When I found out my next door neighbor, Carolyn, had requested to come home from the hospital, my heart sank because I knew she was coming home to go to her heavenly home. After an intensive year waging war against a virulent and extremely aggressive form of lymphoma, she had had enough.
In our bedroom, just across the driveway and only a few feet away from the outside wall of their home, I slept fitfully and sometime not at all, fully aware her beloved husband, Doug, and cherished family members were keeping close vigil over Carolyn as her soul struggled to leave her earthly body. Her husband, who had not once left her side during the past year, held onto her hand for her last three days and nights. And then she was gone. The final outcome was certainly not what anyone wanted.
We had often chatted or waved to each other coming and going as next door neighbors do. She was a beloved professor, educator and counselor at a nearby university. You know how some people are by nature dynamic and charismatic? Well, that was Carolyn. She had a big personality, a big smile and a big heart. So she left a monumental legacy having poignantly and joyfully touched the lives of scores of people.
And her memorial service, a celebration of her remarkable life, reflected her spirit and persona so perfectly. Held in their local church sanctuary, Doug, Carolyn's dear sisters, brother-in-law, colleagues and close friends told warm, humorous and affectionate stories about her. There were descriptive comments of her creating a lot of excitement in heaven with her bigger-than-life personality as she reunited with loved ones who were waiting for her. They fondly pictured her exploring the streets of gold in awe and wonder and asking too many questions as she was prone to do. And yes, the significance of the loss of one so cherished was also apparent in the words spoken by those she left behind.
But, more often than not, those of us in attendance found ourselves smiling, sometimes laughing, through our tears. At times, the sanctuary was filled with vibrant music that was touching, stirring and just plain heavenly as the worship band played and the choir sang with their whole hearts. You see, Carolyn had been one of their number for years. We all left having sensed her energy and zest for life and feeling as though we had just had a glimpse of eternity.
During a time of reflection not long after Carolyn's death, the book I was reading had a reference to John Donne, 17th century poet and church leader. It was he who wrote the famous quote "...never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Throughout John Donne's term as dean in London's largest church, three waves of the bubonic plague had swept through the city. During the last epidemic, Donne came down with what he thought was plague (which turned out to be typhus). As he lay severely ill for 6 weeks, he could hear the bell toll for each plague fatality. Realizing that the person for whom the bell tolled obviously could not hear it, John concluded the bell tolled for him--it made him reflect and meditate on the real meaning of life and about God and his divine plan. Therefore, each time the bell rang out for someone, he felt connected to that individual because it deepened his contemplation which he likened to gold, a treasure that had been bequeathed to him.
And so it is that what happens to others not only affects us profoundly, but connects us and in that way the entire human family is inextricably linked. Though we may each be on our separate journeys, the truth is, as Donne so poetically explains, "No man is an island.... All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language....God's hand is in every translation...."
During times of devastating loss or calamity, whether globally or within our own circle of family and acquaintances, the clang of the bell comes as a shock. But it gives us pause, causing us to think about what truly matters. If we linger and don't move on too quickly, we will receive some of the golden treasure of which Donne spoke. Carolyn's passing from this life not only prompted me to once again earnestly ponder life's meaning, but her purposeful memorial service lifted me up with precious hope. Whenever and wherever the bell tolls, we will always be changed for the better in some way, whether a little or a lot.