Lois Farrer Reeve McKinstry, 1930-2016

It has been over a year since I added anything to the blog. This seems like a good time to break the drought. It was written for her memorial service.

loisforweb

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says:
“[There is] a time to weep
and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn
and a time to dance.”

This might be a time to do all of those things at once.

If I was any good at dancing, I might even do that. Despite (or perhaps because of) the potential injury to the decorum of this occasion, I think Lois would approve. I suppose I could break out into a weak version of the moonwalk, but as Lois’ told me once of Michael Jackson, “I cannot believe people think he’s a good dancer. That’s not dancing. Give me Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.” Then she got a dreamy look on her face and slipped into a brief moment of reverie.

I am Lois’ stepson, although I am convinced we are more closely related than that. In many ways she has been more like a true, second mother for which I am very thankful. I have only known her for 15 years since she and my Dad married. Even then I knew her only through email and a few visits to Georgia each year. Most of you know her far better than I do, but in August of 2010 I received a package from her with (in typical Lois fashion) a carefully planned agenda for this memorial service. Knowing full well the risk she was taking, she asked me to speak “a few words of reflection.”

The reason for her planning was that she had been diagnosed with a very serious cancer and having defeated that profane disease three times before, she fully expected this time to be different. In February of 2011 she declared that she was fed up with treatments that kept her feeling worse than the disease and asked Dr. Lahasky to stop the treatment. He did, with the proviso that she might only have a few weeks or maybe a few months left.

She was right, this time was different, you might say the disease finally got her—five years later. But for those of you who know her well it is better to say that she has now defeated cancer four times. After her final diagnosis no one would have blamed her if she had, as it might have been described in the 18th or 19th century, “taken to her bed.”

But not Lois. Not by a long shot.

I remember the first time I met her. She was delightful, intelligent, as charming as any Southern Belle (if she needed to be), romantic but with an edgy sense of humor. Over a couple of glasses of Zinfandel she and I and Barbara–one of her art teachers from Kennesaw State–and my Dad, talked into the late hours about literature, and poetry and art, a little philosophy and even a dash of theology. My Dad, a consummate engineer, with an engineer’s sensibility, said toward the end of the evening that he had no idea what we had been talking about. But he enjoyed it nonetheless.

I learned that evening that her father, a successful surgeon, had dissuaded her from pursuing a career in art. That was also something she and I had in common. I remember after my first couple of inglorious semesters in college explaining to my dad that I wanted to look into going to art school. That turned into our biggest argument ever.

So I was even more delighted that he was marrying a wonderful woman who was also an artist. I thought of it as poetic justice.

Ephesians 2:10 says,
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Most versions use the word “handiwork;” some use the word “masterpiece.” The Greek word is “poiema.” [poē-āma] That should sound familiar to you. It is the root of the English words “poem” and “poetry.” So you could translate that verse as, “For we are God’s poetry, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Lois is the embodiment of that verse—one of God’s better poems—and that is why she could not simply “take to her bed.” Creatively, the last five years of her life were among her most productive. She continued to do her artwork, focusing on drawing and especially on the beautiful hand-made books and constructions she loved to create, each of which tells a meaningful story. As if those stories were not enough she produced an inspiring book of devotional writings in the Fall of 2010, at the peak of her struggle with the treatment for her cancer. She even published a book of poetry in 2013 and continued to write what might be enough material for another couple of volumes.

Like most artists, despite having won many awards, she was a little frustrated that she did not sell more of her work (but only a little). She looked at much of the art in galleries that does sell today and much of the poetry that does get published and shook her head. I even remember from time to time sending her images of my own work and her response was often, “Very nice, it looks like the kind of stuff that people would want to buy.”

I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or a critique.

If her work was out of step with the contemporary art world it was always in step with God’s true purpose for beauty in the world. One of my favorite contemporary artists, and one that Lois liked in spite of the abstract nature of his work, Mako Fujimura, in his recent book, Silence and Beauty, quotes the Japanese novelist, Yasunari Kawabata:

“When we see the beauty of the snow, when we see the beauty of the full moon, when we see the beauty of the cherries in bloom, when in short we brush against and are awakened by the beauty of the four seasons, it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure.”

