When Margaret was younger, she wasn’t a striking woman. She had deep-set eyes trapped behind think-lens glasses, a long, off-centered face, and a bit of an overbite. She couldn’t stop a man dead in his tracks or even earn a second glance when she walked into the room. She was a quiet woman with a gentle demeanor who faded into the background. She had a serious stride that hid any trace of playfulness or grace. She wore a dab of rouge and a touch of lipstick, never red.
I did not know Margaret when she was a young girl or even during her mid-life. She was an 89-year-old woman whose thick chestnut hair turned to white wisps and deep grooves encircled her mouth and spread across her face. Her legs could no longer support her slender body and she spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair she could slowly propel when she wasn’t overcome with fatigue.
When I met Margaret, she lived in a world of confusion highlighted by brief moments of clarity that added frustration and loneliness to her life. Her husband of fifty years suffered a heart attack several years back and they were never blessed with children, although they tried. Margaret’s friends were long gone, not that she could remember their names. She would ask me why the Lord hadn’t taken her yet. She felt she had lived a good, Christian life. She prayed every night she wouldn’t wake up. She didn’t view death as something to fear. She was ready, but had to wait. It wasn’t her decision.
Margaret would often come to me in tears. She felt ashamed and embarrassed that she showed such emotion. As a minister’s wife, Margaret had always been the shelter that protected others from the harsh realities of life. She had no time to cry for herself when she had to wipe away the tears of others. She had to push away her own feelings of insecurity and doubt while she smiled sweetly and offered encouraging words of advice. As a girl, she was told to be strong and never show her weakness with tears. It wasn’t until dementia began to tighten its grip that she was forced to acknowledge her loss and loneliness. I sat with her, held her hand, wiped her tears, and spoke softly. That’s when I realized Margaret and I were alike.
One of my most vivid and touching memories of Margaret was seeing her sitting in the dining room after all the other nursing home residents had left. In front of her, the memories of her life were scattered across the table revealing the Margaret I had never known. With every picture she touched, she came alive as memories flooded her mind.
When I first saw her sitting at the table, I was overcome with sadness. This wonderful woman had nothing left but a table full of distant memories—her childhood home; her brother carrying her on his shoulders; her wedding day. The pictures freed her from confusion, if only for a little while. It was my youth that did not allow me to see that these pictures were Margaret’s shelter. Her smile lit up the room and my heart.
The moments I spent with Margaret validated my life’s purpose. Like Margaret, I became a shelter to those in need of love and comfort, often pushing away my own need for compassion and understanding. When I held her hand, we were both comforted. The soul of a woman in her early twenties was intertwined with that of a woman in her late eighties. She showed me the treasures hidden behind white hair, wheelchairs, and bewilderment. To me, Margaret was a beautiful woman. Her beauty was revealed in her comforting touch and soft voice, her caring spirit and sincerity, her generosity and goodwill. I can honestly say she was the most beautiful woman I have ever known.
I was on maternity leave with my first child when Margaret passed away. I didn’t get to hold her hand and say goodbye to her. I’ve carried her picture with me for twenty-five years. I look at it every day and it reminds me to be compassionate and comforting to others. Everyone needs a hand to hold and an encouraging word once in a while. Margaret knew that better than most—my beautiful, sweet Margaret.