Sadie Webb | The Morganton Years

Sadie Webb lived on the last road in Western North Carolina and then some. Her mailbox introduced me to her gravel drive, which lingered through the smell of tall pine trees, a display of black-eyed Susans, to the front porch, arriving at her smile. “Oh, come in! Sit down! Would you like some tea?” “Yes, thank you,” I said.

Glasses rattled in the kitchen while I surveyed the pictures that covered her walls. I already knew some things about Sadie. I had been cautioned by a few in our congregation to wear something orange on my visit. Apparently, Sadie was a deadeye with a rifle. She was ninety years old and capable of picking off a gray squirrel on a rainy day from one hundred yards away. It was not that Sadie despised squirrels; it was that the garden needed a fighting chance.

The garden was her joy! Photos testified to that. Old black-and-whites washed into color snapshots along one wall, and some were even on the television console. The garden is shown growing in the background with Sadie, Tice and their two daughters growing in the foreground.

“Janet lives in Hickory, and Carol lives in Alabama,” she said, as she handed me a large glass of iced tea. “I hope you like it sweet.” I did not, but my mother had instilled in me to respond in silence with a nod. “Here is a photo of my husband Tice. He passed away five years ago on October 12. He had gone out to the shed and, you know, it wasn’t like him not to come in for lunch. So I went out to the shed and found him on the ground. I just knew!”

“Tice could fly an airplane. One day when we were courting, he buzzed my home. The next day when he came to the door, my father told him that if he did that again, he would shoot him down. It never happened again!” I laughed. I had been her pastor for ten minutes, but Sadie was comfortable because she was in control of the conversation.

“Janet is the oldest. She is married to a real estate agent in Hickory. They don’t have any children. Carol doesn’t have any children either. I don’t understand these girls. Carol has remarried, and her new husband flies a plane, too. I guess she’s a lot like her mother after all. That girl wants her husband to fly me down to Alabama in his little Cessna for a few weeks’ stay. I don’t know…” Sadie paused.

She moved to her recliner. “Where are my manners? Have a seat.” She slowly lowered herself into the chair, but then gave up on the last five inches. “Ever since my treatments, I haven’t been able to get around very well. I have cancer, you know.” Sadie waited for me to respond. I had been told by the women of the church, who were the most reliable source of information, that Sadie had cancer of the liver and had been taking chemotherapy for the last year. The chemo had made Sadie’s hair fall out. On a good day she wore a white wig; on a bad day she just tied on a bandanna. I caught her on a good day.

“I heard that you had cancer. I was wondering…” She cut me off. “Preacher,” she said, “what do you suppose heaven is like?” A question that I have come to find over time, a pastor will have to field about twenty-seven times a year. This was my first time out. I had just graduated from seminary. I had Christology down pat, but what was heaven like, I had no answer. I offered silence. In that silence rose the face of my second-grade Sunday School teacher. I clearly remembered his description of the hereafter – a city with streets of gold and pearly gates. In the second grade the only city with which I was familiar was Sioux City, IA, a town that was filled with meatpacking plants and grain elevators. So for a good part of my life, heaven was Sioux City, but cleaner. It was not the answer that I thought Sadie sought, but I also knew that the silence had gone on long enough. After all, I was ordained! I said, “I think heaven will be a place better than your most favorite thought, and it will last forever.”

As it turned out, Sadie wanted Sioux City. “Do you suppose we will live in houses?” she said. “The Bible says we’ll live in houses. Do you think that people will be able to recognize other people?” I thought less and replied, “Yes.” “I’m not sure I want to see a good many of them.” She sipped her tea.  She said, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll be going.” It was then that I remembered something a seminary professor had said, “When you get old enough to see death over your shoulder, heaven becomes something you doubt or something you believe in with all your heart, and even then you still have your doubts.”

My heart reached out to this dear lady; my words ran to reassure her. ”Sadie,” I said, “my goodness! You love God. I know you do. God certainly loves you. You’re one of the saints in the church! Everyone I know has told me about how you were always the last one out of church on Sunday mornings because you would make sure the place was clean before you left. You brought up your daughters in the church. Of course you are going to heaven!” “Heaven?” Sadie exclaimed, “I know I’m going to heaven! I was talking about Alabama!”

I visited Sadie every week or two until she died in the Fall of that year. A gardener is good at timing things. I remember well that when I visited her, at first I was greeted at the door. Then in her last days, I was greeted near her bed, but always with a smile and an hour’s worth of conversation. Before I would leave, I would always remind her that she was going to heaven. We would laugh and share a wink. Sadie I will remember because she smiled, because she loved a garden, and because heaven for her is a lot easier to get into than a Cessna.