There are some seasons in life that leave an indelible mark; seasons we will never forget.
It was the end of summer. I had just finished a six month stretch of back to back weekends of travel to lead worship for various conferences and churches, along with the daily revolving front door of students I love and all the usual responsibilities of home and family. I was tired. This particular season, for many reasons, had no free days, little rest and zero margin.
The previous month, the end of this long season, I was at the coast leading worship for three weeks. This was a treasured time of worship with good friends and deep, daily teaching from the Bible--God clearly knew what was to come. As I headed home, I was looking forward to a month of rest and time with my husband and son before the fall schedule started up. I was especially looking forward to an extended visit with my mom at her relatively new home in a retirement village in a town four hours south, her first time living away from family and lifelong friends.
My mom and I have always been very close, in proximity as well as relationship. The best of friends, a million good memories of doing life together from childhood through current day, always part of each other's lives. Maybe our closeness was perpetuated by the fact that it was just the two of us at home when I entered high school and throughout my college years, after my sister moved out and my dad had long since descended into the depths of alcoholism and left us for another woman. I saw my mom, with dreams shattered, work hard to hold herself and us together, get a job and be both mom and dad through those years. It was mostly just her and me.
A few days before I was to head south to see her, she got sick. The doctor scheduled tests and I headed down early. We went to the hospital together for her MRI. The results were immediate and showed multiple tumors spread throughout her brain. Thus began the journey no one wants to walk. I called my husband and then my sister. We cried and we prayed. That day we drove north to my home in the Portland area. She never returned to her home. We began further testing to find a clear diagnosis. MRI scans, CT scans, blood work, biopsies -- every day, sometimes multiple times a day. It was stage IV, tumors in her brain spread from her lungs. She never smoked. My dad did. The doctors said she had months to live, statistics said five or six. Maybe Easter if she defied the odds.
She said no to chemo -- she felt strongly that she didn’t want to suffer from treatment in the end when the end was so clearly in sight. She looked to my sister and I for decisions. Decisions about the end of her life -- really important decisions she just couldn't make. There were too many tumors to individually target, so we took the oncologist's advice and chose whole brain radiation, every day for three weeks. They said this would give her more time. She'd lose her hair and get really tired for a bit, but then have an upswing of energy and some good weeks, maybe even months. So it began.
My sister began the process of retiring early from her career job in Dallas, where she had just been transferred, so she could live with us near Mom in her last months. Together we moved her into a beautiful assisted living facility five minutes from my home. We set up her apartment and it was lovely. She cried when she walked in the first time, she felt so at home. She was surrounded by everything she loved, pictures and memories and flowers and family.
Mom had been surrounded by negative voices where she lived down south. In the dining room she was fed a daily diet of complaints and gossip and negativity from her table mates, mostly lonely and unhappy people. She had become somewhat lonely and unhappy and now she was dying. One day when I was sitting on the floor of her living room, unpacking a box of her things, I found a little spiral bound journal with the title My Grateful Book on the front. It was empty. I thought, "Jesus, we need You more than ever. Especially in this we need to be reminded of all we have to be grateful for. Lord, please show us how to be grateful." So starting in that moment, every time I was there to visit or pick her up for an appointment or share a meal, I began to ask her what she was grateful for that day. And then I would write it down.
At first it was the food: Lunch was so good today. And the weather: I'm really happy this is the time of year I moved into this place instead of winter. It's so nice out. And her family: I'm grateful for my girls. What would I do without you? I could never go through this alone. Then the doctors: I'm grateful for the kind doctors and nurses -- aren't they nice? And her caregivers where she lived: Helpful, friendly people to help me. Cards in the mail. Friends that came by to visit her, hug her. Her cute hats as her hair fell out. Her bed: I don't know what you did to make my bed so comfortable, but I just sleep so well! Always and again, her family: There's not even a word to express how thankful I am for my family. And this: No matter how hard the years were with Dad and I, he always set money aside so I would be taken care of in my old age.
We filled pages as her thoughts turned toward thankfulness. The first few pages were paragraphs, as gratitude poured out for all of the good things she was so thankful for. Some days I didn't even have to ask, she would just start reciting her gratitude. I'm thankful for the 90 years I've had and that the good part has over-shadowed the bad. So I'm just forgetting it. Days passed. One week, then two, then three. She got tired. She would sleep more than she was awake. Things got harder. I'm a blessed woman in many ways. It was hard to sit up, to get up, to do the simplest of things. To drink. To eat. To walk. Then one by one she could no longer do any of them. The entries grew shorter and much more simple: There couldn't be a nicer situation than this chair. And then The sunshine. My daughters. My grandkids. The sunshine (I said that). Then just a word or two: It's so comfortable. And You are so good to me.
My sister arrived, and her husband. Then the two grandchildren, the joy of Mom's life. My husband was there, always. We were all there together and she was so grateful. Quiet and personal shared moments. We remembered. We held her hand. We cried. We prayed and sang.
And the last two entries in her journal, just six short weeks after I found it and a couple of days before she closed her eyes and fell asleep that final time:
I think I cried an ocean of tears, all the time and everywhere, such deep grief, days and nights full of sorrow and the dread of what was to come. To watch her suffer. To stay present. Then to live in the new normal of life without my mother and friend.
And then came another strange paradox: deep darkness and at the same time the many moments of joy that burst in out of nowhere, gratitude to God for all of His kindness to Mom and to us, even in this thing. The strength to get up and make the choice, again each day, to love and serve her with joy, to be there with her, to walk her to Jesus with gratitude, fully present. And now that she is gone, to choose to grieve with hope.
There is no explanation for how this is possible in the darkness of this world, except to know that this is where Jesus meets us. This is where we discover that gratitude is a choice, and when we make that choice, joy and strength follows—joy and strength found no other way but looking to Him right there in the middle of the hard place. And when we are grateful and aware of the goodness and deep, deep love of God even when ______, it changes everything.
I miss my mom every day. I cry. I relive our memories over and over. Sometimes the sadness is overwhelming. But I choose gratitude. God taught us both to be grateful. Mom showed me how to be grateful even in death. Only Jesus.
'The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust Him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving.' Psalm 28:7.