As a teenager, my dad took us to a small church across town on Sunday evenings. When I say small, that is what I mean. There would be about a dozen people, and seven were my family. The rest were over the age of seventy.
They were sweet people and they loved to have us join their Sunday evening routine. We would open our hymn books and the pastor would take favorites. My sister would accompany on the piano as we picked the same handful of songs. Despite the age of the group, it was not unusual for us to sing “Arky, Arky” and strain our voices to reach the high notes of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”
After we were sung out, Pastor Dana would preach to us and then the “whole church” would go to Denny’s.
I remember all the members of that small congregation. Best of all, I remember the pastor’s wife, Louise Dana.
I first met Mrs. Dana when I was in kindergarten and I had liked her then.
She always dressed smartly. Her two inch pumps would match her dress and her chunky earrings would match her necklace. She was pleasantly plump—she didn’t bother with any diet that came between her and a banana split. And she had an amazing laugh. She laughed loud and she laughed often. Wherever she was would be a party.
When we started attending some ten years later, Mrs. Dana had not changed a bit and probably neither had the evening routine. Mrs. Dana knew the staff at Denny’s by name and they knew her. We would talk and laugh and she would eat a banana split.
Then came the news that Mrs. Dana had Lou Gehrig’s disease. I didn’t quite believe it–she was so full of life and I just couldn’t imagine her anything but her boisterous self. But she seemed to handle the news well. She would be there every Sunday evening happy.
The effects of the disease came on gradually. Her speech became a little slurred and she became less mobile. We never talked about it at church. Everyone knew; we just didn’t know what to say. Things stayed at their “normal” routine, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” and all.
Her speech continued to get more slurred although she tried hard to communicate. When we couldn’t understand, we’d nod and smile. The evening outing to Denny’s just wasn’t the same though when the boisterous storytelling was replaced by a few laborious phrases. Her mind was still sharp, but everything she wanted to say and every laugh she wanted to laugh was trapped inside and it couldn’t get out.
Then one week we got a new hymn request— “Joy Bells.” And she requested it every week after that. It started, “You may have the joy bells ringing in your heart and the peace that from you never will depart…”
Mrs. Dana couldn’t sing, but she started bringing a bell to church on Sunday nights and she would ring it every time we said “joy bells” and at the end of every line of the chorus. It was her way of letting us know that even though she could no longer laugh, she still had joy in her heart.
One bell was not enough. She brought two…then three…then four…and each week she would ring her bell to make her request and make us ring the bells as we sang. Honestly, it wasn’t very musical. But from Mrs. Dana it was joyful.
Time continued to waste away and so did Mrs. Dana. She had her husband bring Krispy Kreme donuts to church because it was all she could eat and she wanted to share them. Even on a Krispy Kreme diet, she was now less than 90 pounds. She would sit silently in the pew and when we said hello to her, she would do her best to give a slight nod. But when we sang her song, she would ring her bell. That was all she had left.
When I rang my joy bell, it was neither musical nor joyful. I would be too choked up to sing. I felt strongly for this dear woman whose body could no longer communicate in the ways she loved best.
Or maybe it did. I doubt any of us who knew Mrs. Dana will ever forget the joy that was her strength in the most difficult of circumstances. She expressed it in a means and with a fervency that none of us will ever forget.
That was probably 16 years ago, and I haven’t sung “Joy bells” since her funeral. But I’ve thought of it many times—always with the collection of souvenir handbells ringing in the background. And I know that in heaven, Mrs. Dana is talking and laughing again. And on earth, her memory is reminding us that despite our circumstances, we’ve been instructed to “rejoice always.” Even when you cannot talk and cannot laugh—no excuses. Find yourself a bell and let the world know that you are joyful—even when it is through tears.