Tomorrow night as we all gather at Canton First Methodist Church it will be bitter sweet. For many of us, it’s the first time we have been at the church since we said good-bye to our beloved Gwendolyn. It’s hard to not think of Gwen when Canton First Methodist is mentioned. This is the church that opened its doors to allow us to have a celebration of her life during this very month just three short years ago. Gwen was so special that I thought tonight would be a good time to celebrate her.
Three years ago many of us were on the verge of worry and relief as we prepared for the last days of Gwendolyn’s life. Gwen came to live with us as a teen and had been separated from her sister in another group home due to her verbal aggression toward others. I recall the day I met Gwen in my office. Her short unkempt hair framed her round face and bright eyes. Her caseworker stood close by to make the introduction poised as if she might have to tackle her. I rose from my chair and cheerily asked “What’s your name?” Gwen looked me up and down and turned to her case manager. ” Who the hell is that?!” The conversation continued for a few minutes and my takeaway was “this won’t be easy.”
Several years later Gwen and I had become a family. Her outspoken demeanor was nothing short of spectacular. If Gwen had a question, she would ask. Her unfiltered vocabulary could trouble shoot any issue in the home and arrive with a verdict in minutes. Her wit and love of animals are two of my favorite memories of Gwen.
On a routine trip to the doctor, Gwen’s labs came back elevated. Several weeks later a diagnosis of leukemia revealed that the end was near. We enrolled Gwen in a clinical trial and staff members moved to the hospital to sit with Gwen for weeks. Her Angel House siblings took care packages, movies, and all sorts of contraband to go and pile in her bed at the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta where her care will never be forgotten. Those she once thought of as employees, became known to her as family. Although she couldn’t leave the hospital grounds, staff would take her in the garden in a wheel chair and let her feel the sun on her face and the grass under her feet.
Despite the interventions, Gwen knew she was dying. We talked at length several times about death. Gwen was not afraid to die and was candid in saying so. She had a deep faith and a desire to feel better. We talked about her reuniting with her grandmother who had cared for her as a baby. Gwen wondered if her grandmother would be waiting when she passed, or if she would have to look for her. I couldn’t help but cry having such a hard conversation with Gwen. I could not help but wonder why her? Why take a child who had grown up in the foster care system and never had the opportunity to become a nurse as she had planned. Why take someone who was so full of goodness and had not ever brought harm to another in her life. I tried hard to hold back the tears, but I just couldn’t. Hearing the strain in my voice she asked “Miss Susan, are you crying? I don’t know why you’re crying. You gonna die too someday ya know!” And just like that, I knew she would be okay.
When the doctor said Gwen would pass away within the month, one of our staff took Gwen into her home and stayed with her to give her a family during her final days. She had been in the foster care system her entire life and could not recall a time when she had a normal family life. Those final weeks Gwen had a family. She had a mom, a dad, and two sisters who never left her side.
A week before Gwen died, she asked to ride to Tennessee with her Angel House family to a local charity who specialized in grief counseling. A school bus had crashed and a young girl lost her life. The story I was told about that day never left me. As Gwen sat wrapped in a blanket in her wheelchair she saw a man weeping. Her usual candid request insisted she be taken to him. Despite adults telling Gwen the grieving man was unknown to her, she felt compelled to meet him. Reluctant to comply, her now foster mom rolled her chair to the man and allowed Gwen to talk with him. As she reached out to touch the man Gwen said “don’t cry. I’m going to die soon and I will find your daughter. I’ll tell her you’re okay.” Unsure of how to respond, the man questioned Gwen more about her intentions. Gwen’s response to the man was this. “I have leukemia and I am going to die. I’m am okay and you are going to be okay as well. Don’t worry. I’ll find your daughter when I get there.”
On the morning of Thanksgiving, Gwen died. She passed peacefully in a home, in a bed, surrounded by people she loved. You may recall that yesterday I mentioned we all meet another person for a very specific reason. Any person who met Gwen became a better person. Her outlook on life, her love for others, and the kindness in her was like no other. The girl that came to us when her placement disrupted and staff feared she would become aggressive ended three years later when she died in a staff members home.
Tomorrow, as we all return to the Canton Methodist Church to raise funds for the North Georgia Angel House, it will be our first time back since Gwen went home to be with her grandma. Our occasion will be celebratory as Miss Georgia performs to raise awareness to the foster care system. As we take our seats tomorrow night, Gwen will be with us. I ask those of you who knew Gwen to not go with a heavy heart. Go with the joyful spirit she will always be remembered for. RIP Gwendolyn Stevenson. We love you and I pray you will be one of the “Five People I meet in Heaven.”
Visit us at www.angelhousega.com to learn how to get involved in the foster care system. I promise, you won’t regret it.