January means something different to me this year. It is a reminder of the loss of my mother one year ago. It is also a reminder of something much more life-changing than loss. Loss is one of those things where we never know how we are going to respond when it comes. The anticipation of loss is nearly as cutting as when it finally arrives. We learn much about ourselves and our spiritual status when faced with it. We can become angry and halted by suffering or become strengthened and deepened. When my family and I were introduced to my Mama’s cancer, I was uncertain which of these I’d be. Would He heal her? If not, would I still praise him? Would I still call Him good?
After my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the next couple of years were full of ups and downs in her health. She gradually declined physically while maintaining her devotion to her Savior, there was no one she loved more. By 2015 Mama’s cancer was in her lungs. On December 9th, 2017 I got a call. The call I prayed would never come.
“It’s time to come home”.
When I got there, everyone was already gathered. I walked into my Mama’s room as they were preparing her for the ride to the ER and then later to hospice house. She looked beautiful, but she had always been remarkably good at keeping up appearances for her children, no matter how she felt. The last couple months she had been cared for, day and night by my brother and my dad. Her body had limited her to only moving from the bed to the recliner, while being aided by an oxygen tank. She was in constant pain and often would sleep for long periods of time. There she sat and her face told us she was ready for what was next.
That night in the ER the Lord started a work in our lives that my family came to call “Daily Grace”. When you go through something like this there is a strange marriage between the moments that you are “ok” and the moments where you struggle to just simply breathe. Every single moment was orchestrated by our Lord. Every time we would “lose our breath”, something amazing would happen. God would happen. The Lord would send a friend, family member, and even strangers to surround us with Love. They brought us food nearly every day, they made gifts and cards and came to say thank you and pray with the woman who lived life for her Savior in front of them.
Many people followed Mamas story, pouring the love she had once shown them – back into her and her family. During these last weeks, like every week she lived before, Mama’s main concern was telling everyone about her Savior. To make them aware she knew where she was headed, and she that was ready to go. She made everyone else her ministry in whatever way she could. Mama would refer to the nurses at Hospice House as her “angels”. The closer we got to Christmas she insisted I find them each an angel, so they would know she was grateful and loved them.
The first night I spent with her there, she gave me a list of what she wanted to get the family for Christmas. I still keep it on my phone and look at it from time to time. Though her mind had started to fade, she was determined to leave us all with something special.
Looking back, I find it significant I could help fulfill these wishes. Beyond the gifts she had chosen for each of us, she wanted to get us shirts that said, “Nani’s Tribe”, and to leave us all each a clay cast of her fingerprint. My sister and I were both carrying her grandsons, and though she would never meet them, she left them each a stuffed animal with a recording of her loving voice inside.
Over the course of nearly a month, my family and I took turns being with Mama. She asked that each of us spend the night with her alone and it was a time my siblings and I will treasure. She was careful to have moments with each of us. To forgive us for the past, to hold and love us now, and encourage us into our future. This became such a time of redemption and beauty. Mama had weeks where she seemed like “her old self”. We laughed and cried but mostly she used the time to pitch us toward the Lord.
On Christmas Eve we went over to Hospice House and brought her “special gifts” from her to the grandkids so she could see the joy she had brought them through one more holiday. Truth be told, she was losing what little stability she had left and didn’t recall much of this night or the next day. We gave them the gifts we had for her and dad and for the first time in thirty or so years, they spent Christmas in a house apart from their kids.
I knew this would be the hardest night, not just because it would be their last Christmas Eve together but because of the beautiful thoughtfulness that had gone into each of their gifts. My dad had prepared a photo album of every single year they had spent together. On the cover was a metal heart that read “fairy tales do come true”. The book started with their very first family pictures and closed with a beautiful collection of the last family photos we took of her first full day at Hospice House. For my dad, Mama had made him a metal print of her favorite photo of them with the quote “I wouldn’t have missed this dance for anything”, scribed on the side. It was so important to her to have done for him. I can’t imagine the tenderness of that night but I suspect it was the most beautiful depiction of selfless love.
Christmas morning, our church family had prepared us an entire Christmas feast that warmed our stomachs and our hearts. There is something so remarkable about the love of God through his children.
New Year’s came and went. Mama was noticeably close to home. The Doctors told us that now Mama had lost consciousness, she wouldn’t wake again. But they were wrong. Mama had been different the last week or so. She developed a characteristic called “terminal agitation”, where unfortunately the person who is ill becomes angry and irritable. They develop ideas that the people around them are there against them somehow. This broke our hearts. We wanted her to know we loved her then and would always. Even though we were told it “wasn’t her” it was hard not to take to heart. Still the Lord was good. Despite the doctors saying she wouldn’t, my Mama woke up in clarity one day from a nap. I was holding her hand and talking to her with my oldest sister. She looked at us and said.
“I love you!”
In the next moments the room was filled with the sound of Mama going down the list of “her people” and saying she loved them. We promised we would tell everyone, and we did. That was the last time my mother was conscious.
The next several days were bittersweet. We took turns sitting with her, rubbing her hands, reading her scripture and talking to her about the snow that kept falling. She loved snow. What a strange thing it was to get so much snow in North Carolina at that time and I remember thinking it had come to usher her home.
The night before Mama had passed away, most of us stayed over. It was like the Lord had given us a special insight. My oldest sister, my dad, and my brother and I took turns sitting with her. I had the first shift this night and I couldn’t seem to let it go. The Doctor said she couldn’t speak but there was a possibility she could still hear. I painted her nails, held her hand, and told her “I love you” a thousand times. I prayed all night.
The next morning, I woke to dad coming into the waiting room. Moments later my sister sent my brother in to tell us Mama was doing something different. Mama’s breathing was staggered. Sometimes several moments would go by before she took a breath. As the doctor came to my side of the bed and my brother returned to the room, Mama drew her last breath.
The Lord had taken our Mama into his presence and were honored to “usher her home”.
I find this part hard to write because my nature fumbles over the visions of my mother’s final moments. But my spirit rejoices because her story doesn’t stop here. There is hope because of Jesus and she is with Him, so very alive!
Our pastor walked into the room only minutes after Mama’s passing.
He had no idea of his timing.
This was God!
The songs playing in the background for her last breaths were “Jesus I love thee” and “It is well”.
An unexplainable peace overwhelmed us as my family huddled around her bed and thanked the Lord for her life.
God was in everything through this time in our lives. He still is. Nearly a year later, my family has not stopped feeling the ripples of His love. And more than ever we can see that they were there all along.
I don’t know your story. Your story may be nothing like this. Your story may be living this out right at this moment. Whatever the case, here is what I’ve learned.
He is still good.
He turned a time that should have been the worst in our lives, into a something incredibly beautiful. Every single day, God was there for us and He will be there for you too. Through loss, illness, and even death. Trust that He is there and still good.