These are real people that I’m going to write about, but I’m not going to use their real names.
Elsie and Elizabeth were already quite elderly when we knew them; the story of their earlier life was told to us by others. They were sisters, born in pioneer days on a prairie farm and grew up during hard times.
Elsie was the oldest and was born before her mother was married. Her mother appeared to find her a constant reminder of her shame and treated her harshly. Elizabeth, on the other had, was her mother’s favourite. Both girls grew up and married. Elsie and her husband moved several times and endured many hardships; four or five of their children died when quite young. Elizabeth and her husband were never very prosperous but all of their children grew up and married.
When we knew them late in life, Elsie was a sweet and caring lady. She was interested in others, thankful and content, never complained, a joy to visit with. Elizabeth was the one who seemed bitter about how life had treated her, and appeared to have little interest in others. Both would have called themselves Christians and were faithful in attending church. I don’t know all the story and it is not up to me to judge, but the difference in attitude was striking. What impressed me the most was that the one who might have had reason to complain that life wasn’t fair was the one who was the happiest.
Sheila was a young girl we got to know on our visits to Saskatchewan. Her mother subsisted mostly by welfare and had a series of live-in boyfriends, some of whom had fathered her children. Sheila was eleven years old when we invited her to spend a few weeks with us in Ontario. We spent a night with friends along the way and in the morning the husband took Sheila out to show her his chicken barn. Sheila was a city girl and that morning she learned for the first time where eggs came from.
The following year we heard that Sheila had cancer. Along with that we learned that she had been sexually abused by one of her mother’s boyfriends. We were back in Saskatchewan when she had her first chemotherapy treatment. We had a little contact over the next few years as she continued to battle the cancer.
When she was fifteen she flew out to BC to spend some time with her mother’s aunt. We were travelling to Saskatchewan again that summer and arranged to meet her and her mother at the airport when she came home. We met Sheila as she got off the plane, but her mother never showed up. “She never does,” Sheila told us, “even when I come home from the cancer clinic in Saskatoon, I have to find my own way home.” We took Sheila out for a meal and a visit, then drove her home. That was the last time we saw her alive; she died shortly after her sixteenth birthday.
This was certainly a disadvantaged child, yet she was the most stable and mature person in her family. When she was twelve and in the hospital for chemotherapy, she was trying to teach her brothers to behave. She loved her mother and never complained about her. This was just the way things were and Sheila accepted that. We didn’t sense any anger or bitterness in her.
We don’t know how much exposure she had to the Bible or Christian teachings. Certainly, there was none at home. She talked of attending Salvation Army services at times. In the short time she spent with us, she experienced how we prayed before meals, had family devotions every day, and she attended Sunday School and church with us. Members from a nearby congregation went into Saskatoon to sing for her several times when she was there for chemotherapy.
Considering the setting she came from, could she still have been in a state of childhood innocence, or had she at some point made a decision to follow Jesus? I don’t know if even Sheila could have given a clear answer to that, but there was something about her that gives us hope that we shall see her again one day.
Life isn’t fair, but the things that happen to us do not determine whether we are happy or unhappy, whether we are saved or lost. It is the way we react to those things that makes all the difference. “Therefore choose life,” Moses told the people.