Tuesday was a sad day to let go of the one I and so many hold so dear. We had some time to prepare and call in reinforcements, and what was so gut-wrenching ended up being one of the most grace-filled days of my life. So, let me share it with you as well as the days leading up to it (thanks to the swarm of visits, calls, texts and emails I am finally getting to write what I started at 7:15am yesterday).
The march started the day after the wedding. Looking back around July 4th when the Leptomeningeal disease almost wiped her out, I could not bear the thought of Philip getting married without his mother. That next weekend, he proposed as Nicholas and Kenan rushed home early from vacation, and we hurried to have Penny bless the rings so she would be a part of the event. They set the wedding date in December, and Penny with eyes closed insisted that she would be at the wedding. Philip and Jessica scurried to change it to the only earlier date they could find a venue, September 23rd, and even that seemed doubtful. But thanks to her doctors, nurses, supportive friends and caregivers, she made it to the wedding and you saw pictures of her dance with her boy. But she kept reminding us that her goal was not to last until the wedding but until they returned on their honeymoon.
The day after the wedding she had a turn—she could no longer walk and we had to put her on oxygen 24/7. We knew something changed. On Thursday evening our doctor advised that Penny could go to the hospital for some tests that might help us address her declining oxygen level and weakness in her legs. Surprisingly, Penny jumped at the chance and said, “Well, let’s go tonight.”
We had no idea she would slip so quickly. She got little sleep the next three nights as we discovered the culprit was blood clots in her legs moving to her lungs. Nicholas, Kenan, and I held vigil that weekend while Philip and Jessica rode out Hurricane Matthew and, by the grace of God, were not stranded in Aruba. They made it back Saturday night and went immediately to the hospital to see Penny.
On Sunday, the six of us took communion together at Penny’s bedside for World Communion Sunday with Dr. Marilyn and Rev. Joe Sandifer. After communion she hugged each of her boys and started crying. We were concerned about her getting upset, but when she pulled back, she weakly said, “I’m so happy!” She achieved her goal of seeing all her boys married (including her nephew, Aubrey, married on August 28th), which is pure grace. On Monday we realized treatment was no longer viable and brought her home under hospice care. That details the week leading up to that “sad but grace-filled” Tuesday.
During the wee morning hours, Petal, her caregiver and I struggled every three hours to get Penny comfortable. Apparently the clots were moving. The drugs could not contain the discomfort and I finally called Marilyn at 7:00am and she scurried over with her precious preschool granddaughters, Brisson and Willow who started the vigil by dancing on our front porch. Our dear friend Kay played with them as Marilyn helped us get new meds to quickly comfort Penny. I called in the family to join us for a bedside vigil.
So many friends joined the vigil on the front porch and den from 8am until nightfall, beginning with Floyd from one of our first youth groups in the 1980s. I counted friends from seven different churches we served holding vigil during the day and several others contacted me unable to be there. Our friends and colleagues sang hymns in the front of the house as we loved on Penny in the rear bedroom. We were literally enfolded in the arms of the communion of saints—and that even included the holiness of some who are agnostic, atheist and Muslim. It was a taste of the way God will make it all one day.
At 11:00 Penny’s good buddy from seminary days, Steve Price, showed up from South Carolina as he did every week to lead Penny in his crazy dances. And only Steve’s giftedness could have the whole vigil dancing at Penny’s deathbed, with Philip waving Penny’s arms in the air and Penny opening her eyes in wonder and joy. We moved ceremoniously to “The Prayer” by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli in such a holy moment; and then Steve led our whole vigil laughing and dancing with his signature, cheshire-grinning craziness “Star, star, star, star” and “Milk, Milk, Milk, Milk.” I have never seen such a celebration around a deathbed. What joy in celebrating Penny who continued to inspire and celebrate life with her motto—LIVE LAUGH LOVE!
The cloud of witnesses headed out to the front porch continuing to sing hymns as family took turns assuring Penny she was not alone. Revs. Joe Sandifer and Dave Fry gathered us for a prayer and singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” About 2:30 her breathing changed. It sounded like she was taking a gulp of air and then exhaling saying, “Yeah.” So, we each started kissing her and saying goodbye and massaging her head and reassuring her: “Penny, do you know God loves you?”…”Yeah!”… Do you know Jesus has made a place for you?”…”Yeah!”…“ “Do you know I love you?”…”Yeah!”…”Do you know Nicholas and Philip love you?”…”Yeah!”…”Do you know we are ready for you to go?”…”Yeah!”…”Then, relax…relax…relax…and go to sleep and don’t worry.” And while I kissed her head and whispered in her ear, she started to relax and let go. Her breathing immediately started slowing, and slowing, and she calmly breathed her last breath with us caressing her and letting her go. It was a beautiful way to go.
And then she lay there as if asleep and for a few hours everyone who wanted to could say “Goodbye.” Rev. Lindsay Armstrong and Dr. Marilyn led us in anointing her body and sending home. We let her go “into that good night” and into God’s hands. It was sad, but the whole day was filled with grace and laughter.So, we will gather this Saturday at 11:00am, October 8th, at the sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, the same sacred space where Nicholas and Philip absorbed the faith, where Penny served as Family Minister for years, and where we held the wedding for Philip and Jessica two weeks ago. We will celebrate Penny’s life and the promise of resurrection. Penny said you better wear bright colors and wigs are most appropriate. This is a celebration! (Childcare is available and parking instructions can be found here.) Better get there early.
In lieu of flowers we ask that donations be made to Columbia Theological Seminary that is training the next generation of Presbyterian ministers to inspire people to love, to Winship Cancer Institute which is our local research institute without which Penny never would have made it to the wedding, or designated to “Brazil Mission in Fortaleza” c/o First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta where a portion of Penny’s ashes will be interred.
Wednesday would’ve been Ginger’s 63rd birthday, and Penny made it to heaven just in time to eat cake with her sister and mother.
When you remember Penny, always Live, Love, Laugh.