Love’s Courage: In Memory of Janet Elaine Holland Ayers

Today, on Shabbat, I sang and prayed with the family of McGill Baptist Church in Concord, North Carolina. We remembered together.

We had gathered for the memorial service of Janet Elaine Holland Ayers, librarian, mother of three, grandmother of six, and wife of Pastor Steve Ayers.

Janet was stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and the record of her last years has been chronicled by Steve’s moving testimony. In one Facebook post after another, we have read of every small and painful progression of the disease, the moments of memory lost and regained. We discovered how Janet learned to live, and we witnessed the way everyone around her lived in the grace of her love.

Steve has, with the courage of Janet’s love, created a chronicle of love. Even when Janet could not remember or use his name, she remembered their love. When she still could, she would tell him how she loved “her Steve.” Nearing the close of her life, if Steve told her he loved her, she would say “I know!” During the service, he told us that after one particularly happy visit, she turned to him and announced happily, “Steve, we ought to get married!” And Steve, who has had the grace to stay in all the holy places Janet inhabited throughout these years, no matter what time or what location he found himself in, agreed. “That’s a great idea!” he said.

There is no one who met Janet who does not carry some lasting memory of her. Of course she was gracious to my little havurah, my small congregation. Of course she wanted to join Steve and the church in welcoming us, making us feel at home. She did that no matter what troubles we went through, how large we were, or what we could do in recompense for the welcome we were given. Of course, she was always warm and kind and welcoming. Janet was that way.

For a couple of years, we moved away from McGill Baptist Church, and though we grew by doing so, my heart broke when we did. McGill had taken us in when finding a place to meet turned out to be a challenge. McGill had refused our donation the year we had to restore our first Torah – to this day, I point out that Baptists helped put letters back on that scroll. McGill had held us, given us love and kindness and friendship, for over a decade.

When we finally returned, I had given up on all those dreams of growth so many of my then congregants had found so important. I had paid a price, and those I came back with had paid it with me. I returned with just six families; we were back where we were at our beginning.

But when I was sure we would still need someplace for us to meet, I called Steve. I asked him if there was still a place for us at McGill.

“Barbara,” he told me, “we would be so glad to have you back.”

“Then we are coming home,” I said.

Janet overheard Steve’s reaction. And then I overheard hers.

She called out quite clearly: “We love you, Barbara. We love you.”

“We love you, too, Janet,” I called back, crying like a child on the other end of the line.

Janet hardly knew the power of the healing she offered me that day.

Janet was a woman not to be underestimated. She possessed an intelligence and a sense of humor that was subversive and delightful.

But above all else, she knew how to love and how to receive love. “She had a love that knew no bounds,” Steve said as we remembered her. To the last, he said, no matter what else she might have seemed to have lost, she knew she was loved and she knew that she was a child of God.

We say in my tradition: May her memory be for a blessing. And all who knew her know: it already is.


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