Mar 28, 2010

The Power of One Word

Lilly Green was my second grade Sunday School teacher at the Selma United Methodist Church.  She taught dozens of children over the course of her career.

She taught students Old Testament stories of Noah's Ark, David and Goliath, and Jonah and the Whale.  She guided us through Jesus' encounters with the blind man, the woman at the well, and his disciples.

Lilly was a woman of many wise words, gentle touches, and Sunday morning snacks.  She loved her God, her church, and her students.  In return, she was loved by all.

So all were saddened when, in a sudden flash of pain, Lilly's life was dramatically changed by a devastating stroke.  The insult to her brain made it impossible for her to walk without assistance.  It drew her left hand into a lifeless jumble.  It also reduced her vocabulary to one, single word:  WELL.

With each visit to the Parker City Nursing Home, we would find Lilly sitting in her wheel chair, Bible in her lap.  She would greet us with a pleasant, lilting, "Wellllll..."  Her face would light up with enthusiasm and she would pat and rub her visitor's hands.  She would nod her head in excitement, smiling broadly.  In that moment, you knew, without a doubt, that she remembered you from Sunday morning's past and you were the most important child in the entire world.  One word declared her commitment and love, despite her location and limitation.

If you would ask what she was reading, she would respond with a thoughtful, repeating phrase and a nodding head, "Well...well - well - well..."  She would run her hands over the worn pages of the age-old Bible.  Her finger would rest on the passage and she would turn the book, urging her visitor to read it.  As you would read the passage out loud, her eyes would close and her face would relax.  As you would end the reading, she would slowly open her eyes and ask, "Well?" and wait for you to explain the meaning of the verse.  From the confines of that wheelchair, her lesson from years before would continue. Her brain may have failed but her God remained faithful.

If you asked about the food at the nursing home, she would form a quick scowl on her brow and issue an abrupt, "WELL!"  Her head would shake firmly to enhance the strong feelings.  This was always difficult for me.  I never fully understood if she was angry about a particular dish, disgusted by the bland offering, or reminded of her circumstance by the repeated presentation of beans, mashed potatoes, and jello.  But remaining true to her nature, she would allow a smile to cross her lips and she would flash an ornery wink.  With a distance in her voice, this one word would soften and she would quietly whisper, "well". 

As we prepared to leave the nursing home, Lilly would pull us close with her one good arm.  She would pat our heads and backs. With the most gentle touch imaginable, she would tell us she loved us.  "Well....well.....well...."  One "Well" for each stroke of her hand.  This one word extending affection and care.  When we drew back, there was always a tear in her eye.  She would nod her head, adjust herself in her seat to make herself as tall as possible, and place her hand back on her Bible.  My last memory of Lilly as we left her room was a hesitant wave and one, single word beckoning us to return another day, "Well - ".

Decades after her last Sunday School lesson at the church, Lilly Green continued to teach anyone who would listen.  The years she spent expressing herself with a single-syllable word taught me a valuable truth:  More words do not equate more wisdom.

You've heard the politicians speak for endless hours and say nothing.
You've suffered preachers who lost their salvation and the interest of their congregation.

You've listened to teachers who believe they know something about everything.
You've endured coworkers who ramble for hours.
You've found yourself cornered by your crazy cousin who has an opinion about politics and poverty.

All their words add nothing to humanity's collective knowledge.  Lilly taught a timeless truth.  The rest can have banality and platitudes.  I choose one well-placed word to make all the difference.