Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Vera Hensley, 1926-2008

Vera and Bill Hensley

Each of us knew Vera Hensley in different ways: mother, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor, long-time church member. Some of us knew her very well indeed, while others were only acquaintances. But everyone who met her was quick to realize what a special person she was. Many of you have shared your personal recollections about her with my sister Betty and me. Your kind words about her have filled our hearts with pride. You have told us that Vera Hensley was gracious, elegant, beautiful, kind, intelligent and compassionate. She had a fine appreciation for beauty, which was expressed in her love of antiques, painting, flower arranging, and home decorating. Not to mention her tasteful and elegant wardrobe!

Yes, Vera Hensley was a fine person who was widely admired. But to Betty and me she was so much more. She was our Mom. She brought us into this world through the pains of childbirth, and for her trouble spent the next twenty years or so bathing us, feeding us, clothing us, disciplining us, teaching us, encouraging us, nagging us, and carting us around to school, church, doctors, stores, swimming pools, summer camps and even job interviews. Yes, I did say “nagging”. We needed quite a bit of it and she was up to the task. Mom definitely bore the brunt of the parenting load. Dad’s job at NASA required that he travel a great deal, and he often worked late into the night even when he was in town. (They were sending rockets to the Moon, after all!) And through it all she never complained.

After twenty-something years we may have gotten married and moved out, but Mom never stopped mothering. That’s just what mothers do. I warn my sons about it now. I tell them, “Once a mother, always a mother. Don’t think that just because you grow up and move out your mother stops being your mother!” My Mom epitomized that saying. When I was well into my forties she was still telling me when she thought I needed a haircut. And she never did give up asking me to shave my beard.

Mom was more organized than anyone else I know, and she was a doer! She kept a mental to-do list at all times and she could never rest until every item had been checked off. She used to get her Christmas shopping done by September. She was half an hour early to her appointments. Her house was immaculate. Dinner was at 5:30 p.m. sharp every day.

I’ve always said Mom was a woman ahead of her time. She was very intelligent and had a head for business. If she’d been born a generation later she might have been the CEO of a major corporation. Instead, she went to Massey Business College after high school. She took bookkeeping classes and learned how to use the latest business machines (which at the time were mechanical adding machines and the like). She got a job at the Rupley Brake Company as a bookkeeping assistant where she met my Dad, who was working for his uncle Bob Rupley. It took him quite some time to convince her to marry him, but once they were married she quit her job and dutifully fulfilled the role of full time wife and mother to the best of her ability. Nevertheless, when Mom and Dad later invested in some real estate, Mom was a full partner with Dad in handling their rental properties. When Betty and I were older she was able to get her real estate license, too.

She applied herself with the same energy to her hobbies. Whether it was gardening, painting, flower arranging or antiquing, she took courses, bought books and studied to make herself an expert. She could recognize the different styles and periods in furniture, crystal, glassware and silver. She could turn over a piece and by recognizing the manufacturer’s mark tell you immediately where it was made, when and by whom. She had a fine eye for aesthetics and our home was always beautifully decorated.

Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” Mom defined herself in terms of her service to others. She was a devoted mother, wife, daughter and friend. For most of the years we were growing up she was the primary caregiver for my paternal grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s. At first she would go over to his house in West University several times a week. Later he lived with us for a while. When he finally moved to a nursing home she went there every day to see that he was well cared for. If he needed to go to a doctor Mom took him. If he wandered off from the nursing home it was Mom they called. This went on all the way through my college years. Granddaddy’s funeral was on the same day as my college graduation.

By this time she was devoting more time to helping her own parents. With the help of her sisters, she handled their finances, their shopping, their doctor visits and their household affairs. Once again, she was spending many hours a week driving across town to their house attending to their needs. In the course of time each of them also needed nursing home care, and Mom faithfully oversaw the care they received. I don’t think she expected any special recognition for her efforts. To her, this is just what children do for their parents. She couldn’t imagine not being there for them in their time of need. Mom was truly servant-hearted.

When our time came to help Mom over the past several years, Betty and I had a very high standard to live up to. I’m sure we were not as devoted and attentive as she would have been. But she never ceased to be grateful for the help we gave her. She was always gracious, reluctant to impose, and never demanding.