That is the point of all her work. Lois wanted people to share the pleasure. The pleasure of knowing a loving Creator, in whose image she and every one of you are created. The pleasure of knowing a Creator who spoke so vividly to her in the beauty of his creation. She could, as the poet William Blake described, “see Eternity in a grain of sand; and Heaven in a wildflower.” And having seen that beauty she wanted others to see it too.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s poetic paraphrase, Psalm 96: 11-13 says:

Let’s hear it from Sky,
With Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.

Let Wilderness turn cartwheels,
Animals, come dance,
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—

An extravaganza before God as he comes,
As he comes to set everything right on earth,
Set everything right, treat everyone fair.

What she was able to see during her life, even if it was, “as through a glass darkly,” she is able to see clearly now. And that is what she wants you to see.

I could stop here. But if you would indulge me a little more time, I’d like to revisit that verse from Ephesians, especially the part that tells about the good works God has created in advance for each of us to do.

Lois did not fully begin her career as an artist until she was in her fifties. As I understand it, she began a little before she retired from nursing. She had been a good daughter and acceded to her father’s wishes that she not go to art school. Perhaps if she had gone to art school her name might be one of those names we read about in Art History books. Perhaps not. And she would be the first to explain to you why that is not so important.

Medicine is not so far from art as some might suppose. The works that doctors and nurses do are rightfully called the “healing arts.” To nurse someone back to health after injury or sickness is a restorative act, an kind of art that brings one of God’s creations back to the beauty He intended. But to do that requires that you are able to see that beauty even when it is hidden in the moment of illness. Just as she could see the beauty in nature even though we live in a fallen world, marred by sin, she was able to see that beauty in her patients. Perhaps without even realizing it she was always doing those good works God had prepared in advance for her to do.

The following is from her devotional writings; a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:10.

“The hospital is a place where death is a common visitor. He pays no attention to visitor hours or “No Admittance” signs. Sometimes people are expecting him and he passes them by. Here is a story illustrating that:

Many times on the Orthopaedic floor, there would be a few empty beds available to patients with other health problems. Admissions would then send a patient to that room until a bed opened up on the proper service.

On one occasion the night nurse gave the morning report saying a particular patient had been admitted to the floor with pulmonary problems. They had worked all night trying to help him breathe, but he was in poor condition. After the morning assignments were made, the nurse who received this man as part of her days work, went to check on his condition. She found his family standing by the bed, helpless to do anything and worried about his condition. His physician had seen him earlier and gave the family little hope. He told them he had surgery all morning and would return to see him after he was finished.

His assigned nurse assessed what she might be able to do to alleviate his distress and found that if she used a suction tube every few minutes it would stimulate his breathing until his doctor could return. She sent word to the charge nurse that she would not be able to leave his bedside and to divide the remainder of her assignment to give to others on duty that day.

She stood by his bed holding his lower jaw forward with both hands which opened his airway and then suctioned his throat at intervals. She could not change her position, nor leave him even for a moment. She clearly saw her responsibility and, in spite of her discomfort doing this, she did not waver. After several hours the surgeon returned and newly appraised the patient’s situation. He placed an endotracheal tube in the man’s throat, called for respiratory therapy and had him moved to another service.

Several weeks later, that same nurse was working and heard her name called, summoning her to the nurses’ station. To her surprise, there was the man she had spent so much time with some weeks ago.

He smiled and said, “Do you remember me? I am the man you helped to save and I wanted to say thank you.”

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.”
Ecclesiastes 9:10

The nurse in the story is not identified. I never asked Lois about it but I doubt she chose to keep the nurse’s name private in order to avoid a HIPAA violation. I think it was out of modesty.

Lois was proud of her work as a nurse. She was proud of her artwork and her poetry and her friends. She was even more proud of her family, her children, her grandchildren, and even those of us who were blessed enough to have been “grafted in” to her family. But this pride was not hubris. It was more like the innocent pride of a little child who has received a special gift from her father, and in her delight, she wants to share it with everyone.

In being a wife and mother, a friend, a nurse, a poet and an artist, she completely understood the significance of the work prepared in advance for her to do. And she did it all with all of her might.

No doubt she still is.

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