In Memory of Helen Keirstead

Reflections on the anniversary of the loss of a friend

Planting a tree for Helen corners 3

           Planting a tree in Helen’s memory                            

This post is longer than my previous posts. You might want to find a comfortable seat and grab a cup of coffee. It is also more personal. I want to talk about a friend who passed away five years ago next week. Her name was Helen Keirstead. Her faith and friendship made a profound impact on my life.

LONG TIME FRIENDS

Helen and I met in 1978 at the Atlantic Baptist College, now Crandall University, in Moncton, NB. I also met Gary the same year. They married the following year.

I became a friend of the whole family. When her son, David, was very young, I used to stay overnight once in awhile and would sleep on the pull out sofa in the living room. David was instructed not to wake me up in the mornings so when he got up, which was earlier than anyone else, he would come out to the living room and just sit on my bed until I opened my eyes. He wanted me to watch cartoons with him. The greatest compliment David ever gave me was when he got his driver’s license he asked if he could have my license plate. At that time, I was preparing to move to South Korea and was trying to sell my car. (A local junkyard bought it for $70. You would have had to know my car to understand why!)

When her daughter Michelle was born and it was time for mother and baby to leave the hospital, their car was not working so I brought the two of them home (not in the same car mentioned above!) When Michelle was just a preschooler, whenever her mother was upset or discouraged, she would advise her, “Call Shirley DeMerchant!”

Gary was always ready to have a good chat about theology and churches. He also liked football but Helen didn’t. On Super Bowl Sunday, she would invite me over to their house to watch football with Gary. Her job was to provide the snacks. She was so pleased to have a friend who would watch the game with her husband that I didn’t have the heart to her that I didn’t like football!

When I went off to South Korea for 10+ years, I needed a place to store my personal belongings. Helen and Gary were gracious enough to find room in their basement for me to store my bedding, dishes and other household items. When I returned from Korea and had to set up house once again, I discovered I had less stuff. When I asked Helen where my flatware was she confessed that she had put it in her yard sale. When I showed surprise she explained that they needed the money! Oh, what we do for friends!

Helen always had a Bible verse to share or an answer to prayer or a funny story to tell, usually about herself. She was faithful in praying for me through all my moves and changes in employment. Then came the day when she asked me face-to-face a question that brought great comfort to her but fear and uncertainty to me.

“WILL YOU BE THERE FOR ME?”

One of my favorite walking places is Shubie Park in Dartmouth, NS. I don’t remember much about the day Helen invited me there for a walk, except for our conversation when we sat down at a picnic table by the duck pond. She broke the news to me that she had breast cancer. I knew that her mother had died young of breast cancer but I had seen no signs that Helen was ill. The news came as a shock to me. Then she asked me a question that no one has ever asked me. She asked if I would be there for her, to walk with her through the days ahead, to accompany her to her doctor’s appointments and to be present when she broke the news to her family. She also knew that she would not survive. She said that God had revealed to her in a dream that she would die from this cancer. She never told me the details of that dream and I felt it was too personal to ask. I could not say “no” to her request although inwardly I was shouting “no” to her news.

I was present when she broke the devastating news to her family. I was there when the doctor confirmed that she had stage 4 breast cancer. I was there when she died in the palliative care wing of the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax.

Helen faced each day with courage and humor. The cancer spread to her bones and it became difficult for her to walk. We used to joke with each other about her John Wayne swagger. She never complained. When the oncologist asked her if she had pain, and she said yes, then he knew that it was significant pain. He was often surprised by her. One day she slid a white envelope across his desk. He asked, “What’s this? Test results?” “No”, she replied, “It’s a Christmas card.”

BLESSINGS AND BEING A BLESSING

Although Helen’s imminent death brought much sadness there were some blessings in her knowing that she would not beat the cancer. I have known many fine Christian men and women who endured a wild roller coaster ride high with hope and faith in God’s healing only to be swooped low holding desperately on for dear life when healing didn’t come and death was inevitable. Helen knew exactly what the outcome would be.

Also, because her cancer was diagnosed so far along, there would be no chemo and therefore none of the terrible side effects like nausea and loss of hair. This enabled Helen to live a normal schedule up to the last days of her life because she was not stuck in a hospital waiting for treatment or recovering from it.

Even when Helen was hospitalized she still found ways to bless others. She asked me to buy her some note paper and she wrote notes of thanks to various people, like the woman who cleaned her hospital room each day. She even found time to arrange for a friend of hers to be granted his wish to drive a convertible that he had his eye on,  once she was gone.

When Helen was hospitalized, she knew she would never be able to return to her home, so she prepared for her home going service. She chose the songs she wanted sung, the scriptures she wanted read and she asked me to do the eulogy because I would “make sure it wasn’t sad”. I didn’t know how to respond to her request. I didn’t think I could do it so I told her I would think about it and get back to her.

I decided that I couldn’t do it. It would just be too difficult but by then her body was shutting down and she was neither awake nor able to communicate. I missed the chance to say no to her final request.

When Helen was taking her final breaths, many of us could not hold back the tears as we faced losing a wonderful friend. Her daughter, Michelle, a high school student at the time, played a CD for her mother and sang along with the words to “I Can Only Imagine” . Helen passed just moments later.

HER FUNERAL SERVICE

“I Can Only Imagine” was sung at her service and I gave the eulogy.

I began the message with these words, “This message comes to you from the letter ‘L'”. I shared 4 words that started with “L” that I associated with Helen.

