This weekend marks four years since my mom died. Both a blink and a lifetime. The bittersweet truth is that these past four years have been some of the most formative and joy-filled years of my life. And man, do I wish that she was here to share in it all – to be able to watch me grow, to meet the people I love, to hear my dreams for the future. I would have called her almost every day of college.
I can say with full confidence – with honest gratitude – that in losing Mom, I have learned more about Jesus than ever. I can tell you that my heart for Him has grown as I’ve seen the depths of His heart for me, that I’ve found freedom in the beautiful truth that it is more about His glory than my happiness, that He is always present and always good.
I can also tell you this: I miss my mom. And after four years, I’m really tired of missing her. I hate that I have to pause, to think a little bit to remember the sound of her voice, her laugh. On some level I feel like I’ve learned the lessons, that I’ve checked the grief boxes, that I’ve come out on the other side. But the simple fact is this: she’s still gone.
I have written before about lessons the Lord has lovingly taught me through everything with mom. Today, I want to do something different. Instead of lessons learned with time and distance, I want to share two moments back from the thick of it.
On January 6, 2014, after months of battling cancer, doctors said my mom had anywhere from days to weeks to live. On January 28, 2014, she passed away. Those 22 days were the darkest of my life. Below are two moments of light.
When you lose someone, their life gets wrapped up in a box for you to carry. Their quirks and characteristics and sayings and smells, all stored and handed to you to hold on to. There’s the way my mom always called me “Sister,” or the image of her proud and apron-clad in the backyard that summer she swore she was a grill master, or the time we sprawled in the grass of a golf course looking at the clouds and talking about high school boys. It’s a box of memories and mementos and it is as beautiful and significant and unique as the life it remembers. Love calls us to carry it. Love keeps us from ever setting it down, from walking away. But oh, it’s heavy. And it gets heavier every year.
And now, four years in, I’m starting to realize that although the ugliest days may be over, I’m not nearing the finish line. By grace I’ve made it through the rawest days of loss, but the reality is that there’s not an expiration date for pain. It will be my sweetest privilege and my heaviest burden to carry the weight of missing her for all of my years to come.
I. Heaven, and Saying Goodbye
You have to tell her she can go. That you know she’s tired, that you know it hurts, that it will be okay and you will be okay. You’ll be lying – but say it anyway. Truth is, you have no idea how tired she is, how much it hurts to have your body betray you from the inside out. You’re only eighteen years old and to say you understand her is ridiculous. You don’t know a thing about what drives a mother to stay and fight and scrape out breath after breath to be there for you. She does it all for you.
And that’s why you’re here. That’s why you have to tell her.
You know she loves you, but damn it, she told you herself that you’ll never know how much until you’re holding a baby of your own. It’s hard to picture a warm bundle in your arms one day, hard to swallow the idea of being a mother without your own. You can’t think about that now.
No. There’ll be time – plenty of it, years of it – to think about those things. Those hoped-for, bright and future days, every beautiful thing that she’ll miss. But today is not hoped-for. It is not swathed in warmth and joy and the promise of something new. You are laying next to her in bed right now because you have a job to do, an important message to deliver.
So look at her, and try not to hate what you see. It’s hard. You take in the sunken face, the broken front tooth from last month’s fall, the wasted legs that you could wrap your fingers all the way around. It never looks this bad in the movies. It’s not something you can fake for a screen.
Lie there beside her, watching her chest shakily rise and fall. There was a time when a scene like this was reversed, you imagine. Her, tired and overwhelmed but so in love, nuzzled next to you, eyes tracking the rhythmic breathing of her newborn baby girl. Even when you were older, a teenager who let ‘I hate you’ slip out one too many times, she would still come into your room at night, perch on the edge of your bed, and slowly rub your back, feeling your breath fill your lungs. That image: a darkened silhouette, a warm palm, a whispered “I love you,” and the quiet click-close of the door when she slipped out. In the morning you wouldn’t remember if it was a dream, her coming in and softly telling you goodnight. Today it sure feels like all those nights had to be.
You exhale, roll onto your side, curl up next to her, clutching yourself tight. Her eyes flutter open, revealing that faraway look that’s been there these past few weeks since she came home from the hospital. With a sharp intake of breath, you begin.
Try not to hesitate.
Every inch of you will scream that it is not, but you have to say it anyway. Tell her that she can be done, that she can stop, that she can let go.
Lie there, and unfold your life – tell her about all of the things you are going to do and introduce her to all of the people you are going to be.
With your words, take her to high school graduation, the first family vacation planned by Dad, moving into your college dorm. Remind her that you chose your major because you love it, and she’s always encouraged you to chase what you love (even though Dad would love for you to follow his footsteps). Thank her.
