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My sister-in-law, Katie, was in a panic. Everything was wrong. We were in a wrong place, seeing a wrong thing. None of this was right, or planned, or expected. Days before, my husband’s oldest sister had died in her sleep. At 36, and without preamble, Kristi was gone. Now, my remaining sister-in-law and I were, impossibly, standing in the small, stuffy, parlor of the funeral home staring into a casket. Katie and her mother had picked out one of Kristi’s Sunday dresses and some jewelry for her burial. The dress was beautiful, the jewelry was elegant. Still, everything was wrong. Through the haze of my tear-filled eyes and broken heart, I couldn’t quite tell where this deep feeling of un-rightness came from. There was a wrong thing, but my bleary mind couldn’t find the name for it.

Finally, Katie recognized it with a gasp. We had all seen it, but Katie was the first to be able to name it. Kristi’s always-perfectly-manicured fingernails were bare. No polish, no color, no shine. In the pale crescents of Kris’s still-lovely nails were the remnants of the last color she wore- the color the coroner had removed. The lipstick on her lips, applied by the people at the funeral home who’d never known Kristi in real life- people who’d never seen her mouth open wide with laughter, was the wrong color. And the shadow on her eyelids was wrong. It was a bland taupe-y beige. Nothing about Kristi had ever been bland. It was all wrong. Everything. Everything was wrong.

Katie left the room, phone in hand, but I was frozen. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This tiny thing, this little thing in the middle of a thing so vast- how could we fix it? My nieces and nephew were left motherless. My husband lost his sister and friend. In the span of a single phone call a few mornings before, my sister count had been reduced by half. I stood powerless. There was nothing I could do in the face of all of this wrongness.

When Katie came back, her composure was a broken vase that had been hastily glued back together. The glue was not yet dry, and her beautiful face was on the brink of shattering all over again. “It’s ok. I figured it out. She’ll be here in a few minutes.” For one-half of one-half of one second, I thought that she meant Kris. Of course, Kristi would fix things when she got there. (Oh, how grief’s ragged claws rip our hearts into ever-smaller shreds.)

Immeasurable minutes later, a woman opened the door, bringing light and warmth with her into the dark, dusty room. “Savannah, this is my friend, Anna. She’s here to fix it.” It wasn’t Kristi. It would never be Kristi. But, it was a smiling face and an overflowing cup of grace right when we needed it most. Anna was a cheery drill sergeant, and she brought her strongest arsenal: a full-to-the-brim makeup bag.
Anna set to work immediately, and we followed her every order. “I need something to prop her hands up so we don’t get paint on her dress.” One of the funeral home attendants scurried out of the room, grateful to be away from these crazy, glassy-eyed, grief-stricken women. He came back with two Styrofoam cups, and placed them under Kristi’s beautiful hands. Anna painted Kristi’s nails carefully, without a single smear. “I need tissues,” she gently commanded. Someone handed her Kleenex, and Anna gingerly removed the funeral-home makeup from Kristi’s soft cheeks. As she set to work, choosing just the right shades of eyeshadow and liner, I wondered at who this woman was, what supernatural power she must possess, what kind of friend she must be. Anna never faltered. She never shied away from laying loving, working hands on the body of her friend’s sister.

When Anna was done, we all saw the miracle her hands had performed. Kristi looked so much more like herself, as much as anyone lying in that kind of bed can once again look like themselves. Her fingernails were immaculately shellacked. Her eyelids were perfectly shaded and lined, her cheeks dusted with pink. Anna had even managed to transform the hairsprayed mess the funeral home employees had left into Kris’s trademark dark glossy curls. She was beautiful, and Anna had given my family a priceless gift. Standing back from the casket, after watching Anna perform this task that none of us could have done, I whispered a prayer of thanksgiving.

Thank you, God, that you placed Anna in Katie’s life so many years ago. Thank you that Katie thought to call her. Thank you that she answered. Thank you for giving her the heart and the strength to do this monumental thing for my husband and for his mother and for his sister. Thank you for the short, wonderful years I had with Kris. Thank you for her humor and her sass, for her love and her smart mouth. Thank you for the three babies she brought into this world- the ones who carry her face and her attitude and her legacy. Thank you for the hope we have in you and for the assurance that Kristi is not gone, but Home. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

In the years since, Anna has become a dear friend of mine. She is still a source of light in any dark and dusty room. Often, when I look at Anna’s sweet smiling face, I’m struck all over again at the magnitude of what she did that day. It was an unhindered offering of love in the middle of crisis. A blessed gift given freely in the midst of sorrow.