It had been a long, exhausting day. Our new house was filled with boxes and piles of all kinds, but the movers had left, and it was quiet now. Vince was sleeping on the red sofa a few feet away from me, and I was sitting at the kitchen counter. The sun was setting. A calm stillness lay on the place.
For no reason at all I started shuffling through a messy stack of unfiled papers and letters on the kitchen counter. A letter in a scribbled blue marker caught my attention from the top of the pile. It was a request for Vince to send a birthday greeting to a woman turning eighty-nine years old. The note was written by her grown daughter.
I didn't know how old the letter was. I hadn't seen it at the old house, but it must have been there. I wondered if Vince had seen it and set it aside. What was the birth date again? I scanned the page. Today. The woman's mother turned eighty-nine today.
I stuffed the note in my back pocket. Eventually I woke Vince up, and we went to meet some friends. Later that evening, while we were driving around town with some unexpected time on our hands, I remembered the letter. I took it out of my pocket and read it aloud to Vince. It was news to him. He was as intrigued as I was by the timing of it all—that this letter, mailed to our old address, got unearthed in the move and made it to the top of a pile just in time for him to make the call.
Busy signal. So we decided to drive around. He kept calling. Still busy. We kept driving. Busy. Still driving. Still busy. This was crazy. Who doesn't have call waiting in the twenty-first century?
Finally, Vince said, "Hey, where does this woman live? Let's just drive by her house." We found her address.
This was getting interesting. The birthday girl didn't even know about the letter, so the last thing she expected was for Vince to show up at her front door. Just as we were turning onto her street, Vince finally got a ringing line.
He said, "Hey, I understand somebody in this house is having a birthday. This is Vince Gill, and I just called to say hi… No, really, it is me… Yes, it is… That's right. And if you're not too busy, my wife and I thought we'd stop by to say hello." He hung up with a big smile, and we were there, in front of a little white box of a house surrounded by other small houses in a neighborhood crisscrossed with chain-link fences.
Dorothy Lee was a tall woman, though slightly stooped. She was made of old stock, sturdy and angular. A wheelchair was in the middle of the front room, but she was not in it. She was greeting us like old friends at the front door.
When the initial shock of our arrival had passed, Dorothy Lee showed us around her home. The front door opened into the living room, bedroom to the left, dining room and kitchen a straight shot from the front room. Pictures of Vince were everywhere—a magnet on the refrigerator, a cardboard stand-up Vince in the front room, framed clippings on a wall. Dorothy didn't act gooey or silly toward Vince, but one look at her house and you could tell that she was a true fan.
Everybody's got a story, and Dorothy Lee had a wealth of them: Stories about her early childhood lived on a farm in Kentucky, too rural to have a "proper" address. Stories about the children she had raised—hers, her grandchildren, even some great-grandchildren. Stories about the husband she had buried thirty years ago.
Dorothy was born in 1911 and had lived in this house most of her adult life. The neighborhood had seen a lot of change. She grew up in a world that was completely segregated, and she would have been in her midfifties during the legendary civil-rights sit-ins in Nashville.
"I'm the oldest person in this neighborhood," she said. "When I moved here, it was all white. Now I'm the last one on the block."
She told us that people had asked her if she wanted to move. Seeming tickled to talk about it, she said, "You know, I'm just an old woman. I don't care what color a person's skin is." We asked her if she was afraid to live alone.
"What would I be afraid of?" she replied.
Dorothy had a sharp mind and a quick wit. The time flew by.
The conversation turned, and she began to talk about her mother. Her love was still immediate and powerful, even though death had separated them decades before. As Dorothy spoke, I thought about her daughter, the one who had written the letter to Vince. I thought about the children that I had birthed. I thought about the threads of need and love and care that tie us to our mothers, and then I listened.
Dorothy had been closer to her mother than her other siblings had been, not because she was the favorite, but because of unfortunate events that happened in her childhood. For instance, one winter day while she was playing near the hearth, she rolled too close to the coals, and her clothes caught on fire. She was in bed for months, her mother by her side.
A few years later, Dorothy Lee was playing with some children in the loft of their barn, when she lost her footing, fell to the ground, and broke her back. The long road to recovery strengthened the special closeness they shared, and as the years rolled by, the bond between them held steady.
On the day her mother died, Dorothy recalled, her world ground to a halt. She couldn't find the energy to do much of anything. Some days she could hardly eat. Most days she never got out of her nightclothes. She remembered hearing bits and pieces of one-sided conversations as her husband spoke to concerned callers from the phone in the hall: "No, this isn't a good day," he would say, or, "She seems to be feeling a little better today."
Then one day, she said, she got up, put her clothes on, and went about the business of living.
"How long were you in bed?" I asked, remembering an acquaintance of mine who once stayed in bed over two weeks because of depression.
"Oh," she said, "I'd say two or three years, as best I can remember."
Two or three years! I was dumbfounded. Had her husband ever wondered if she had lost her mind? I asked her as much. She said, "He was a good man. You know, you cannot rush grief."
Really? I thought. You can on the surface. We do it every day. Someone dies. Friends and family gather at the graveside. Flowers are sent. Prayers are prayed. Handwritten notes or Hallmark sympathy cards are sent. But these days no one is allowed to check out of life for two years. Instead, we prod and push the bereaved to move on, to go through the motions of living. Grief has its own timetable. What a concept. The time it takes to heal is the time it takes.
My thoughts drifted away to a train station in Africa, back to a time when I was visiting my friend Jeannie, who was teaching school in the western province of Kenya. It was January of 1985, and we were standing on the platform, wishing we had time to grab a warm Coke (the only kind there was in Kenya) before our trip. No schedules were posted that we could see, and we wanted to be on the next train.
Finding an attendant, we asked, "Can you tell us when the train will be leaving the station?"
The tall African man in uniform said, "De train will come up dis track. De peoples will get off de train. You will get on. Den de train will leave."
"I understand the process. What I need to know is the time frame. My friend and I want to leave the station for a few minutes. Can you tell me approximately when the train is expected?"
Once again he explained. "See dis track? De train will come up dis track and stop at dis station. De peoples will get off de train. You will get on. Den de train will leave."
We nodded and smiled. Point taken. When it happens is when it happens.
We continued to talk with Dorothy about her life now, what it was like, who comes by, how she spends her time. She told us that at night when she lays her head on her pillow, she looks back over the details of the day, and every night she asks herself the same question: Did I live this day in a way that honored the One who gave me this day?
Then she turned to Vince, who was kneeling on the floor beside her chair. Her face was so full of love and kindness toward him (she had told him earlier in the evening that her friends and family always called her anytime he was on television, knowing she cared about him like a son).
"You know why I pray that prayer, don't you, Vince? It's because one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. You know that, don't you, Vince?"
Stillness. Dorothy Lee, eighty-nine years of life on her face, watched Vince intently.
"Yes ma'am, I know that." My husband wrapped his arms around Dorothy with a strong hug. She said, "That was nice. Could we do that one more time?"
As we prepared to leave, we told her we were expecting a baby. She was, in fact, the first person who heard our news. Speaking of babies made her think of her own daughter. She explained, "Years ago, my sister, who worked at the Department of Human Services, called me on the phone and said, 'You've got to come down here. A family of children was dropped off today. You've just got to come see them.' When I walked in, I saw a little girl about seven months old. Do you know, that child just raised her arms to me, just like that. Well, I looked at my sister and I said, 'I guess this one's mine.' I brought her home and raised her."
That rescued child was the one who had written the letter that brought us here all these years later