Last week my wife and I drove from Virginia to Georgia to attend the funeral of my first cousin, Leila Wilbanks McDowell. Leila suffered many hardships, including a prolonged struggle with cancer that eventually took her life. Her youngest brother Tim noted in his powerful eulogy that even during the toughest of times he never heard her speak a negative word about anyone, even of those who may have mistreated her.
I saw Leila a few weeks before her passing. Her joy and infectious laughter gave no hint of how serious her condition really was. It was not as if she was trying to hide her illness, but that she was so focused on the joy-of-the-present, future troubles held little sway.
Leila was a Christian. But not just any Christian. She possessed an unusual gospel-centric, “peace-in-the-midst of storm” existence. She uniquely exemplified Christ-like meekness and peace regardless of the circumstances. Do not conclude from this that Leila failed to stand up for herself and others. She fought for things that matter, especially faith and family. As I heard and saw the love and appreciation Leila’s three children had for her and her unshakable faith, my heart rejoiced.
In our last conversation Leila told me that for a long time she struggled in her faith, but eventually experienced full assurance. Leila’s grand-nephew Jordan beautifully told the gathered mourners that in the hospital she woke up once with a caretaker staring her in the face. Thinking she may have died, Leila expectantly asked, “are you an angel?” May we all live with such confident faith!
Much of Leila’s faith-filled stamina came from growing up in a wonderful, Christian family. My Dad’s sister, Ostine, and her husband Telford Wilbanks, had 12 children (9 girls and 3 boys).
As I look back, living life with this remarkable family (just across the woods) was one of the most blessed gifts anyone could ask for.
Sunday afternoons at “Mothers” house (i.e., Aunt Ostine) was like Grand Central Station. Aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, grandchildren, and anyone else who wanted to come–all congregated there after church to eat, laugh, play, fellowship, or just hang out. As a growing country boy, I nudged my way into many-a-meal at the Wilbanks table. They made me feel as if I were just another member of the family—because I was.
Leila’s brother Ronnie, retired Air Force Colonel, lovingly spoke of her as his childhood “buddy.” As he talked about how the two of them roamed the woods of our beloved northeast Georgia home, I was transported back to the same forests, fields, creeks, and rivers—an endless playground of adventure. There is a deeply felt if unspoken kinship among those of us who grew up in our little corner of the world. Theologians and sociologists speak much today about the need for living in community. We knew nothing else. I can hardly imagine life without my extended family—Leila’s family—one that was large and loving enough to be its own happy community!
I once witnessed something that few, even in her family, know about—Leila saving a child’s life. In the early 90s I was the principal of a Christian school and hired her as a summer day care supervisor. She had a wonderful way with children. One day I happened to walk into her classroom as she rushed to a child who was choking on a small toy. Unable to remove it, Leila calmly turned him upside down, hit his back, and the obstruction immediately dislodged. As I sat at Leila’s funeral, this episode came to my mind, and then I thought—somewhere there is a grown man, alive and well, maybe has his own children, all because of her actions that day.
Leila was never one to “toot her own horn.” With humble heroes like her, we tend to learn of their many accomplishments only after they die. I found out last week, for example, that Leila was a poet. At the service her sister Rosemary read some of her beautiful and spiritually infused lines. I had no idea! Hearing her poetry for the first time reminded me of the19th century author Emily Dickenson, whose sister found (after Emily’s death) her now classic poems neatly hidden in a chest.
Leila seemed to always put others before herself. General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was once asked to deliver a keynote address at an annual conference. Because of ill health, he was unable to attend, but wrote out his speech to be read in his absence. As the designated reader stood before the crowd and opened the envelop, he was surprised to look down and see only one word on the paper—“OTHERS.”
If there is one characteristic that stands out to me about Leila’s life, it was that she genuinely lived for others. And this trait extended far beyond family and friends. As long as she was physically able, Leila visited women in prison, teaching them how to knit and crochet, all the while ministering to their emotional and spiritual needs. Only eternity will tell the multitude of good she quietly did, caring not a whit whether anyone saw it or not. Her Lord saw it all!
Like Lydia of Thyatira in the New Testament, “whose heart the Lord opened,” Leila of Baldwin, Georgia also lived life with her heart wide open to the Lord. And, like the woman of Proverbs 31, “her own works will praise her in the gates.” For all of us who knew and loved her, we gladly “rise and call her blessed.” Beatus vir Mulieri Dei