by Doré Robinson Charbonneau ’84
The prayer request sketched on a small piece of paper and stuck in the wooden sanctuary cross bore but a single name: Harriett. The brief notation represented years of alienation —and tremendous hope in the power of God.
Thirty-nine years ago I had a son when I was 16 and unmarried. My unbelieving family lived in a small town where my father worked at a junk yard. The baby’s father was 21 and uninterested in him; his socially prominent family owned the local newspaper. I planned to put him up for adoption so he could grow up in a two-parent family. But an adoption agency tested him and concluded he was retarded and unadoptable. They said he’d be institutionalized. I decided that if he were retarded, it didn’t matter that I was 16 and poor. He would know I loved him, and that would be more than an institution could offer. Aghast, the father’s family refused to ever see or support the child. I took him home and named him Jeff. Fifteen months later, I discovered he was profoundly deaf, not retarded, which I considered a miracle from God.
Last summer, my sister became a Christian, and we reconnected. She still lives in the same small town where we grew up. One day she mentioned that her friend’s mother plays bridge every Friday with Jeff’s grandmother Harriett. At one of these games, Harriett said that her biggest regret in life was never having grandchildren. Thanks to the efficiency of a small-town grapevine, I was able to let Harriett know that she does, in fact, have a grandchild and that she could meet him before she dies if she wished. Harriett sent the message that she would indeed like to see Jeff.
This amazed me. I had only seen her twice in my life, and she seemed cold and formidable. Once, when I was 15, I was invited to dinner at her home. I was so nervous, I spilled a glass of milk on the table and was mortified. The second time was in our local market. Jeff was about 2 years old and seated in the shopping cart. Harriett came down the grocery aisle and looked past us as if we were invisible.
Given this history, I worried that she would be mean to Jeff, and I prayed about their meeting. But it turned out to be a joyful and life-changing event for both of them. Because Jeff speaks sign language, they communicated by writing. Grandma Harriett asked Jeff if he hated her. Jeff said no, he was just glad to finally meet her. Harriett showed him pictures of relatives and told him their stories. She said she almost died a few years before but believed she was kept alive to meet Jeff. It was a healing and wonderful time for them.
During a church service not long after this encounter, we wrote down the names of people we wanted to see come to Christ. Harriett’s name appeared on my list. I rolled the small piece of paper up and stuck it in the cross with all the rest. We prayed as a church, and I kept praying.
That December, Harriett sent Jeff a lovely Christmas card and money. Her live-in housekeeper kept in touch with him by e-mail. That’s how he heard that Harriett had fallen and gone to the hospital, where she wasn’t doing well. Jeff’s truck had broken down and was in the shop for repairs, so I offered to drive him. I urged him to go, and Jeff was very concerned that Harriett might die without Christ. We prayed that God would send Christian nurses, doctors, the hospital chaplain —anyone —to pray with her.
When we got to the hospital room, Jeff peeked in and saw a nurse busily changing an IV. We waited outside, leaning against the wall. I heard the most pitiful whimpers and cries of pain as the nurse worked. I was praying.
Then the nurse said we could go in. Jeff looked me in the eye and signed, “You are going to tell her about salvation, right?” Gulp. “Let’s see what God does,” I replied.
In the room lay a frail, small woman with tubes connecting to drip bags in both arms. The nurse asked if she recognized us, and she said, “No.”
Then the nurse said, “Harriett, it’s your grandson. Do you know his name?”
With that, Harriett rallied all her strength, sat up, held opened her arms and said “Jeff!” Her face lit up with great love and profound joy. With a shaky hand, she touched Jeff’s face; she kissed him and smelled the flowers he brought.
Jeff signed his greetings and concern for her, and I spoke for him. She spoke, and I signed. Then she rolled to the side and looked me straight in the eyes, puzzled as to who I was. I leaned over and gently said “Harriett, I’m Doré.”
I saw remorse and pain flash across those steel-blue eyes, and her jaw dropped, but Harriett was brave. She kept looking me right in the eyes, as if to give me the opportunity to say whatever I had to say. I quickly leaned close to her and said, “Everything is fine. I’ve been praying so much for you, and we came to pray for you now. Is that all right?”
Harriett said, “Yes, please.”
Jeff and I each took a hand, and I started to pray for God to come and heal her, to bless and reveal Himself to her.
Then she sat up and cried out, “God please help me, Jesus save me.” Romans 10:13 came to mind and I said, “Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Bible tells us that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” I asked the Lord to fill her and heal her and said, “Amen, in Jesus’ name.”
Harriett fell back on the bed, pulled our hands to her lips and kissed them. Then she said she needed to sleep. Rallying her strength, she kissed Jeff’s face. I told her we would see her again when she was stronger.
On the way out of the hospital, Jeff asked if Harriett was saved. I said, “Yes,” and he was relieved. That Sunday I prayed for Harriett with people at church and shared this good news.
Harriett was fully lucid for only five or six days after she accepted Christ. Jeff was able to visit with her once more before she died peacefully in her home. Harriett let him know she thought he was the most wonderful person on the planet. And for that precious bit of time she loved him like only a grandma can love.
A friend reminded me recently that God is not only the God of the 11th hour but of the 12th hour and —by His eternal grace —the 13th hour. Our hope is ultimately resurrection hope.
Doré Robinson Charbonneau ’84 works as a senior philanthropic adviser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She lives in Altadena, Calif.