As the visits to internists, cardiologists and neurologists multiplied, Mom never lost her sense of humor. She loved to repeat the joke that my uncle Eddie Youngblood used to tell. He would say, “I need to find a new doctor. This fellow I’m going to now doesn’t even know who the President of the United States is!” In the last several years, Mom saw many doctors who asked her to name the President of the United States. As many little strokes slowly took their toll on her memory and reasoning, she worked hard to compensate. Always an organized person, she redoubled her efforts to maintain a detailed calendar and write extensive notes. When she visited the neurologists they were often surprised at how sharp she seemed to be. She could tell them the date of her last check-up, the names and doses of all her medications, and when the last change had been made to the dosage. We had to assure them that she really was having memory troubles. Mom would compensate by keeping three ring binders full of notes, prescriptions, lab results and drug brochures. She studied her notes for hours and hours before each doctor visit, like she was cramming for a test.

It was difficult for us to watch as Mom’s health problems accumulated over the past few years. Knowing she had always been so sharp and on top of things, it was painful to see her struggling to compensate for her impairment. Eventually, all her compensation strategies began to fail her. For one who had always been in control of every situation, she was frustrated to find herself slipping so badly. The stroke that finally took her life was even more devastating, leaving her for over two weeks unable to move or speak. But God has a purpose in every difficulty he allows into our lives. He molds and shapes us into the person he wants us to be. You see, Mom was a Christian. I’ve described Mom as gracious, kind, compassionate and servant-hearted, which is true. But under all those qualities lay her faith in Christ.

Mom understood at an early age that we are all sinners in need of the salvation that only Christ can offer us through his death on the cross. She accepted Christ as her Savior at age seven, was baptized and attended Broadway Baptist Church until she got married. Later she and Dad joined the Presbyterian Church. When we moved to this area in the early sixties we joined St. John’s, and this is where Betty and I were raised. Even though Mom couldn’t get out much in recent years, this continued to be her church home for the rest of her life. Yet what counts is not the longevity of our church membership, it is the quality of our relationship with God. I saw Mom seek God all the years I knew her, and I saw her continue to grow spiritually to the very end of her life.

The Bible says that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. Indeed, there is a transformation that occurs in our hearts the moment we are reborn, but the process of being conformed to his image takes a lifetime. The last Sunday of her life Mom and I listened to a sermon on TV from South Main Baptist Church. I don’t know if she could actually hear what was said, but it was the perfect message for that time and place. The text of the sermon was Philippians 1:6. “...being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” I am deeply gratified to report to you that God, as he promised in his Word, completed his work in Mom’s life.

Mom was not the sort of person who could see a task that needed doing and then sit by doing nothing. She felt as though she carried the burden of success in every situation, and so she drove herself as hard as she could. In the Bible story of Mary and Martha, Mom came down on the side of Martha. You can imagine how frustrated she was as she began to be slowed down by her impairments. This woman who had been so strong for everyone around her for so long now found herself increasingly dependent on others. Unaccustomed to being the one served rather than the servant, she learned to let God be in control of her life.

I cannot count how many times Mom told Betty and me in the past two or three years, “I just pray that I can fulfill all God’s purposes for my life. I am ready to go home whenever he calls me, but I just want to do God’s will.” She could not understand why God kept her here on Earth, but he used these years to finish the work in her that he began. Galatians 5:22-23 says, “...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” For Mom, the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place was patience.

Many have endured far worse trials than what Mom endured in her last few years. Yet I would not wish her troubles on anyone. What redeems them is the way God used them. Like the sculptor who chips away every flake of marble that is not part of the emerging masterpiece, God chips away all our flaws and rough edges, if only we let him. He uses each hardship for our benefit and his glory. Mom’s life is a testament to his saving grace and transforming power.

As wonderful as that is, it gets even better. For all who put their faith in Christ, this life on Earth is just a passing moment compared to the glorious life to come. Because Jesus died and rose again, the power and sting of death are broken. At this very moment Mom is standing in the presence of God, rejoicing with all the host of heaven. That is why, even though I love her dearly and miss her very much, I can still rejoice. I would like to close with a passage from Second Corinthians which has sustained us in the past few weeks.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

This service is titled, “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.” I stand here in witness to that truth. For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And so will she. And so shall I, and all who are in Christ. Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.