There is so much to thank her for. So much of you is her. And laugh, because not all you got from her is good. It’s okay to laugh.
In that dark, quiet room, with the pounds of equipment bunched into the corner, with the January sun setting early outside the window, unfurl your dreams. It doesn’t have to be that pretty eloquence that you work hard for, and it doesn’t have to all make sense – but in a steady and sure voice tell her of all the things that you’re hoping for. She needs to know that you’re still hoping for things, that you’ll keep hoping, even after she’s gone.
You’ll have to say it more than once, again and again, this statement that you will be okay. That you all will be. Your brothers, your dad. Let her know that you’ll keep ‘em in check, that you’ll keep the house clean and the dogs fed, that you’ll dance with the boys at their weddings when they play the Mother-Son song.
Assure her that there is a difference between giving up and letting go, that none of you will ever see her as anyone that “lost” to anything.
Talk about heaven.
There’s a story you never told her, from that high school expedition trip she let you go on two summers back. She was diagnosed right after you got accepted to go, and she didn’t know if she had months or years left. But she sent you off anyway, wanting you to experience a new slice of the world. So you went. You were fifteen years old and a thousand miles from family for the first time, desperately homesick. Tell her how the first morning came and you woke up alone in a vaulted white room with four girls you’d just met, and your groggy eyes opened, surprised by the light. As the early sun poured in the window, in too poured the rich sound of an organ, and you thought for a second God himself was coming back before you realized that just beyond the glass was an old cathedral starting Sunday service. You laid there, the room awash in dazzling light, and calm settled on you like a dove. In the radiance that pierced through that quiet morning, your only though was, “this is what heaven, this is what glory, is.” Tell her about the peace of that moment, about the song, about the light. Tell her she can go there and rest. Tell her that it will be beautiful.
You have so much to tell her, so don’t forget you have time, the two of you in that room. Say you will never, could never, forget her. Say you love her with all of your heart. Say she will always be your mama. Say how grateful you are that God gave you to each other.
Until you both believe it, say that it’s okay. Give your mother, your mama, permission to go. To enter His rest. To be healed. To go home.
She’s too sick to talk. Don’t expect a response. But she’s been listening, and after a few moments she asks you in a soft voice to tell her the story again. The one about the light and peace and heaven.
When you finish, her exhale says it all.
By that day, her eyes had looked glassy for what felt like weeks. Between the tiny lesions in her brain and the wearing down of her body, her mind hadn’t been sharp and she hadn’t spoken much the whole month. There were little moments of conversation sprinkled throughout the days, each a tiny gift, the quickest flashes of normalcy, fading out almost as soon as they begun. None of it was the beautiful, wisdom-filled parting words I was hoping for. Nothing to hold on to if she were to go.
I spent most of my days laying there beside her, quiet, sometimes resting a hand on her arm, her chest. Family and friends would cycle in and out, and I’d try to give everyone a share of one on one time. Every time I left the room, even if just for a moment, I’d tell her “I love you,” longing for her to have the strength to offer it back. I was desperate to hear it, just in case it was the last time.
I don’t remember how much we’d spoken that day, if at all. It was afternoon, and I was back in that heavy room, watching her rest. After some time, she opened up her eyes and rustled in the bed, slowly shifting her position with what little strength she had left. I watched as she stared intently at the wall for a while. Glancing that way, I saw nothing out of the ordinary – just the plain wall, painted a light shade of brown, a few decorations hanging. But she held her gaze, eyes remarkably clear and bright.
“What are you looking at mama?” I ventured, offering my question into the silence, knowing not to count on a reply. But her brown eyes stayed sharp, so I continued. “Do you see something?”
Ever so gently, she nodded, letting out a noise of assent.
“What,” I started, “what do you see?”
A slight pause. And then, in her quiet voice, she spoke.
She said it plainly, matter-of-factly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. As if His presence should never be a surprise. Knowing Him, I suppose it shouldn’t be.
“Is He in the room? Just standing there?”
Again, a gentle nod. I searched for words.
“Does that make you feel happy? It’s probably pretty cool to see Jesus.”
“No…” She faltered a bit, as if to say ‘not quite.’
“How does it make you feel?”
“Hard to describe?”
A nod. Nothing else. Nothing more.
And so the two of us continued to lay there, together in the silence, for who knows how much longer. Time slid slowly in that room.
We sat, side by side, content to rest in a hard to describe moment with an impossibly present God. A God who does not just show up after the mess and redeem broken, ugly things. A God who was, and is there – present, loving, and redeeming – in the breaking.