I’ll never forget the morning I got the call.
A shrill ringing flooded my ears, and I peeled my eyes open, squinting at my bedside clock. 5:00 am. I immediately knew who waited on the other end.
I stumbled through the pitch black of my bedroom and plopped onto the floor, leaning against the wall. Then picked up the phone and mumbled, “Hello.”
“Good morning,” came my sister’s soft voice, one that sounds so much like mine, or so we’ve been told. “Today’s the day.”
The grogginess lifted from my body in an instant, and I sat up straight, taking a deep breath to calm my racing heart. I probably should have cried or gotten emotional, but only one thing permeated my thoughts. “When should I be there?”
This response came from months of preparation — two years of knowing my sister needed a heart transplant, then visiting her in the hospital every day for the five weeks before this call, watching her remain tethered to the wall while she waited for a new heart — a healthy heart. We’d prepared as much as one can prepare for such a huge life event.
I woke my husband and told him the plan, then loaded up and drove to the hospital. Since I was the only family close by, I was in charge of packing my sister’s belongings in her hospital room, preparing for her move to the ICU after surgery. With her long stay, she had practically moved in, so I spent the hours before her heart transplant sorting and packing, sorting and packing, stuffing thoughts and emotions away for a later visit.
Other family members started to arrive, having made the three-hour drive from their homes. And still I worked, knowing in the back of my mind that this was a momentous day. A day of celebration. But also the last day I might share with my sister here on earth.
I stayed strong for her 6-year-old daughter, desperate to reassure her and make her smile — making silly faces in the hall while straining my ears to hear the surgeon’s preparatory words to my sister.
The gurney arrived, and I gave hugs and kisses along with everyone else. Still my emotions remained detached throughout the elevator ride and the walk to the operating room entrance. The nurse told us to make our final good-byes, and I joined the chorus of family members who spoke words of love and encouragement.
As I turned to walk toward the waiting room, I heard my sister’s voice. “Where’s Sarah?”
Heart in my throat, I stepped away from the flow of people and returned to her. Grasped her hand. She squeezed it and said with a shaky voice, “See you on the other side.”
I swallowed hard and nodded, knowing no words needed to be said. I knew the double meaning. I walked down the sterile white hallway that seemed to stretch forever, my mind finally wrapping around the reality.
Yes, the Lord was in control. Yes, I believed He’d brought this new heart at the perfect moment for my sister. But He could also choose to take her away, to clutch her to His side in heaven and keep her there.
As the day wore on — hours filled with wondering and pacing and praying — God honed my focus. Just like I wasn’t guaranteed another day with my sister, I also wasn’t guaranteed another day with any of my loved ones. My husband, my children. God could choose to take them to heaven at any time.
This thought never crossed my mind in the day-to-day, in the moments of changing diapers, fixing breakfast, and kissing boo-boos. Yet as I heard each report on my sister’s progress — “heart is in,” “warming her body temperature back up,” “taking longer than expected,” “she’s stable” —- my most important treasures flashed before my eyes.
And the thing is, none of them included my comfortable home or my mode of transportation or my writing accolades. All those worldly measures skittered away, paying homage to my true priorities: my loved ones.
I went to bed that night, more than 20 hours after the phone call that changed the course of my day, still not seeing my sister “on the other side,” still waiting to hear her voice and see proof that her body was accepting its new gift. And my mind traveled through the “gifts” in my own home, thanking God for them and begging Him to never let me forget their worth.
In the days that followed, my sister made a steady recovery, bouncing over the hiccups and setbacks that assaulted her body. And while I faced the deepest exhaustion I’ve ever encountered, I rejoiced in the fact that God gave her more days on earth. In the midst of facing life-and-death matters, the daily worries and struggles of life drifted out of my sphere.
But the truth is, as my sister is thriving and recovering at home now, I’ve found myself returning to a focus on the minuscule problems of everyday life. My son won’t stay in bed when he’s supposed to. My washing machine broke. I just cleaned the bathroom, and there’s a trail of toilet paper on the floor. What do these things amount to? A distraction from my true priorities in life, which ultimately results in an ever-present cloud of worry.
Jesus warned about this misguided focus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes … Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Luke 12:23,25).
Just like worrying about my sister’s surgery didn’t add extra minutes of time with her, worrying about my messy house or my growing laundry pile doesn’t add extra minutes with my loved ones. In fact, it removes my perspective and joy in moments that I should be savoring.
In the months before my sister’s transplant, I had time to come to grips with her mortality, but the truth is that anyone can be snatched from this earth at any moment, including me. Accidents happen. Illnesses happen. So the question becomes this: Am I pushing aside worry and treasuring each moment as if it were my last, not letting opportunities slip by?
Am I telling my children I love them every day? Am I honoring my husband in a way that pleases God? And regardless of what happens tomorrow, am I prepared to meet them “on the other side,” whether here on earth or in heaven with Jesus?
Because in the end, whenever I face my last days, these are the things that will truly matter.