I left the house that Saturday morning in plenty of time to make the 30-minute drive to class. Sailing along the freeway, thinking about the day before me, I began noticing brake lights in the distance. Traffic was slowing down for no apparent reason.
The next thing I knew, all the cars around me had stopped. And just like that, there were hundreds and hundreds of motorists caught up in one of the biggest traffic snarls I’d ever seen. A flashing sign above the sea of stranded drivers blinked an announcement about a crash ahead. “All vehicles must exit at Indian School Road.”
We inched along, barely moving toward the exit. I was keeping my eye on the temperature gauge on this hot morning, hoping my car wasn’t going to overheat. Finally, after an hour, I was able to pull off and turn down a road I seldom travel — a road that takes me past the turnoff for that place.
I swallowed as I approached the small intersection in South Scottsdale. In my mind, I was back in 1986, a 22-year-old woman whose beloved paternal grandmother was a resident of a nursing home on Granite Reef Road.
Noni lived in Chicago, but every year she and Grandpa George would visit us for two weeks, a visit which would culminate in Christmas. They would almost always leave on Dec. 26, Noni shedding tears of sorrow at the parting. She dreaded goodbyes and I did, too. There were summer visits to her spacious home in the Windy City and phone calls and letters in between visits.
We knew in our bones how much she loved us and some of the happiest memories of my youth center around time spent with this amazing woman.
I grew up in a home where my parents never really argued, so it was a bit strange the way we would hear Noni and Grandpa George bicker, but their love for each other was unquestionable. I overheard them one night through the bedroom door — they slept in the twin beds in my brother’s room during their visits.
“My feet are cold at night,” Noni sighed to her beloved. “I miss being able to cuddle up next to you, George.”
After Grandpa died in 1984, Noni sometimes skipped taking the medicine that helped with her irregular heartbeat. It wasn’t long before she stopped taking it altogether. She missed George; she missed her friends who had almost all died; and she was hundreds of miles away from us.
Not taking her medicine eventually caught up with her and she had a stroke. The next time I saw Noni, it was in the nursing home. Her once-stylish hair hung loose and gray around her face. There was no lipstick or jewelry, no soft, fashionable pantsuit. She couldn’t speak or get out of bed, but I think she recognized me. It was simply heartbreaking to see this once vibrant woman a pale shadow of her former self.
I went a couple of times to see her in the nursing home after that, but eventually, I just couldn’t face her anymore. I was afraid of my feelings, afraid my heart would shatter into a thousand pieces. My mother urged me to visit but I made excuses. It was cowardly and selfish and a chapter in my life I’m not proud of.
I was dreading that final goodbye.
On the day of the huge traffic jam, as I drove past the intersection, I felt the Holy Spirit’s nudge. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could still visit the nursing home after all these years. I wasn’t sure they would allow it — some senior centers still aren’t permitting visitors due to the pandemic — but I figured it was worth a try.
I stopped at a nearby grocery store and bought a bright yellow flower arrangement and some chocolate chip cookies, then turned down Granite Reef Road and pulled into the parking lot. In 35 years, not much had changed. The facility still went by the same name, and bright red geraniums still bloomed near the entrance.
I ventured in and saw a young man and woman sitting behind the reception desk.
“Can we help you?” the woman inquired pleasantly. The tag pinned to her scrubs told me her name was Christie.
“Hi, there. My name is Joyce and my grandmother died here in 1986. And I haven’t been back here since,” I managed, choking back tears.
“Oh my goodness,” Christie gushed.
I set the flowers and cookies on the counter and looked her and the young man in the eyes.
“I came to visit my grandmother a couple of times when she was here back then but it was frightening and depressing,” I confessed, my voice wobbling. “It made me so sad to see her like that and I just couldn’t face her again, not even after my mom pleaded with me to take the time to visit. It was selfish and cowardly and I wasn’t a very good person back then.
“So I want you to give these flowers to the loneliest, most forgotten person here who has no one to visit them. Oh yeah, and the cookies are for the nurses.”
They both stared at me. Finally, Christie spoke up.
“Well, that says a lot about you. You’ve grown. You’re a good person now,” Christie said. Her arms came around me in a gentle hug.
“Not really,” I managed, swiping at my tears. “I’m just a sinner redeemed by God’s grace. But I wanted to come here today, to walk through these doors again and honor my grandmother’s memory. I loved her so much. I should have been here then. She deserved that.”
We said our goodbyes and they thanked me for stopping by, assuring me I was a “good person.”
I walked out those doors and felt my heart swell with love and gratitude. Thank you, Lord. You never abandon us, even when we abandon You. The only good in me is You.
Sitting here now, a little later in the day, I’m thinking of all the things God has forgiven me for, all the love He has for each one of us, even in the midst of our sins: “But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).” In Him, we are a “new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).”
Today is the day and now is the time to lay all our fears and sins and pride at the foot of the Cross, at the feet of the One who died to bring us new life. Don’t let fear or pride keep you from the King of Mercy. May we open our hearts to love deeply and die to ourselves a little more with each breath we take.
Noni, I still miss you, but faith tells me I’ll see you again.
We’ve got some catching up to do.