I have a story to tell you about Wally and Ellie. Maybe you know them, and maybe you don’t. When they were in worship, they’d sit together on the pulpit side of the nave near the front. Technically they’re not members of this congregation, although as lifelong and faithful Lutherans, I treated them as though they were. They’d been attending for some time thanks to one of our families stopping by and picking them up. Although that came to end this past year when Ellie suffered a mild stroke and became more so homebound.
Anyway, as I said, I have a story to share, and because I’m a storyteller at heart, I thought I’d do it in narrative form. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. I share it as I beheld it in my mind’s eye while Ellie shared it with me…
It was the Fourth of July. It had been a long and tiring day. Even so, neither complained. The time with their son and his children was precious and always well worth the toll to the body.
Wally unlocked and opened the door to the apartment, being sure to turn on the light while at the same time holding the door for Ellie, just as he always did.
“Thank you, dear,” she said, moving slowly with her walker. Once inside, she made her way to her favorite recliner, which was just beyond their little round kitchen table stacked with various knickknacks held sacred by both. Giving as full an exhale as her petite frame could, she plopped down and closed her eyes.
Wally followed. Placing his hand on her tiny shoulder as he passed, he offered, “It’s getting late, Ellie.” In the same manner as his frail bride, he dropped into his favorite place on the couch just across the way from her. “How about we do our devotion and then get to bed?” he asked.
“Okay,” she whispered, her eyes still closed.
Wally reached to the coffee table at his knees, and taking a volume from the top of a short stack of tattered editions, he turned to a page already being reserved by a frilly bookmark Ellie had made in a former day, a time when her eyes and hands kept a keener pace.
He read the text—a brief portion from John 6 describing a faltering crowd of Jesus’ followers and Peter’s words of faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” A simple explanation by the devotional’s author followed. In all, it only took a few minutes. Ellie closed with prayer. She gave thanks for the wonderful day with her husband and family. They prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.
“Ok, then,” Wally said, closing the book and returning it to its place. “I’ll close up out here. You go on ahead and I’ll be there in a minute.” His back quite sore from the day, he gave a slight grunt and arose to help Ellie. Repositioning her walker, he took her hand into his and helped her to her feet.
“I’ll see you in a minute,” he said again.
“Ok,” she said softly. “Don’t be long.”
Ellie was already in bed when Wally came in. He changed into his pajamas and climbed in beside her. But he was only there a moment before pulling back the covers and getting out of bed.
“I’m feeling a little warm,” he said. “I’m going to go turn the air down a bit.” Another moment passed and he was back. Ellie turned toward him as he worked to fluff his pillow.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” he returned.
Ellie reached to turn off the light, and with its click, she settled back in beside her husband. A minute or two of silence between them, Ellie offered a final remark for the evening. “It certainly was a wonderful day,” she said. “A truly wonderful day.”
Wally didn’t answer.
“Are you already asleep?” she chuckled wearily, turning back toward him in the darkness. Wally was silent.
She nudged him once. And then again. Turning back to the bedside table, she turned on the light. Wally’s eyes were closed, but his mouth was open. She nudged him again, and this time he gave a gurgling sound. He wasn’t sleeping. He was struggling.
She called the emergency number for the facility, and within minutes a team was in the apartment attending to Wally. In Ellie’s own words, from that moment until the time they arrived at the hospital, life had become somewhat blurry. She doesn’t remember getting dressed. She doesn’t remember the drive. She remembers being gathered at his bedside and hearing the doctors say that Wally had suffered a massive stroke and that his time with her would most likely be very short.
Ellie stayed with Wally through the night.
Their son arrived the next morning, bringing in tow his eight-year-old daughter. Wally was showing signs of consciousness—holding Ellie’s hand and squeezing when she asked him questions, affirming for her that he trusted in Jesus for his salvation, and smiling whenever she talked, even if it wasn’t to him. He loved her voice. He had always loved her voice.
In the midst of the hushed hospital room, somehow Wally became aware that his granddaughter had brought along a pen.
“Grampa’s wiggling his fingers to me, Grandma,” the little girl said.
“I think he wants your pen, honey,” she replied. Without hesitation, the little girl placed the pen into the hand of the man she’d so often given her own hand to hold. But there was no paper, and so Ellie turned over an empty tissue box to its plain white base and gave it to her granddaughter. The little girl held it firmly. Wally wrote in large capital letters.
LOVE ELLIE, he crafted slowly and carefully.
“He loves you, Grandma,” the little girl said as Wally continued scribing something else, a number.
“71?” the eight-year-old asked, turning back to her grandmother.
“Seventy-one years,” she said, her mouth betraying a quiver and her eyes beginning to wet. “We’ve been married for seventy-one years. That’s how long we’ve been together. That’s how long he’s loved me.”
Awash with a toothy smile, “Write something for me, Grampa,” the cheerful grandchild said.
Giving a labored but still genuine smile to match hers, he reached to the tissue box and began to scribble again.
