meal, it was always with a smile on their faces. They were good for each other, and Aunt Shirley was an angel. She was just what my mother needed, and because of that, she was just what I needed.
At the end of each visit, Aunt Shirley and my mother would hug, express their love, and say, “Goodbye, Sister.” Then the Texas Covers would depart for another long trip back to Fort Worth. Each parting was heartfelt in its sincerity. Mom’s diminishing breath was a poignant reminder to all of us that our time with her was drawing to a close. Her cancer had sharpened our awareness of the priceless gift to be found in simply breathing in and breathing out — a luxury that had a rapidly approaching expiration date for my mother. A little over one day after one such Sunday parting with our Texas Covers, my mother made her journey to Heaven, and after just one day back in Texas, Uncle Stanley, Aunt Shirley, and Jennifer all turned around and made the long trip back to Northwest Arkansas to minister to our grieving family, and to honor Mom at her funeral.
When my sisters and I went through Mother’s jewelry and selected pieces that we wanted to give to each of our aunts, we found a beautiful, little, pearl-pink heart pendant that was surrounded by intricate silver filigree and hanging from a delicate silver chain — the perfect gift for Aunt Shirley. Ever gracious, Aunt Shirley treasured her little heart pendant — much like she had tenderly treasured and protected our mother’s heart and thereby, our own hearts. She told me that she loved wearing the heart necklace because it made her feel that she was able to keep my mom’s heart near her own. Soft-spoken, elegant, and full of grace, Aunt Shirley had courageously shouldered the heavy burdens that exhaustion, weakness, and illness had made too unwieldy and intimidating for my mother to carry alone. In doing so, Aunt Shirley joined forces with Mom in mutual determination to protect us from the worst of the horrors that Mom faced. Much like the pendant, Aunt Shirley was beautiful, delicate, lovely, and refined, but within her beat a heart of purity, faith, devotion, and such unimaginably tender strength that she would cause a mere steel magnolia to wither in shame.
One day before Aunt Shirley and Uncle Stanley’s sixty-seventh anniversary and two days before Christmas of 2017, my beautiful, sweet aunt went home to be with her Father, and all of us who adored her must adjust to life without the beauty and grace that wafted around Aunt Shirley like a sweet fragrance. How appropriate that my angelic aunt would want to be home to praise her Savior in joyous, Christmas celebration! Heaven is richer. We are bereft. Nevertheless, we rejoice in hope because of the redemption embodied within this season.
Whether she was an ‘angel unawares’ or simply angelic, Aunt Shirley is home, and I am quite certain that my mother was among the first in line to greet her “sister of choice.” My prayer for all of us is that we might strive to live our lives in such a way that others might wonder, Could I, perhaps, be entertaining an angel unawares?