The first things I noticed among the hustling paramedics and the wailing sirens that cold January morning in Utah were Esther’s hands. Her long, strong fingers, which had always been so busy serving others, were now cramped and motionless. My own hands reached out to warm hers, and her closed eyes fluttered open briefly. She looked around as though to identify who was near her.
“It’s okay, Esther,” I said, trying to comfort her as I straightened her nightgown and covered her with a blanket. “The doctors will find out what has happened to you.” I felt Esther relax; then we were both swept into the ambulance and rushed to the nearby hospital.
To say Esther was only a neighbor is like describing the sun as only a source of light. Esther’s hands had reached out to me when I was a teenager and had led me to the treasures in my junior high school library. For more than 40 years, her hands had dispensed knowledge and service throughout the neighborhood. She had hired and patiently taught many young people how to prune and care for her orchards, how to improve the neighborhood, and how to love their neighbors. She had reached out to old and new alike, and her hands had sewn the fabric of our block into a quilt of friendship that spread far beyond its physical boundaries.
All that busy winter, I had yearned to help someone. But I knew it was a futile desire. I was working full time in a very stressful job, and I was the harried mother of five very involved and very busy children, ages 5 to 25, including two who were getting married within weeks of each other. My family, work, Church and community responsibilities had strained my capacity to do more than survive each day. But something in the depths of my being kept calling out, wanting to help someone in some way.
Many mornings, as I checked off my accomplishments of the previous day and plotted my strategy for meeting the struggles of the dawning one, I had recalled the Lord’s admonition to “not run faster or labor more than you have strength,” (see D&C 10:4), and I had thought, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll find time to take dinner to someone or to take flowers to a sick friend.”
Service, to me, was a physical object one presented as a gift: it was homemade candy or doughnuts at Christmas, freshly baked bread for a new neighbor, or outgrown clothes for needy families. Now, as I sat at Esther’s bedside on a cold wintry day, Esther taught me that service was something else.
“Esther, squeeze my hand,” the doctor coaxed. “Come on, Esther, you can squeeze my hand.”
“I’m trying,” Esther answered, but her words collapsed into themselves, and her voice trailed off. The doctor shook his head, slipping his hand from Esther’s unmoving one.
“Esther, they are going to move you to another room now,” I explained as they wheeled her bed out of the emergency room. “It’s going to be all right.” Her frightened eyes searched mine for reassurance and then closed in peace.
Surprisingly, despite my fear for Esther, I felt an unusual sense of peace. For once in my harried, over-full life, I knew that I was where I was supposed to be. I wasn’t worried about my list of Saturday chores. I wasn’t concerned about my family. They knew I was with Esther, and their prayers were with me in that cramped, bare cubicle.
Morning edged into afternoon. I called Esther’s family in another state and told them of the situation. I served as a link between the hospital, Esther, and her family members, who were trying to cope with this emergency. And I talked to Esther.
As I sat by Esther, I watched storm clouds gather and snow begin to fall. My thoughts went back 35 years to when my grandmother had had her final stroke. Others had been frightened of the silent stranger who inhabited my grandmother’s frail body, but my mother had told us to hold her hand, to stroke it, and to talk to her.
“I think she can hear you, even if she can’t communicate,” my mother had said. “She needs to hear and feel your love. Talk to her, touch her, and let her know you love her.”
I hadn’t thought of my mother’s words for many years, but they came back as I talked to Esther, stroked her immobile hands, and filled the tiny room with my whispered prayers.
Too soon the room was crowded with Esther’s family, and I eased out of their way as they gathered around her. When they reached out to caress her still hands, stroke her hair, and talk to her, the urgent need that had held me captive all morning disappeared.
“She’s slipped into a deep coma,” the nurse explained to Esther’s loved ones. “Earlier she was trying to communicate, but now she’s unconscious and unaware.”
I stood at the doorway and took one last look at Esther’s inert hands. They were more relaxed now, but they remained open and reaching out to others. I dashed tears of appreciation from my eyes and thanked Esther for her last gift to me.