Farewell to a hero

Nine days before Christmas, the Preacher and I sat in a hushed sanctuary paying respects to one of our heroes.

We had met Isabel Barnsley nine years earlier, shortly after both she and the Preacher contracted West Nile Neurological Disease. She was 79, and not expected to live at first. Until the bite, she was still riding horseback, teaching grandchildren about life and paying what she believed is one’s rent for the privilege of time spent on earth: community service.

West Nile had paralyzed Isabel from her neck down. But she’d already amazed the medical staff and would go on to astound us all. Though for many months she needed assistance even to breathe, we learned not to discount her determined, optimistic spirit (and equally determined family).

Not only did Isabel learn to breathe on her own, she eventually regained the ability to walk and speak. Her last nine years, four in rehab, the remainder in a care home nearer her beloved village of Abernethy, convinced us all never to doubt the combined power of faith, hope and therapy.

She called her power-chair Rufus, a fond nod to a favourite childhood horse. Rufus became the steed that afforded her a much-coveted degree of independence. Across its arms spread a table equipped with a keyboard and a stick. She communicated in those early days by pointing to each letter and spelling words. She did that so fast I couldn’t always keep up.

“How are you?” “How is your husband?” “What have you been writing lately?” “Tell me about your family.” Once, barely able to contain her excitement, she tapped furiously, “My friend is coming over from Scotland to see me!” Always, she wanted to speak of others. Never herself.

We saw Isabel only a handful of times after the Preacher returned home to resume his also much-altered life. But we kept loosely in touch through friends and the occasional email from Isabel herself, usually at Christmas. At her funeral, allowing the holy words of scripture to flow over and into us, hearing her grandchildren’s words of fond memory, it seemed especially appropriate that her death had come near Christmas. Isabel’s life was a gift to those who knew her. In her service to others, the light of Jesus Christ shone through her, as lovely as the sun glowing through the exquisite stained glass panels of the church.

Isabel planned her own funeral just weeks before she died. She instructed it not to be long, and that the hymns to be sung without dragging – or else. One I especially remember – also a favourite of mine. It asked this vital question: “Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?” The refrain between verses testified to Isabel’s faith:

“We have an anchor that keeps the soul steadfast and sure while the billows roll, fastened to the rock which cannot move, grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.”

Strength for today, hope for tomorrow. That’s what faith in Jesus brings to every storm. Facing the unknowns of a new year, I’m grateful for Isabel’s reminder.