Over the weekend in Lakeland Florida, Angela McGrath passed away in her home.
Angie was a friend of the most special kind: someone who cared and loved with a genuine passion.
I first met Angie through Facebook. She had come across Blue Dragon after reading John Shors’ novel Dragon House, and started following our work. Even though I had never met her, Angie immediately became a friend – not just a ‘supporter’ or a ‘donor’.
Angie’s interest in our work wasn’t something new for her; as a mother of two, she and her husband Jim had made the decision to adopt a baby girl from China. A year later, they adopted another. But bringing two new children into their home wasn’t enough for Angie and Jim; they still kept thinking of all the kids around the world who didn’t have a family of their own.
Angie and her grandchild, February 2016
In her own community in Florida, Angie was a dynamic force for good. Through her church, Crestview Baptist, and of her own volition she would simply ‘adopt’ people – even whole families! – who needed someone to care for them. I remember laughing with Angie as she told me the story of driving through a hurricane to find a family who were huddled in a school hall because they had nowhere to go until the storm had passed. The mother was heavily pregnant, and her children were just toddlers… but Angie brought this entire family of strangers to stay in her home for a few days. There simply aren’t many people in our world who would ever do that.
What touched me most, though, was how Angie helped me personally through a deep crisis of my own. In early 2012, I lost somebody very close to me, and it was during the following months that the very best of humanity was brought out in everyone I knew. I experienced incredible support and care from many people; but Angie’s care stood out because, at that time, we had still never met. Simply through our online connection, she reached out shared my grief – and in the weeks and months that followed, she kept in contact and showed her concern in simple, human ways. She shared a song that she had heard. She wrote a letter. She emailed to just ask how I was.
All from a woman who I had only ever chatted with online.
In mid 2012, Blue Dragon was preparing to move to a new centre in Hanoi. Angie decided that she would help, and set about planning a trip to come to Vietnam and get involved. But without any warning, Angie’s own world fell apart. At work one day, she started feeling and behaving strangely; an emergency trip to the hospital revealed a massive cancerous growth in her brain. Surgery removed most of it, and just days later she was messaging me on Facebook to apologise that she wouldn’t be able to come to Hanoi and help.
Instead of Angie coming to Hanoi, I went to Florida. Angie sent us the money that she had saved for her trip so that I and Diep, one of my staff, could go to the US for our first ever fundraising trip there. I met Angie getting off the plane in Tampa. As I walked down the ramp, it occurred to me that I had no idea who I was going to meet – was she some crazy woman planning to abduct me!? Later I found out that she was wondering the same thing about me and Diep. But no: Angie, Jim and their family were the most gracious, hospitable, loving people I had met.
Diep and I spent a week in Florida making presentations, speaking in churches and schools, and getting to know this extraordinary family. Angie and Jim even took us horse riding and to Disney World; it’s a week I’ll never forget.
Last year I was back in the US. Angie was well, but I could see she was tired. This time there was no fundraising or presentations; it was a trip to reunite and, although none of us said so, to see each other for the last time. We ate together, we chased a crocodile, we drove around town and saw the house where Angie and Jim first lived together. It was a precious time.
Angie chose to stay at home for her final days, surrounded and cared for by her family. The past few years were difficult; the last few days were painful.
All that is over now. For Angie, there is no more suffering, while for everybody else the grieving has just begun.
Death is a horrible thing. There is no good in it. It leaves in us a hole that can never be filled. The only ‘but’ that I can muster myself to say is that death gives all of us pause to reflect on life.
We all wonder, at some time, about our own death and what we will leave behind. Some of us want to leave behind a family, or an empire, or a name that will be known for years to come.
Death has been unfair to Angie, but I hope that in her last days she could see that her life was well lived. She didn’t amass a fortune, or build an empire. Most people reading my blog will have never heard of her before. But she knew that none of this mattered.
In the end, all that matters is how much you love, and Angie loved endlessly. She loved her family to bits. She loved her friends and all the people she met as a nurse in hospitals and homeless shelters. She loved kids in Vietnam whom she had never even met.
We all hope that death will be kind to us, but there’s really not much we can do to affect that. What we can control is how we live. And if we live a life like Angie did, with so much love and concern for others, we can be sure that in the end we will have no regrets.