Her name was Martha, and she was born eleven years, two months and thirty-eight days before me. She was covered by Farmers Insurance and adhered to a strict regimen of minerals and supplements; her daily dose included 300 mgs of Passionfever and 500 mg of Psyllium. Her blood type was A+ and she had no allergies.
I learned all this when I found and skimmed Martha’s six-ring, refillable, 2001 personal planner in a nearby thrift store. Tucked in among the other planners—some oversized, some slightly scuffed, some just plain nasty looking—the small, earthy-colored tapestry cover caught my eye and drew my hand into the book bin. I loved the feel of the planner in my hand and the ease with which it unzipped. I knew instantly I’d buy it—even before I discovered Martha inside.
It startled me a bit to read such personal information about a stranger, but like a voyeur who happens upon a wide-open window, I kept looking. I found out that Martha went to the symphony in January, and that the Austen in her life had the same birthday as my middle sister. I learned that Martha had had a library book due back February 2nd, her new ID card expired in March, and she met a friend for coffee in early April.
But around that same time—early to mid April—Martha recorded a Wednesday afternoon doctor’s appointment
… and then another for the following Monday. By Thursday she’d added a new name, with the word “oncologist” after his title. In the flip of just three more pages it became clear. Martha had cancer.
It must have been a late-stages discovery, or such an aggressive cancer that the treatments didn’t touch it. For despite a flurry of doctor visits and scribbled notes about the side-effects of the prescriptions and treatments she tried, by summer of that year, Martha stopped writing in her planner. Standing along the back aisle of the thrift store, with canned music floating overhead and the cry of an irritated child somewhere to my left, I turned page after page, wanting to see Martha’s handwriting, wanting to find one indication that she’d lived to anticipate fall or Christmas or 2002. But Martha’s entries ended.
I lost a dear friend to cancer last year. I said another good bye just three months later. But both those women knew Jesus. Both knew that death was nothing more than opening a door and seeing, finally, the face of the One they loved most. So despite missing them, my grief was laced with joy. I knew where they were and Who they were with.
I couldn’t rest on that assurance with Martha. I hadn’t seen a single piece of evidence that she belonged to a group of fellow-sojourners or that she stopped at least once a week to turn her face heavenward. And no, a planner can’t capture the full essence of a heart or indicate the thoughts a dying person directs toward God. But I saw no evidence. Not even a hint.
And so, standing there in that dingy thrift store, surrounded by strangers, I grieved another, and reminded myself that our mission field is really no further away than the next person we meet.
* * *
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you …
–1 Peter 3:15 (NKJV)