Elizabeth Crispina Johnson is a children's writer and a shepherd. She lives with her family in an earth-sheltered house on 15 acres in the Finger Lakes area of New York. Her farm is home to a flock of Katahdin sheep, 2 pygora goats, farm kitties and a fluctuating number of chickens, to say nothing of cats and dogs. Elizabeth is the author of And Then Nicholas Sang and What Do You Hear, Angel? from Conciliar Press.
I was tired. Tired in body. Tired in soul. I had sat by my mother’s bed for two weeks walking her from this life to the next. The extended family had taken shifts keeping vigil around the clock; my shift was during the dark, still hours of the night.
Although most of my mother’s care was tended to by the hospice staff, during those long hours I found myself occasionally joining them: I swabbed her dry mouth with a special cream to keep the skin and lips from cracking; I wiped her hot face with a cool cloth; and I held her darkly veined, wrinkled hand in mine—although it had been days since she had even squeezed it in response to anything I said to her. And it had been even more days since she had spoken. When she had spoken those last words, it had been about her upcoming death. I had given her the news that she would not be recovering from her injury and that the end of her life would be soon; her only response was a question laboriously and hoarsely spoken, “So this is how it happens?” The pain then took over once again and I am not sure that she was able to even hear my reply.
During those days as my mother lay in the hospital learning about the process of dying, I prayed that I would learn something more about the process of living. Hours upon hours of silence in the dimly lit room, an icon by the bed and a prayer rope in my hand … surely something of inspiration and revelation would be given to me in those solitary, still hours of the night. I waited. I listened. I thought. I prayed. Night after night. Perhaps it was because I was too tired. Perhaps it was because I was trying too hard. But for whatever reason, when the end came, although I had precious memories of that time spent in watch-care over my mom, I was not sure what else I had to take away; I could not find even a nugget of enlightenment to call mine. And I felt oh, so tired … in body and in soul.
The morning my mother died there was a great deal of sadness, of course. The family gathered at the hospital and the usual quiet voices and hugging and condolences were shared. I had not cried much during those two weeks at the hospital, nor did I cry immediately at the time of her passing. There were matters to tend to, and I was ready to put my mind to them. It then occurred to me that one of the first things I should do was to notify my church family of her repose. Although they had never met my mother, I knew that they had been praying for her and since it was early on a Sunday morning that she died, if I hurried I could get word to them and they could include her in the Liturgical prayers. Although it was too late to call my priest, I decided to call my dearest friend—she would make certain that the news was given. I dialed her number, the phone rang and I heard her voice answer. “Hello?”
“Yerusalem?” I asked, though I knew it was her.
“Hello, Elizabeth,” she said. “You have news?”
“Yes, I have news.” I managed to give her a brief summary of the previous night and the final moments of my mother’s repose. And then it happened. The sobs came. So many tears, I could hardly speak. And then over the phone I heard Yerusalem start to cry, too. Together we shared tears: me for my mother, Yerusalem for me. After a few minutes our crying subsided, and Yerusalem spoke. “Elizabeth, now it is time for you to go back to your family and be strong. You go now and you be brave. And when you come home I will make you coffee.”
I fell silent as her words filtered first into my mind and then into my heart. An admonition and a directive—both followed by reassurance and a promise. “And when you come home I will make you coffee.” Not “We’ll have coffee,” Or “We’ll grab coffee.” Or “We’ll go out for coffee.” No. She had said, “I will make you coffee.” And at that very moment, I knew that I would be alright because Yerusalem was going to make me coffee. It was not that her coffee has magical or miraculous powers. Her coffee, as wonderful as it is, holds no healing power. But her heart of love for me does. Her sacrifice, offering of herself to share my sorrow, to join me in mourning, all in the name of Christ, that is where the healing lay. Her expression of commitment to take care of me, to minister to me, to be a fount of renewal to me, again in the name of Christ, that is where the healing lay. Yerusalem had said, “And when you come home, I will make you coffee.” But what she was really saying and what I heard was, “And when you come home, I will take care of you.”
There it was—the “something of inspiration and revelation,” the “something more about how to live” that I had prayed so earnestly for. That was it. “I will make you coffee.”
A week later when I returned home, Yerusalem did make me coffee. In fact, she took time off from work so that we could have the whole afternoon of quiet together before her children came home from school. Making and sharing coffee in the Eritrean tradition is a lengthy event easily lasting two hours—it cannot, must not, be rushed. Any sense of hurriedness or even time-awareness renders the experience void, defeats the purpose. There is ritual to be respected and ceremony to be followed. As friends sit together on the floor or on short stools surrounding the low table used for preparing the coffee, there is a lot of waiting. There is waiting while incense is lit, waiting while the raw coffee beans roast. Waiting while the water is heated and the coffee steeps. And as in all good traditions, the cycle of steeping, pouring and drinking the coffee is repeated three times with, of course, much waiting in between. But the healing is in the waiting. That is where it begins.
Sometimes the waiting is filled with talking. Sometimes it is filled only with the sounds of the coffee beans being stirred, or the quiet clink of the coffee cups being arranged on a tray. One may talk if one wishes to, but silence is equally valued and no one is uncomfortable in it. And as the afternoon progresses the room becomes filled with layers of scents: the popcorn that is always served with the coffee, the perfumes of the incense, the pungent bite of the ginger or cinnamon that is sometimes added to the coffee, and, of course, the toasty aromas of the beans as they roast. And in the midst of it all comes a binding together of hearts (and without intending to travel too far into Hallmark-land), a sharing of our burdens and tears, laughter and stories.
What does one take away from all of this? I do not think I need to expound much further. I believe that simply telling of Yerusalem’s actions, as I have done in this piece of writing, speaks louder than any other words of motivation or instruction or exhortation that I could add. We are to heed the mandate given to the Church by St. Paul, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” [Galatians 6:10] Encourage one another. Share one another’s burdens. Build the community of faith by strengthening our relationships with one another. Now, go make coffee for someone—and take your time.
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