The first time I called Janice I did it out of obligation. I was the newly appointed leader of our church women’s group, a role for which I felt supremely ill-suited, being a classic introvert and therefore disinclined to initiate any social interaction. But I also have a strong sense of duty, so, with pounding heart and shaking hands I dialed her number. I paced the short length of my kitchen as her phone rang, hoping she wouldn’t answer. She did. One hour (and about three thousand steps) later I hung up the phone and smiled.
Phone calls soon became visits, obligation friendship. Janice and I did not have much in common. She was elderly and sick; I was young(ish) and healthy; she was from North Carolina; I from California; she was refined; I, hopelessly dowdy. But her stories of adventure, travel, romance, heartbreak and faith delighted me to no end.
Unfortunately, by the time I connected with Janice her health had begun to fail. Hours spent immobile on her bedroom floor, unable to summon help, finally sent her to the hospital from which she never returned, other than a brief interlude at a rehabilitation facility. Myasthenia gravis: “a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, which are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs.” I’d never heard of it before and it took me a while to master the term. At first it was just a sudden inability to stand, mostly controlled by periodic “infusions.” But the disease progressively stole more and more of her ability to move . Not long before the disease took over, she had lost her husband after his protracted battle with Alzheimer’s. She’d expected his passing, though heart-breaking, to free her to go out more, enjoy life, even travel. “I’m only eighty-three!” she once lamented. “I didn’t expect this!” I still smile at her optimism.
One time I brought my sixteen-year-old daughter, in need of some perspective as sixteen-year-olds are wont to be, to visit and asked Janice to retell some of her stories. Shortly thereafter my daughter moved out, but she remembered Janice. I received a text from her: “Tell Janice that she’s making a difference. I was talking to a friend today and I shared with him the things Janice told me. Later, he texted me to tell me he’d been struggling with some personal, unexpressed concerns. The things I shared from Janice were just what he needed to hear.” I told Janice. Janice, who could scarcely feed herself, who couldn’t walk to her bathroom alone. She was making a difference!
As Janice’s health continued to deteriorate, she lost her ability to speak at times. She would write in shaky nearly illegible script on her little white board, “Talk to me.” So, I’d ramble on about the news of the day, my kids, my husband’s job search, my piano students, church lessons. When she was too tired to listen I would just quietly hold her hand. When neither speaking nor writing were possible, a small twitch of her finger said, “Hold my hand.”
It wasn’t until after Janice had passed away that the significance of one of her stories hit me. Some missionaries visited her family when she was just a child in rural North Carolina. After listening to their message she wanted to be baptized so they offered to baptize her in a pond near her home. She was afraid of that pond; being a southern girl she knew its dark waters might harbor snakes of which she was terrified. “Don’t you be afraid!” one of the missionaries told her. “Just hold my hand. I promise you’ll be just fine.” With the faith of a child she grasped his hand and confidently stepped into the water.
“I will hold you by the hand. Don’t be afraid. I am here to help.” You are not alone. Whatever you face, we face it together. A message we all need, so that we may say, “though I walk through the darkest valley, even the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
 Website: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Myasthenia Gravis Fact Sheet
 Paraphrase Isaiah 41:13
 Paraphrase Psalm 23:4