This Is My Friend

Years ago a visiting couple walked into a local church here in Wichita, sliding into a pew near the back. Having a long history of working with special needs, the husband was amused to see a young man sitting in front of them with his grandmother……a young man with special needs.

“They follow us everywhere,” Scott whispered to his wife, Atha. They chuckled, and after the service Atha struck up a conversation with this grandmother. Of course she did. That was classic Atha, friendly and warm. And this grandmother couldn’t wait to find me.

“Patty!” she said. “I met a couple who were visiting here for the first time. They have a background of ministry with special needs. I’ve got to introduce you!!”

So at the first opportunity, she did just that. Atha and I talked and talked the first Sunday that we met, making plans to get together soon for a coke and more conversation. We met at Spangles one afternoon soon after, and as they say……the rest is history. We clicked. We understood one another. We were on our way to a great friendship.

Over the next couple years, Atha achieved her life’s dream of being awarded her PhD. I was so proud of her, though I had gotten in on the action late in her life and late in her dream. It was only as the years went by that I learned more and more of the sacrifice and grit that went into Atha achieving this goal. She had put this part of her life on hold as she mothered their three children, but all along she was very active in the world of teaching special needs and writing Sunday School curriculum for special needs for the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board. She taught students; she taught teachers; and she taught me.

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Atha taught me lots about special needs as we worked together trying to establish that ministry in our church. She taught me lots about how to teach students with special needs. She taught me lots about my own son, Aaron, although she was always quick to point out that I was the expert when it came to Aaron.

But what Atha taught me the most was what it was like to have a friend who loved unconditionally…….who stuck with me through good and bad…….who was there for me no matter how busy and complicated her own life was.

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Her phone calls were regular and so welcomed, no matter what all she had on her to-do list. Our lunch dates were refreshing to me on so many levels. And every June we made sure that on our schedules we placed a very important lunch date……one at which we celebrated our birthdays. Atha’s birthday was June 15 and mine was June 18, so we would try to celebrate close to both of those dates. I would pay for Atha’s lunch, and Atha would pay for my lunch, and we would laugh and laugh.

 

Atha took my family as her own. Not only did she take Gary and our children into her heart, as did Scott, but she also grew to love our extended families. It didn’t matter that they were clear across the country in the mountains of West Virginia and North Carolina. She grew to know and love each one as if she had been a part of their lives forever.

Atha loved human beings and the stories that each person carried. She loved telling stories….she loved hearing my stories…..and she loved all the stories of the hundreds of people that she took the time to know and care for over the years.

A favorite quote from Atha tells so much about her: “Successful leadership begins with how you treat others. I challenge you to find time to be kind today.”

Atha definitely followed her own advice. No matter how busy she was as she worked to start her ADHD coaching business; taught college courses in multiple places; conducted seminars for teachers; and so many other activities……she still had time for those phone calls and visits. Time to keep in touch with me, to love me, and to be there for me no matter what. To teach me one of her most unforgettable lessons – to be established in my purpose.  https://hesaidwhatks.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/my-purpose-2/

Atha and I started going to different churches three years ago. We truly missed each other on Sundays. But I would often get a text from Atha on Sunday. “Are you worshipping?” she would ask. Or after church, she would ask what songs we sang. She and I would compare songs, and talk about what they had meant to us. Sometimes she would even text during her worship service to say, “We are singing Great is Thy Faithfulness!” That was our favorite song, one which encouraged each of us so much. We would talk about the sermons we had heard, and Atha would ask what I had learned. Ever the teacher. Ever concerned.

Atha began having some significant health issues last fall. On Dec. 26, I got a text from her son, Kyle, telling me that they were taking Atha to the ER. The day was very grey, cold, and icy…..just like my heart felt as I worried about her all that day. It was discovered that in addition to some other issues that had plagued Atha’s body, she had also recently suffered a stroke. I was shocked when I first saw her in the hospital. How sick and tired and old she looked!

On one of my visits to the hospital to see her, two CNAs came in the room to clean her. I sat behind the curtain as they worked. Soon, in typical Atha fashion, she looked at the young man and said, “Young man, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” He stammered around for an answer, not expecting such a question from this little sick woman. I just smiled. He didn’t know my Atha. She then proceeded to instruct him on setting goals and achieving them. I bet he never forgets her.

Weeks went by, with Atha sometimes rebounding and giving hope that she would recover, only to be followed by a downward turn. She would fluctuate between rehab centers and the hospital. On some of my visits with her, she would talk in her special way….slowly and with difficulty, but still like her old self.

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“What do you know today, Patty?” she would ask. She didn’t want to talk about herself, but I felt guilty talking about me and my family and my issues, so small compared to hers. But that was Atha, always concerned for me above all of her own cares.

One day in the rehab center, she was very vacant. I was worried. I couldn’t get her to engage in conversation and she seemed far away. A therapist came over to her and asked Atha to tell her who I was. Atha looked up, brightened, and said, “This is my friend, Patty Moore.” Just like she always used to do.

On Monday, March 21, I sat by Atha’s bed at the hospital. She wasn’t doing well at all, but we still hoped for a full recovery. She kept her eyes closed, but she often did that. She didn’t talk. I opened my little Bible and held it up close as I read her some Psalms. Every little bit Atha would quietly say, “Amen.” That was all. Then she asked me to pray for Jesus to heal her, so I did. And before I left, I told her I loved her, my friend. And she said she loved me, too.

On Thursday, Sarah got the call about end of life issues and hospice. No one could believe it was happening. I spent part of that evening with them at the hospital. Before I left, I leaned down to my mostly unresponsive Atha. I said some things to her, and then I told her that she would always be my dear friend. Very softly, she spoke to me. One word.

“Friend,” she said.

Atha was moved to hospice late that night. I saw her on Friday and on Saturday, where a little twitch of her mouth was the only response she gave me. On Easter morning, a gloriously beautiful morning with a soft snow and bright sunlight, Atha went to heaven. How significant that her home going was on Easter! Atha always knew how to do things right.

This morning, a couple walked into a local church here in Wichita and slipped into a pew near the back. They were dreading this day. He put his arm around her as she fought the tears that were forming. Gary and I were here for Atha and for Scott, like they had always been present for us. But I just never dreamed it would be in this way. Never in a million years.

Many people were in that church this morning to honor Atha. As part of the service, people were given time to tell their stories of Atha…..of how they knew her…..of what she meant to them…..of how she had impacted their lives. She would have loved the stories, even though they were about her. She did love hearing and telling stories, after all. It was wonderful to hear just a small sample of how she had blessed and helped so many.

I’ll always treasure the many Atha stories I have tucked away in my memory and in my heart. Too many to tell here, that’s for sure. But suffice it to say that the best thing that Atha could ever have said to me is the last thing she ever said to me.

Friend.

And with that, I am beyond blessed.

This is my friend, Atha McNay.

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