  1. Lord – Helen was foremost, a follower of Jesus. Her greatest desire was to do His will. She was always happy to share with people what the Lord had done and was currently doing in her life. On May 7, 2009, Helen gave a devotional and shared her testimony at the Community Bible Study in Dartmouth. The 12-minute recording can be heard at (http://cbsdartmouth.blogspot.ca/2009/05/devotional-for-may-7th-by-helen.html).
  2. Little ones – Helen loved children. She knew how to teach and disciple children unlike anyone else I have known. They loved her creativity and her sense of fun. She was always happy to see them and always made time for them. There are many adults today who are mature Christians faithfully and effectively living out their faith because her life touched theirs through ministries like the backyard Bible clubs she held in her own backyard, Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, Junior Church or just through the contact she had with them in the neighborhood.
  3. Laughter – Helen loved to laugh and she made others laugh. She often confused words and almost always messed up the punch line of any joke she tried to tell. She could laugh at herself and often we did too!
  4. Love – Helen not only loved people but she let them know. She didn’t have a lot of money but would find inexpensive ways to let people know that she valued their friendship. Didn’t Jesus say that His disciples would be known for their love? Helen was.

A TREE PLANTED BY STREAMS OF WATER

A good friend of mine who has a cottage in Martin’s Point, NS, knew how much Helen meant to me and suggested planting a tree there in Helen’s memory. A tree is such a good symbol for Helen. Psalm 1 describes a person who delights in the Lord as “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season”. (v.3)

Helen’s life is still bearing fruit today in the many lives she touched, including mine.

HELEN STORIES

I know that many of you reading this blog knew Helen. I would be delighted if you would take a moment to share some of your favorite memories of this remarkable woman.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “In Memory of Helen Keirstead

  1. I, too, was a friend of Helens. I did not know about the dream she had. I have been involved in the Ladies In Fellowship retreat(LIFT) for many years and Helen was a faithful attendee at our fall retreat. On Sunday morning at retreat in Sept 2010 at Bayside Camp, Helen spoke to the women about the faithfulness of God throughout her life and especially in the last years as she dealt with her illness. It was a powerful testimony. This was Helens last retreat and the memories are so precious to many of us who were there. With the kind permission of her family, we now have the Helen Keirstead Memorial Find where we raise funds to offer financial assistance to women who want to attend retreat and need some financial help to do so. In fact, we had our fundraiser last weekend and it was so successful. We place Helens photo on the table at the sale and are happy to tell ladies about Helen and why we do this in her memory. We feel her smile and hear her laughter from Heaven. I feel so blessed that she was my friend and am honoured to remember her in this way. She was a special woman… inspiring, funny, with a smile that lit up a room. I still miss dear Helen.

    • Thanks, Nancy. I was at that retreat as well and remember it being a very special time when Helen’s faith and courage inspired so many women. I appreciate the impact of having a memorial fund in Helen’s name. It provides opportunities to tell her story over and over again inspiring women and at the same time enabling them to attend LIFT to pursue and invest in their own walk with God.

  2. As you know,my memories of Helen are of the wonderful laugh she had.The time that I was looking for online pictures of water pitchers for a Bible story I was going to use at Jr Church and googled “jugs” and did not get the response I was looking for..Helen laughed and told me she had a bosom that had evoked that word over the years.Others had less patience with me!
    I know how devastating a loss you suffered with her death,but how Heaven rejoices everyday.

    • Thanks, Judy. I had forgotten that “word” search! I appreciated your hospitality in getting Helen, Cheryl Davis and I together to talk about old times. Oh, how we laughed and we made you laugh too!

  3. Thanks for sharing your memories of Helen. She was an exceptional young woman and friend — such a devote Christian. We were all privileged to know her. I, too, was at the LIFT Retreat when she gave her testimony. I think it touched the hearts of all of us. Helen liked to come to our house and talk with Fred, knowing he’d been through the cancer experience. They had some interesting conversations over tea and muffins. One, in particular, came to mind when I read Judy’s comment about the word search. I won’t go into detail about it. It’s enough to say we had a good laugh. I know she really appreciated your friendship, especially in her last days. God Bless you, Shirley, as you follow your “goal”. Sounds like you’ve been busy. You are in our prayers.

    • Thanks, Bev! Great to hear from you! I didn’t know about Helen’s conversations with Fred. It is amazing how she was able to minister to both men and women as well as children. Even though she often got words mixed up to our amusement, the words of her testimony inspired so many of us. She proved the truth of the words in 2 Corinthians 12:10 – “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

  4. I too met Helen during my days as a student at ABC (now Crandall). I didn’t know her that well during that time as we only shared one year together on the same wing but traveled in a different circle of friends. It wasn’t until many years later when we moved to Dartmouth and I attended a Bible Study at Regal Rd. Baptist with a friend that our paths crossed again. I’m pretty good at remembering faces, not so good at remembering names. But on this particular day when Helen entered the room, I blurted out her name. I hadn’t seen her in almost 25 years. Later, she confessed that when she turned to look at me she saw a graying older woman and was a little confused about who I was. And of course couldn’t imagine that we went to ABC together, until she went home, looked in the mirror and realized that she too was getting a little grayer and looking a wee bit older. Of course, she laughed at herself and thought it was a great joke. In the years after, Helen and I got to know each other a little better when I discovered that she was interested in birds and birdwatching. I can’t remember exactly what her family called me, but it had something to do with being her birding friend. Whatever it was, it made both of us laugh. Helen’s greatest wish with regards to birds was to see a Cardinal. And that she did see in her own backyard. She was so excited! One of my regrets was not taking her out in the spring to Bayside to see what we could find out there since the camp meant so much to her. However, with thanks to Judy More we did get to spend time on several occasions at Martin’s Point with Shirley to chat, eat, walk and of course see what was around flying around. Even though I didn’t get to know Helen better till a few years before her death, I’m the richer for it. Her faith was amazing, not only did she ‘talk the talk’, but she ‘walked the walk’. Thank you Helen.