Her Last Days and Best Effort

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image

A good friend of mine died yesterday. Jill had retired early from her post as professor of kinesiology at our local university last year. Having already survived cancer and open-heart surgery, she had learned the wisdom of not putting off what was most important to her.

So, freed from her classroom responsibilities, Jill looked forward to indulging her passion for travel in the Middle East. She had been to Israel three times and had visited Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Then came September 11, 2001, and her travel plans were put on hold.

Someone else might feel cheated. But Jill had spent her life working with young people and decided to invest yet more time with them. She volunteered for a program to minister to teenage boys who had had brushes with the law. In fact, this coming weekend, she was to serve as spiritual director at a retreat for these boys.

That wasn’t all. When her department discovered that no one on the faculty was certified to cover a course required for graduation, Jill consented to fill in for one semester so that several seniors could graduate on schedule. She only made the first two sessions, however, before the artificial valve in her heart failed.

Jill never married and had buried her last surviving family member just a month ago. I went to her home yesterday afternoon to help with phone calls while another friend she had designated her executor made funeral arrangements. In Jill’s study we found handouts for her students’ assignments for the semester, printed and neatly stacked. Though she had hoped in her final years to be free of the drudgery of class preparation, the handouts were immaculate and clear.

“I don’t know how we’re going to fit everyone in the church,” the friend said. “I expect scores of her former students to show up.”

In a paper tray on the corner of her desk, printed on special rainbow-decorated stationery, laid thirty letters to the young offenders slated for the retreat this weekend. The words came from her heart to boys whose own hearts she knew might prove impenetrable.

I shook my head as I folded the colorful pages and slipped them into turquoise envelopes. “What are these kids going to think when they open these and read a message from a dead stranger?”

“Maybe it’ll get their attention,” the friend said.

It got mine. Jill undertook both the classroom and retreat preparation with the same care and skill she would have used for a published article or legal document.

I found myself handling the papers reverently. Their message went beyond the words they carried. The careful crafting told the recipients, “I believe you are worth my last days and my best effort.”

Most of the material on The High Calling is available for reuse under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Unfortunately, work by Virginia Stem Owens is not available for reuse. If you are interested in reprinting work by Virginia Stem Owens, please contact her directly.