S… O… M… E… T… H… I… N… G.
Ellie, her son, and her granddaughter beamed brightly together.
“He wrote you ‘something,’” Ellie said and grasped for Wally’s hand.
He took his last breath in that moment.
This is the story as Ellie recalled it while we sat together last Tuesday. Again, as you can see, I took the liberty of crafting what I was visualizing as she spoke. It was a Godly and serene event, one in which Ellie, even now, takes great comfort.
“Wally is with Jesus,” she said. “And I don’t feel slighted at all. We had 71 years together in a wonderful, Christian marriage.”
“This is true, Ellie,” I said. “And thanks be to God, because of Jesus, you’ll see him again.”
“Yes, I will,” she replied. “I’ll see him, again. Who knows when that’ll be, but I know it’ll be.”
Wally is with Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Ellie is at peace in this wrestling with Death. The Gospel wins.
On the way back to the church, my car radio was tuned to a local rock station. Normally I have it on a talk radio station, but for some reason, today was different. Still thinking about what had just happened, I adjusted the volume much lower than it was when I arrived. It just felt wrong to listen to anything other than silence. Still, I could hear a familiar voice through the speakers. True to the station’s ordinary playlists, it was Axle Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, and he was singing a familiar song from the late 80s, one that spoke of his pride in his ability to bed pretty much any woman he wanted followed by nights of heavy drinking that turned into half-conscious days of gritty debauchery. It was a song that described the absolute opposite of what I’d just heard and seen.
Now, I don’t know anything about Axle Rose. I don’t know his beliefs, and even if I did, I could never tell you the contents of his heart. Nevertheless, in that moment of contrasting images, I imagined that if his lyrics are in any way revelatory of the truest corners of his viscera, like the rest of us—like Wally—he will one day breathe his last, and when he does, I wondered if he’d ever be able to scratch on the bottom of a tissue box for someone else what Wally scratched for Ellie. Would he even have an Ellie, someone there holding his hand, being with him through the darkest hours of the night, reminding him of Jesus, encouraging him to trust in the One who breaks the darkness?
But then I thought of something else, and I sat in my car in the church parking lot for a few minutes savoring the realization.
For one, seventy-one years is a long time to be married, especially in this day and age. It’s something to be celebrated. But seventy-one years is also a time frame in which plenty of struggle is possible. I know this to be true. Wally and Ellie told me the stories of their lives when I visited with them. Just for starters, I know they lost three children to cancer at young ages. Such things can tax a marriage to its extremities and has the potential for causing divisions between a husband and wife that many of us will never fully know.
In one sense, and looking on from the story I shared, they had a perfect marriage. But we all know that no marriage is perfect and that’s because no human is perfect. You, me, Axle Rose, Wally and Ellie, we all swim together in the fellowship of human depravity and are in need of help from outside of our sphere. This means that while some marriages will last seventy-one years, others will only last six months. This means that some will be able to live their lives without fear of addiction while others won’t, and yet, all will have grievous thorns in their flesh that haunt just the same and bear an equal potency for separation from God.
We’re in this together. That’s our first point of order. But the overarching lesson to be learned is not necessarily that Wally and Ellie had a Maybury life in comparison to a guy like Axle Rose, but rather it is that together they were a living testament to the fact that Jesus was there, right in the middle of it all, proving that His Gospel is powerful enough to outlast the assaults, temptations, and storms that came to them throughout the seventy-one years. The moments at the end of Wally’s life are a collage of images declaring this. It is for us to look upon them and be moved to know that Jesus is right in the middle of it all for us, too, no matter what we’re experiencing. In all truth, we already know that He’s the kind of Savior who goes right into the midst of the messes, who’ll sit down right next to Axle Rose and dine with him, giving the same Gospel that can convert and convince for faith. Certainly He’s dining with you and me, too. In humility and faith, we’re willing to acknowledge that we’re at the table with the tax collectors and sinners.
So, in order to bring this to an end… I suppose the first thing I’d encourage among you is to rejoice in the blessings God has given to you, namely that He has granted you faith in Jesus, but also that He has so generously sustained you and your family in the middle of a world that is most certainly coming undone. Second, give thanks that whether or not He has allowed an “Ellie” of sorts in your life or immediate family, you are surrounded by a congregation of believers, a fellowship of saints, who love you, pray for you, and would most certainly be there at your bedside if your last hour was at hand. Why? Because we know we’re in this together. We’re God’s family. Third, and perhaps last, think on those who don’t know such a peaceful joy in this life. Prayerfully consider how you might take this peace that you have here among your Christian family and communicate just what it means to you while in the presence of others drowning in an often overwhelming tide of secularism. There may be an “Axle Rose” or two who come to the realization that contentment in this life is much more than money, possessions, and a life of self-service; and maybe through your Gospel words and actions, they’ll see the Lord Jesus sitting at the table with them and giving to them something so much better.
With that, God bless and keep you this day. As always, you are in my prayers. I mean, of course you are! You are my Christian family!