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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
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.