Helen Ashton died last Saturday. She was 91, and a member of Northwest Presbyterian Church. Helen was active during my first four years at NPC. We would greet each other weekly at the door and exchange pleasantries, but she would comment often enough on the worship service or sermon to let me know that she was engaged. As Helen’s health declined she attended less frequently, and then not at all. Over the past two years our doorway greetings transitioned to visits in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and, frequently at Riverside Hospital. Her health deteriorated to the point that I felt it was important to visit Helen the night before we left for our summer vacation; I feared I would not see Helen again.
Helen proved me wrong for several more months. Three visits ago we spent a sweet and quiet hour talking about Christ, faith and heaven. Helen told me she was not worried about where she was going, but she was a little afraid of the step in between; an honest appraisal from someone suffering a terminal illness.
Last Friday I received word that she was again in the hospital and the prognosis was not good. I rushed to Riverside. Helen was mostly unresponsive during our visit. I read Scripture and tried to decipher the requests emerging from her discomfort. She wanted water. And then she didn’t. It would be a stretch to say we conversed. But we were present to each other, and God was present with us. Before leaving I asked Helen if she wanted to pray and received my most vigorous response of the hour, a rapid head nod. I prayed and asked God to give her peace as she took that step. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps she joined me subconsciously. Helen died early next morning.
When I met with Helen’s son Warren and his wife to plan the memorial service, I asked if I could see Helen’s Bible. Perhaps there would be a verse or two underlined that I would choose to share. I didn’t mention to Warren how reading my grandfather’s marginalia – the notations in the margins of his Bible – provided me insight into the questions he had. My grandfather Elmer had the kinds of questions we all have: Who am I? Where am I going? Who is God and will he forgive me? His journey through skepticism to Christ outlined in his Bible notes.
Warren kindly dropped of Helen’s Bible. There was not a single verse underlined; there were hundreds underlined, starred, and notated. The inks changed, the block handwriting was as legible as a tight cursive script. Some books of Helen’s Bible received more attention; I imagined her concentrating on a book in personal study or attending worship while a pastor patiently taught through the Gospel of John, or 1 John, or the Psalms. I realized it was fanciful to presume to know why Helen made certain notes, why certain verses stood out to her at certain times. But the themes in her notes rang true: “eternal life – you believe by faith – 1 John 5.11, 12, a gift. Immortality a future gift. At 2nd advent of our Lord”; on 1 Thess. 4.13-18, “immortality – not an endless existence but a communion with God. Eternal satisfaction and blessedness. Freedom from pain and sorrow, service to God and a vision of divine glory”; Helen the cancer patient noted at Psalm 139: ”I am wonderfully made.” Who we are and where we go: not questions that exist at the margins of life but questions core to who we are, to who Helen is.
Though occasionally scholars scrutinize the margin notes of famous men and women, marginalia are mostly notes to oneself. No one expects their margin notes to be read by others. Marginalia are self-serving, but not selfish. They record cries of hearts. Helen, like most of us, wasn’t famous. She was a wife, mom, grandmother, worker, and a daughter of the King. She outlived her husband by many years; she battled a terminal disease with courage. She read in her Bible that her disease didn’t define her; she was wonderfully made and deeply loved. Certainly by her husband and family but also by the Lord who gave her the gifts of faith in Christ, forgiveness and a forever family. Her marginalia record part of her journey with Christ, but not finally the substance of her journey with Christ. Helen’s margin notes read like stones in longer path winding towards a step that, now having been taken, has introduced her to the reality that she waited for, wrote about, believed in, scribbled about next to John 3.36: “the one who believes in Jesus already has everlasting life.”