Every time I hike Lookout Trail I remember my first time up and I think of my old friend Penny.
My memory does not include sitting on the rocks with her, but there is a particular bend in the trail, at the top of the first steep climb, that takes me back. I picture strong Jake, energetic Penny, and youthful me stopping to catch our breath, Penny encouraging us that we were halfway there.
My friend Priscilla Edith Nickel Hagaman — dubbed ‘Penny’ because of her initials P.E.N. — was on earth for only 60 years. We were friends for 33 of them.
Since she didn’t have a biological sister, I appointed myself as one. She was dear Aunt Penny to our girls.
Penny was such a unique woman, classy and earthy combined. Like an LL Bean model, she looked good in whatever she wore. She had the vocabulary of an English scholar and she taught PE classes and wilderness seminars. She enjoyed fine china and fancy furniture and she valued camping, kayaking, gardening, and hiking.
In 1991 Penny began the hardest trail in her life. Cancer. That first year was a steep climb, and I was grateful it coincided with our home leave from Bolivia.
I was there, standing by as the beautician cut off Penny’s long braid.
I was there, journaling and praying by her bedside while the nurses attended her, helping her sleep during chemo treatment.
I was there, sitting in a cancer waiting room in Atlanta while Penny met with her surgeon.
After that steep start, her trail leveled out and Penny was cancer-free for years.
But there came a sad day in August 2003, when spots were found in her lungs and the rigorous cancer treatments resumed.
Again, we ‘happened’ to be in North Carolina and I was SO grateful to be nearby — but it was heart-wrenching to hear her chronic cough, to see her nails turn orange, to know her swelling legs were paining her and to watch her body diminish thinner than thin.
* * * * * * * *
Three times in the New Testament Paul writes that Jesus stood by him during a hard time.
In prison, 2 Timothy 4.
Before angry men, Acts 23:11.
During a storm at sea, Acts 27:23.
Paul’s challenging circumstances did not change, but knowing that Christ was ‘standing by’ strengthened him.
Penny’s ‘climb’ with cancer was hard. She tried many treatments and endured much pain. She was determined to live, to stay with her husband and son and daughter. She longed to be there for them at their graduations and at their weddings but God did not take the cancer away.
Penny left for heaven, November 2, 2008.
I miss her so much. Especially when I hike Lookout.
Even though it was hard to stand by and watch her suffer, what a precious privilege it was for me, to be near Jesus, who was standing by her.