We knew this day was coming. In fact, three years ago, the doctors said she could go most any day—three years ago. And nothing speaks more to Anna’s stubborn determination and will to live than that. She was put into hospice care. She got better. She got out of hospice care. And then close to a year ago or so, she got worse and went into hospice care again. But she hung on. Good days, bad days, and she hung on. She got to where her pain was great and she couldn’t eat, but she hung on. Of course, she didn’t do this by herself. Her loving family and caregivers, a devoted medical team, and numerous friends all played a part in Anna’s ability to keep on fighting, keep on living. And while her quality of life may not have looked like much to you and me who have known better, it was much to Anna.
And then Tuesday came. Death showed up at Anna’s door and started knocking. It wasn’t the first time he showed up, but this time he stayed until he got what he came for. That rubber ball named Anna who had bounced back time and time again, well, there wasn’t any bounce left anymore. It was time. The best thing to do was to make her as comfortable as possible and let her go in peace. After years of successfully pushing against the door when Death tried to barge in for Anna, everyone finally quit pushing, including Anna. And early Thursday morning Anna died—in a setting she know so well, right next to her mom and her dad and her dog Eli. On the surface it looked like Death finally won. But Death didn’t win. Jesus scooped up Anna in His strong arms and took her home to heaven.
Anna was born 23 years ago with a degenerative brain disorder of some sort—problems from birth, early surgeries, one issue after another her whole life through. The kid took a pharmacy full of medicine over the course of her life. She was poked and pricked and prodded time and time again. She had tubes for this and tubes for that. I’m not sure, especially near the end, that even one system of her body functioned as it was supposed to. And yet she lived to the fullest through it all. She was special needs. Check that—she was just special. The girl had a zeal for life matched by few persons I have known.
You’re probably thinking, “How could she live a full life in her condition?” Some of us think a hangnail is a major crisis, a bad hair day the end of the world. So how could she enjoy life with all her problems? Well, the answer to those questions was on her face. The girl was always smiling. She reminds me of Buddy in the movie Elf who said, “I like smiling; smiling’s my favorite.” Anna liked to smile; she enjoyed making others smile too.
And why shouldn’t she? The girl was loved deeply and well. I can’t imagine her being in any other family than the one she was in. In Psalm 139 David prays: “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. You know me full well. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That goes just as much for Anna as it does for you or me or anyone else born with all systems on go. Anna was fearfully and wonderfully made by God, and He could have chosen no more perfect womb in which to knit her together than in her mother Amy’s. No mother and father and brother could have loved her more or loved her better. They accepted her as she was and loved her as she was. They didn’t hide her in her room. They didn’t act like turtles and draw into their shells. They included her in whatever they did. They exposed her to their large swath of friends who in turn became good friends of Anna too. They understood Anna. They didn’t expect her to be something she wasn’t. And they watched over her with the tenacity of a mama, papa, and big brother bear. They could laugh with her and even at her when she did or said goofy stuff. They cut her slack when she got mad and pouty but they still expected her to behave. They made sure she lived her life. They let her run her race.
In spite of the fact that the majority of parents with a special needs child wind up in divorce court, James and Amy did not. They figured it out. They made it work. They and their son Adam realized that it wasn’t about them; it was about Anna and how to best care for the one who couldn’t care for herself. And did they ever care for her: church, school, Special Olympics, prom, high school graduation, loads of friends. They gave Anna everything she needed and more. Every kid should be so blessed. She smiled because of her family.
She smiled because of Jesus. There was a time when moms and dads were trying to get their children up to Jesus. Jesus was doing some teaching at the time, so the disciples tried to shoo those parents and kids away. “The Master’s much too bush with grown up concerns to bother with your snotty-nosed, sticky-handed rug rats. Make an appointment!” Jesus heard the commotion, stopped what He was doing, and said, “I want those children to come to me and don’t you dare stand in their way, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. And if you grownups don’t receive the kingdom like a child, you’ll never make it in.” Then Jesus took those children in his arms and blessed them. Jesus loves children.
In light of that, I don’t know why some die so young, or why some are abused and hungry, or why some like Anna are born with maladies that keep them from living what you and I consider a normal life, and why some suffer as they do. Anna sure dealt with some suffering. I don’t understand these things, and it troubles me. But I do know this: I think it’s safe to say that everyone in this room who knew and loved Anna would admit that if we hadn’t had Anna just as Anna was, our lives would be diminished. Anna just as she was added so much to all who knew her. It’s easy to think, “Well, if she had been normal things would have been so much better.” But how do you know that? How can we say that for sure? We’re all sorry Anna had to struggle the way she did through her life, and we all feel for James and Amy and Adam and the struggles and the sleeplessness and the weariness they’ve had to bear, but Anna was a miracle, just as she was. She was a gift. And just because she couldn’t do all the things most kids can do, she was no less loved by Jesus.
She loved Jesus too. She liked to come to church when she could. She liked to pray to Jesus or to have someone pray for her. I will always remember Tuesday afternoon. She had been sleeping under the influence of strong medicines, but she woke up long enough for me to pray for her. I prayed the 23rd Psalm and she just locked eyes with me soaking in those life-giving, hope-giving words. She couldn’t parse them, probably couldn’t explain them, but she understood them at the level that matters most. The Lord was her shepherd. He had helped her all life long. And He was going to get her through the valley of the shadow of death and take her to His house where she would live forever. Right after we prayed she smiled.
So I wasn’t surprised when I got the call about her death Thursday morning and went to the house and found Anna, lying in bed, with a smile on her face—just the softest, kind of a Mona Lisa smile, as if she’d caught a glimpse of heaven just before she passed from this life to the next. And we can be confident that that is where she is. Jesus loved her. Jesus died for her sins and rose from the dead. She believed in Jesus. She loved Jesus. And she is with him today. No more needles. No more tubes. No more medicine. No more stomach pumps. No more wheelchairs. No more suffering or sorrow or pain. As much as Anna enjoyed her life on earth in spite of all the hardships, we can only imagine how much she’s going to enjoy life in heaven—seeing Jesus face to face, being reunited with her papa and other family. And I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s even played a little catch with her big buddy Ryan White who died suddenly a year ago in a car wreck. One thing’s for sure though: she’s still smiling.
All of us who knew and loved her will miss her. Her family will miss her most of all. They will grieve as they should grieve, but they will grieve with hope. They also know Jesus, so they live with the hope that since Anna is with Jesus and Jesus is with them, they will never be too very far apart. And then one day, Anna will meet them at heaven’s gate. I can see it now: Anna speaking to them in the clear diction that eluded her own earth: “Welcome home. Let me show you around. And do you mind if we skip?”