In a few days, it will be one year since my mother passed away. In general, I’m in a very happy and relaxed state this Advent and it is a sweet Christmas season for our young family. (Ella is the only person I have ever met who genuinely lights up with deep joy at Christmas decorations in the MALL because she just loves the red and green and sparkles and FUN so much. Her enthusiasm is definitely infectious and we’re all pretty jolly around here. In general.)
But every once in awhile, especially in the early morning (like now) when I used to talk with my mom pretty much every day, I cry and cry and can’t stop (like now). Warm tears against cold cheeks. The ache of missing my dear friend. The strange, exposed loneliness of being “the grownup” because now, somehow, I’m supposed to be the mother even though I still feel like a child in so many ways.
Not all the time, but sometimes, I think about the last few weeks and days and hours of her life. I am grateful for the thousands of dollars my sister and her Fred spent flying me back and forth to Michigan so that I could be there, helping, grieving, just being present. Were it not for their generosity, our family could have swung ONE trip back for me to say goodbye, but that would have been it. Instead? I was there for the major doctor discussions as we shockingly learned of her rapid heart failure—25% functioning, 8% functioning … not enough oxygen going to her brain. This is the end.
That’s what happened, I am sure, to precipitate her call to me in early December of last year—the last time I heard her voice; the last words she ever spoke to me. Her brain was undoubtedly oxygen-deprived. She was “not herself” as it were.
But I didn’t know that in the first few minutes of our call. I didn’t know that when my cell phone rang in Albertson’s and I (happily!) saw the “Mom Cell” i.d. pop up and I (even more happily!) heard her cheerful, NORMAL, wonderful ol’ lifetime of smoking crackly, gravely voice say:
It had been so long since I had heard our normal greeting. What a gift God gave me to hear it one more time! What a sweet grace. But then. Sadly. Everything got understandably bad. She began to talk in that warped, distant voice that I’m sure many of you know because you, too, have loved a dying person and/or a mentally ill person and you know when they are not in their right mind.
It’s scary—like a waking dream; terrifying when you are a child and it’s an adult, a parent, who is standing in front of you saying words, but their eyes are off and the tone is off and what they are saying doesn’t make any sense. It’s disorienting—like the worst parts of life in a fallen world, truly, not the way it’s supposed to be. Frightening. Dark. Disturbing.
It’s also incredibly, incredibly sad:
“Can you call your dad and have him come here to take me home?” My mother asked. “Please call dad.”
“Mom? Dad is dead. Are you talking about Charlie?” I asked. Not knowing, yet, that she really wasn’t there.
“Yes. Charlie. Of course. Charlie. Please call Charlie so that he can take me home,” Mom pleaded. “I just can’t remember my address,” she continued in her confusion, “If you just tell me my address, I can go home.”
“Mom? You are home. This is your home now. You have to be in the hospital because you are very sick. I know it’s hard. I love you so much. But this is your home.” I choked out the words. I started crying in the mineral water section of Albertsons.
“OK. Goodbye.” And she hung up.
Those were the last words my mother ever said to me.
I immediately called her best friend, who was also the nurse manager in charge of my mother’s hospital wing and room (what a grace!) and she told me that she had JUST been in her room and she was not agitated at all. But that of course she would go immediately and check on her and try to calm her down/help her.
And that was that. That was all I could do. I was thousands of miles away. I had already said my goodbyes to her the previous month when she was still present mentally. I had already told her hundreds of times over decades of life how much I appreciated her and enjoyed her and admired her; how grateful I was for her forgiveness and friendship and care. I didn’t have to rush to cram in token words before she passed. I was not overwhelmed by regret for harboring bitterness or (even worse!) blatant apathy rather than moving towards her in mercy because God had moved toward me in mercy.
No. Hearing her voice for what I guessed in that moment might be the last time (and it ended up being the last time), I was rightfully sad. It was worthy of grief and I grieved. I grieved the loss of my mother and my friend. I grieved for my sister and my stepfather and my mother’s best friends. I grieved that Ella would never really know my mother and that my mother would never really know Ella because Ella would have cracked her up.
I grieved and cried and I longed for redemption. I longed for Heaven. Just like my mother, I longed for Home.
Thankfully, I have every hope and assurance that one day I will get to go home and then, there will be no more tears. Will my mother be there? I don’t know. I think maybe, yes, she will be there. There were surely not a lot of what some Christians would call “evidences of regeneration” — my mother never became a church-goer — but having had hours and hours of conversations with her over the years, I know that she was a genuine seeker and that she could articulate the Christian gospel (the true Christian gospel of God saving his children by grace alone by faith alone through Christ alone, not some sort of sham religiosity of rule-following that some people claim is Christianity). I know this for sure because that was the SECOND-to-last conversation I ever had with my mother. The day (in November of 2012) that I held her in my arms for the last time and played my last game of Scrabble with her, I also asked her:
“Mom? If you will indulge me, I’d like to talk with you one more time about Jesus. Would that be OK?”
“Yes. Absolutely. Of course you would want to, Tara,” my mother graciously replied.
“I know we’ve talked about this a lot over the years and I appreciate you understanding that I only want to talk about it again because I want to be sure that I’ve done everything I can to clearly articulate the claims of Christ with you with the hope that you might put all of your faith in him and be saved.”
“I know. And I’m happy to say that Christianity says I am a sinner and God is perfect and the only way for me to be right with God is through Jesus—God bridges the gap to me through the perfection of Jesus and his dying on the cross for my sins,” mom continued, “So if I believe in Jesus, that’s how I am made right with God.”
Pretty good summary of the Christian gospel for a non-church-goer, eh? I think so. And I continued to pray, until her last breath, that even if it were a thief-on-the-cross-experience, my mother would transfer the weight of all of her hope onto Christ and be saved. Maybe she was! I hope dearly she was. And then? Those words I typed above will not be the last words my mother ever said to me. No way! They will only be the last words in this life. Ah! I do pray that is the case.
Either way, I know that God is good and His ways are best. And here is all my hope:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:1-3, ESV)
Amen and amen!
And much grace to those of you who are likewise grieving on this beautiful December day.