It’s Mother’s Day. A nationally recognized holiday in America since 1914. For me, it’s a bittersweet day, celebrating the children I have and remembering my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who have passed away.
I lost my mom to breast cancer when she was 44 and I was 16. That was twenty-eight years ago. Right now I am the same age she was when she died.
This age brings new somberness to my yearly mammogram. I wrestle with thankfulness and guilt from tipping the calendar to a new season of having outlived her.
Her battle was short – eleven months from diagnosis to death. One minute we were like countless single-parent families squeezing out a living, sharing laughs and tears along the way. The next minute I am standing beside her coffin in a borrowed dress, not sure where I would live or how I would survive.
In those last months, my mom gave me three gifts I hold more dearly than anything else: a book of poetry written by a mother to her daughter in which my mom underlined words and sentences that she could not speak to me; a “Sweet 16” birthday angel, an annual tradition since my first birthday; and the last night of her life.
It was Valentine’s Day, 1987. My boyfriend at the time made plans to take me to dinner and a movie. My mom and him had a great relationship, once she got passed the fact that he was six years older than me.
She was alone on Valentine’s, with cancer. Neither my boyfriend nor I could reconcile that, so we invited her to join us. He brought each of us a bouquet of flowers. Those are the last flowers she ever received. We enjoyed a nice dinner, then a movie, in which he sat between us and put his arms around both of us. I was so appreciative of his compassion and thoughtfulness toward her. After the movie, he took the sides and top off of his Suzuki Samurai and took her on the ride of her life. I sat in the back, smiling and savoring every squeal, holler and giggle she made as he took her on a joyride down quiet, street-lit streets.
It is a night I will never forget, because it was the last time I saw her let go and really enjoy the moment.
She always gave my sister and me a little something for Valentine’s Day, and this book of poetry is something I would grab if my house ever caught fire. It’s her last words to me. I am thankful and grateful that, although she couldn’t speak them to me, she left them in print so I can read them whenever I want or need to, studying the lines of ink that she drew under special words and phrases. No one has ever seen this book except me.
I am passing down my collection of birthday angels to my only daughter. On her most recent birthday I gave her the last one, the Sweet 16 angel. I’m not sure what I’ll do about year seventeen and address this struggle in my post Sweet 16.
The last gift is one I’m not sure at the time she would have thought of as a gift. She was very sick, but I had plans to go out with some friends. Don’t judge. It’s an impossible world to live in for a teenager – trying to be everything to a dying parent while still trying to live like a normal teenager. Straddling the two is impossible and only winds up tearing the teenager in two.
My family didn’t have the heart to tell me that she wasn’t expected to live through the night. I had no idea, so I kissed her on the forehead, looked into her pale blue, jaundice eyes and whispered, “I love you. I’ll be back.” My grandmother stood crying a few feet away. What a burden she must have carried knowing a reality that she couldn’t bear to tell me as the sound of the oxygen tank rhythmically rumbled near Mom’s Hospice bed.
It was only a few weeks before that I came home from school and knew something had radically changed in Mom. We were living at my grandparents’ home by then, as Mom was unable to care for herself. I made my way to the back of their small, ranch home to the bedroom where Mom was resting.
She had spent weeks listening to Dr. Freddy Price’s cassette tapes on healing. She was the hardest fighter I’ve ever known – in cancer, as a single mom, and in countless ways that no one outside the family knew.
On this day, however, I walked into her room and saw a small cardboard box sitting on the floor by the dresser. Glancing down, I noticed all of Price’s tapes stacked neatly in the box, ready to go.
At sixteen, I didn’t know how to talk about what I saw, but I understood what it meant. She had given up, or accepted that, she wouldn’t be miraculously healed.
My childlike perspective couldn’t wrap my head around it. To me, Mom was still invincible and death was nowhere near an option. She had to heal. She had to live. She had to finish raising me.
On what would be her last night, I returned to my grandparents’ home late with a friend who was spending the night. Looking back, I can’t imagine having a friend spend the night in this situation, and can only reason that my grandparents were trying to protect me from the truth about her impending death and were completely numb at the whole situation which would be why they allowed this.
She and I were sleeping on the living room floor when I awoke at 2 a.m. and had to go to the bathroom. I stumbled down the hall, trying not to squeak the parquet floors which had been damaged in three separate floods from past hurricanes.
I went to the bathroom and as I left I looked to my right. The door to my mom’s bedroom was within arm’s reach. I wondered how she was doing and thought it would be good to check on her.
I pressed my ear to the door and heard the familiar rumbling of the oxygen tank and grasped the doorknob to enter.
Suddenly, I heard the strongest, most fierce “NO!” I’ve ever heard in my life. I couldn’t tell if I heard it with my ears or in my mind. Stunned and sleepy, I stood there for a second, paralyzed to move or make a decision.
This NO! was so sure, so concrete, I could do nothing but obey it.
I released the doorknob and crept back to the living room and went back to sleep.
At 7 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of an ambulance and fire truck. Groggy, I sat up and tried to collect my thoughts. Next, I heard the sound of heavy footsteps of men in uniforms walking in a group on the squeaky parquet floors, headed toward Mom’s room.
Right then I knew she had died.
Later, our beloved youth pastor told me that at exactly 2 a.m., his wife sat up in bed and said, “Alice just died.”
How could she know that?
