This is the first of a three part series about Willard and his wife, Helen. Willard enrolled in hospice at age 76. He had suffered a catastrophic stroke several years earlier. People frequently ask, “How can you stand to work around death and dying all the time? Doesn’t it depress you?” But they don’t understand. It’s such a privilege when someone shares with you honestly from his or her heart and frequently we receive more from patients and families than we could ever give.
I’ve learned so much about living from those who are dying. I understand why King Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to a house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Helen and Willard have given me much to “lay to my heart” and I thank God for them.
Willard and Helen had an unusual courtship. Willard wrote to Helen for several years before ever meeting her. He finally decided it was time to make the trip from New Boston, Ohio to Wild Cat, West Virginia,a trip which resulted in a 49- year marriage and six children, a pretty prosperous adventure.
Willard was a union carpenter and stated, “I loved to build things, houses, cabinets, furniture.” He kept building even after retiring. He built several steeples for churches. Helen proclaimed, “He did it for God.”
Willard enthusiastically and earnestly served God, but that did not preclude a good sense of humor. He told me about working in a small privately owned cabinet shop. The owner had a bad temper and would stomp through the shop kicking things. One day Willard and his coworkers filled a wooden crate with nuts and bolts and strategically placed it on the shop floor. Sure enough, his boss, true to form, lost his temper that day and came storming through the shop. I surmised the outcome by the big grin on Willard’s face. He was enjoying the prank all over again.
Willard took his Christian calling very seriously. Many would consider him a fanatic, but that was okay with Willard, because he served God, not men. Helen reminisced about living beside a scrap yard in Cincinnati for a short time. They were struggling financially and Willard (before becoming a Christian) stole some scrap metal at night and sold it back to the same scrap yard the following day. Willard testified that several years after becoming a Christian, God told him to make restitution. Willard believed that when God speaks you better obey. So he contacted the owner of the scrap yard and offered to return the money. But the owner declined, stating he had known what Willard was doing all along and that he had overlooked it because he knew he was struggling financially. What an inspiring example of truth encountering mercy.
But it was God’s grace and mercy that transformed Willard’s heart. One day, Willard pointed to his Bible lying on the table beside his bed, and invited me to look through it. I noticed it was filled with notes and highlighted passages. Willard was obviously a student of God’s Word. He shared some of his favorite passages and then the story of his spiritual conversion. As he talked, I realized how similar our stories were and that stubbornness was one of our shared traits (pointed out by Helen).
Then Willard stated, “I just couldn’t believe that He would love someone like me.” Tears filled his eyes and also mine, for those were my very own sentiments when I first encountered God’s unconditional love, mercy and grace some 34 years earlier. Words can’t describe the joy that filled both our hearts as we talked about God’s goodness and grace. With tears in his eyes, Willard reached up, placed his hand around the back of my neck and said, “I really like you. You’re alright.” Now do you see why sometimes, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to a house of feasting?” When was the last time you were profoundly moved and inspired at a dinner party?
Loren Hardin is a social worker with Southern Ohio Medical Center – Hospice and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 740-356-2525.