Grace’s words surprised me that night. I wasn’t expecting them. What I was expecting … well, I’m not quite sure. I’d never been down this road before. Just an hour earlier, I was eating orange sherbet while sitting on a couch next to my mother-in-law, Rosalie, when the call came telling us what I was expecting to hear—that my father-in-law, Bill, had stepped peacefully from this side of the eternal veil to the other.
As quickly as we could find our shoes (as well as our pulse), we made the five-minute walk from Rosalie’s new apartment to the nursing facility where Bill had been residing. This living arrangement had been a dream of theirs, selling their home on Tinkerbell Rd. and moving to Carolina Meadows—a retirement community that would afford them a peaceful and pleasant pasture to write their final chapter together.
The dream had a few revisions along the way. Two years earlier, Bill’s cancer (as well as a fractured hip, diminished mobility, and several late-night trips to the emergency room) interrupted their plans. Despite the multiple roadblocks along the way, both Bill and Rosalie eventually arrived at their new address. And while they would no longer share a bathroom or eat sherbet beside one another on those light-green, chenille couches that had cradled their marriage of nearly fifty-three years, they could at least spy each other’s bedroom windows across the verdant lawn that now separated them—a chasm that could not be crossed quickly enough in those late hours on Wednesday, June 14th.
Soberly and tenderly, Rosalie and I entered Bill’s room as well as the sacred moment. I have often said that the ground we stand upon is never more hallowed than in those moments that exist between the now and the next. Just two hours earlier, we’d been sitting in this same room with Bill, singing hymns, praying prayers, and speaking words of release to him while he peacefully slept. That was the now. This moment, well this was the next, and the difference between the two was stunningly apparent to us both.
“He is not here, Rosalie. He’s gone home.”
While Rosalie cradled her grief as well as Bill’s fragile frame, I quietly removed the wedding band from his ring finger and slipped it onto the chain around Rosalie’s neck. I stood in the shadows, watching a bride say good-bye to her husband. I was profoundly moved to a place of deeper understanding, a deeper connection to all things eternal. Indeed, what God hath wrought together, no man had been able to put asunder (Mark 10:9).
And that gift … being witness to such love … would have been enough to salve the grief that began to fill our hearts. But God gave us another gift that night, the gift of Grace—the nurse’s aide assigned to Bill in his final hours and in the many weeks preceding his departure. We met her in the hallway while making our way back to Rosalie’s apartment. She told us a story about a recent encounter she’d had with Bill:
“Mr. Bill was trying to help me find a shortcut through Chapel Hill. He drew me a map.
[*For those of you who knew Bill, this doesn’t come as a surprise as Bill was always drawing maps and knew the Chapel Hill area better than most, as he’d been selling real estate in the surrounding community for more than fifty years.]
He told me that should I ever travel down that particular route and found myself thirsty, that I should stop by Tinkerbell Road … that a glass of water would be waiting for me.”
And these, friends, were the words that surprised me that night, shook me and sweetly startled me at my core. I’m not quite sure the reason behind Grace relaying this particular story about Bill, but as soon as she released it to us for safe-keeping, I knew that no finer epitaph could ever be carved in stone to best memorialize the life and witness of Bill Olsen, Jr.—a man who lived on Tinkerbell Road, always ready with a cup of water for anyone whose thirst led them to his door.
Bill was always looking for the best route in and around his town … in and around this life … while watering his town and this life with a generous cup of goodness. He was a mapmaker and a grace giver.
A mapmaker and a grace giver. God has replayed this message over and over again in my mind these past six days since Bill’s departure. More significantly, God has etched these words onto my heart eternally.
Indeed, Bill is not here with us in body any longer. He has gone home. But God, because of his great mercy and love for all humanity, granted Bill the holy privilege of drawing us a map so that we, too, may find our way home. Additionally, whenever a thirsty soul came knocking, Bill was faithful to fill our cups with a ladle of water from the well of God’s amazing grace, more than enough to fuel us for the journey that lies ahead.
A mapmaker and a grace giver. Bill’s life was a life well-lived. He lived simply and quietly. He loved purely and certainly.
He left a map and he left a ladle.
A mapmaker and a grace giver. The trail has clearly been blazed. The mission has clearly been defined. May we endeavor (with God’s help) to follow the map, to fill the cups of the thirsty, and to live ever so rightly, vigilantly and attentively, all of our remaining days on this earth. Amen. So be it.
Peace for the journey, friends.