I spent years processing that night – the guilt over going out with friends; the guilt of having a friend spend the night; anger at my family for not telling me how sick she really was; and the strange events of 2 a.m. I am thankful for counselors who sojourneyed with me through the grief and pain of her loss.
There was a time in her battle with cancer when Mom looked at me and said, “I’m only living for you and your sister. Ya’ll are the only reason I am living.”
I had to work through the irrational logic that told me at some point along the way we became not worth the fight and that is why she gave up and died. That voice didn’t sound at all like what my mom would do. She gave everything she had to raise us. She sacrificed her time, energy, and money to pour into us. This couldn’t have been what happened.
A few years ago, God unraveled the mystery of that night for me.
I knew that night it was God’s voice who told me NO! but I had no idea why. To me, I was simply going to check on her like I did so many times in the evenings at the hospital where I did my homework after school, often falling asleep in the hard, pleather chair by her bed.
But I had heard that voice once before. I was fourteen on a youth retreat with my church. God called me to Himself in an unexpected moment. His voice was so loud, so clear, I turned to my friends to see if they had heard it, too.
His voice is like no other. There is absolutely no mistaking it. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, my palms sweat and commands full attention of my heart, mind and soul. There is one God and one voice, and once it is heard it is unmistakable.
As sure as I write, knowing my mom and my God, I know exactly what happened at 2 a.m. in that bedroom. He had come to take her home…and she didn’t want to go.
She was the kind of mom who cheered for, fought for, laughed with, protected, nurtured and loved us. We had already survived two broken marriages, one of which was extremely scary. She endured a dead-end job in an oppressive atmosphere to put food on the table. She volunteered for any position that kept her involved in our lives. She hid her personal agony from us so we wouldn’t bear her pain.
I know my mom. She would never have given up without a fight.
I also know my God. He is caring and compassionate. He is trustworthy and faithful.
I can only imagine that conversation between the two of them. I would love to know what He said to her to convince her to leave us without a mom or dad and me still in high school with no money or anything tangible to survive on.
Something happened in that bedroom at 2 a.m. Something so extraordinary, she (who had told me we were her reason to live) had permission to die.
That something is her last, best gift to me. It has a name.
What I believe with all my heart is that she wrestled with God over staying in unfathomable pain and suffering for us, or leaving with God, trusting He would care for my sister and me.
I do not believe she hopped the first plane to heaven, finally escaping eleven months of pure agony. She would still choose to suffer today if it meant she didn’t have to leave us.
But, whatever God said, whatever He promised, she believed. She chose to have faith that He would watch over us. He would be our Heavenly Father. He would care for us. Provide for us. And, knowing Mom and how much of her time and herself she gave to us, He promised her He would stay with us.
Could she trust God with us? Could she surrender to His plan to heal her in heaven and not forget about two daughters left on earth?
Could she inhale one last time, knowing her next breath would be in a supernatural body? Could she accept the fact that she would miss the majority of our lives – my high school graduation, our college graduations, our weddings, the birth of our children (her grandchildren), and all of the joys and triumphs, falls and failures in between?
The only way a mother, who is wholly and completely committed to her children, could leave them is if she trusts the hands she is leaving them in.
She chose to have faith in God and His promises in the most difficult, painful moments of her life. When He took her home, I’m not sure if the cause of death was cancer or her heart literally breaking for all she was leaving.
But somewhere in those moments at 2 a.m. she chose to believe God and trust Him.
Being a mother myself, I would have fought Him with everything I had to stay for my children. It would not have been an easy battle. I would have gone kicking and screaming, at least proverbially if not literally.
However, I hold her faith in my hands, her last gift, and think, “Could I do the same? Can I trust God that much to step out of this life, believing He is already here walking with my children?”
Can I have that same kind of faith that surrenders to God and trusts that He is trustworthy?
I can because He fulfills His promises to her every day. He has never left me. He holds me in the hard moments. He picks me up when life kicks me down. He laughs with me. Cries with me. Fights for me. Stays with me. Tends to me. Shows me mercy. Celebrates with me. Calms me down and talks me off my ledges. He loves me with an everlasting love and goes out of His way to show me in the most creative, unexpected and timely people, places and experiences.
He is fulfilling His promise to her. I know that full well because I am the receiver of that promise. I am living proof.
So on this Mother’s Day, I think about what gift, what legacy I am leaving my children.
I want to leave them the gift of faith. Not just some sense of a trending spirituality.
A timeless faith. A faith that has been fire-tested, tires bald, rode hard and hung up wet. Faith that has gotten dirty, been stepped on and doubted. Faith that does not swerve with circumstance and will not be diluted with false doctrine. Faith that stands its ground in the face of adversity and persecution. Faith that protects. Hopes. And overflows with joy that cannot be shaken.
My mom was strong. She was beautiful inside and out. She loved to laugh. She put others first, to a fault. She never stopped trying to help, to please, to give.
In all of the moments that made her the best mom in the world to me, it was her last night at 2 a.m. when the culmination of her life and belief in the One true God intersected and she chose to respond to Him in faith.
This is the last, and best, gift she gave me. I carry her inspiration in my heart and seek to have that same kind of audacious faith in God in my own life.
More than anything tangible I could leave my children, my heart’s desire is to leave them the legacy of faith in God through Christ Jesus because He is faithful and trustworthy. He’s proven Himself to both my mom and me. He is good all the time, especially on Mother’s Day.
I love you, Mom. Thank you.