Remembering A Long Good-bye

28 04 2014

DSC_0104Patsy Harper Leftwich
July 11, 1932 – April 28, 2013

Shortly after Mom died, one year ago today, I promised I would share in this space some of the beautiful ways God worked during the final weeks of her life. Well, now I’m finally making good on that promise. I had the privilege of speaking at the beginning and the end of Mom’s memorial service. What you’re about to read is mostly copied from the thoughts I shared that day. It blessed me to re-read these memories today, and I hope this glimpse into our journey will bless you as well.

From the introduction:

It was probably twenty or twenty-five years ago that Mom heard about a lady who had planned her own funeral before she died. If you knew my Mom well, you won’t be surprised to hear that she loved the idea of wielding artistic control over her own grand finale. So she started a file. And whenever she heard or remembered something she wanted included at her funeral, she added it to the file.

We’re going to honor her wishes today. All the Bible verses you will hear and the two hymns that will be sung were specifically chosen by Patsy. You will also hear lots of stories and a few other songs that she didn’t choose. We as her family members put those in — partly because she’s not here to stop us, but mostly because we love her and these things remind us of her.

Some of you might listen to these stories and observe the obvious love and closeness of our family — you might consider all the talents Patsy possessed, the tender faithfulness of her devoted husband, and all the many, many blessings that were poured out on her in the course of her beautiful life — and you might go away thinking, “What a lucky lady she was!” And yet. Not one of us would listen to a gorgeous symphony and walk away saying, “How lucky that all those notes came together in such a wonderful way!” No. We would leave the concert hall filled with admiration for the musicians, yes, but with an even greater awe and gratitude toward the composer whose heart first dreamed the music and whose mind crafted such a magnificent work of art. We wouldn’t have to see the composer to know he exists and to recognize his presence in the music.

As you listen to the beautiful music of Patsy’s life, our prayer today is that you will recognize the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows. The Almighty Composer is here, even if we can’t see Him.

And with that thought, I give you the first of Patsy’s chosen Bible verses, Psalm 118:24: “This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Let the celebration begin.

5699_10200257852348983_169056786_nSetting up for the service

1014371_10200257852188979_778986930_nJimmy and Dad

993780_10200257853189004_38159046_nCurtis and Grace singing Corcovado

179782_10200257855189054_140023456_nDad with his children, children-in-law, grandchildren, grandchildren-in-law, and great grandchildren
(all of the above photos from the memorial provided by my cousin, Patsy Keller)

And from the closing:

During the summer of 2010 two things became inescapably evident. One was that Mom had some form of dementia and it was getting worse. The other was that something was causing extreme pain in her right leg. Soon we had answers on both accounts. Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Today we’re celebrating Patsy and the beautiful gifts, talents, and relationships that enriched and defined her life. But if we chose to ignore the last three difficult years, we would also miss some of the sweetest mercies she and our family ever received. Because the truth is, no life is all parties and laughter, and that’s ultimately a good thing. There are gifts we receive in the hardest seasons of life that can’t be given any other way, and it’s usually in those times that God’s strong hand of love is no longer hidden in the shadows, but rather, is plainly seen — comforting, upholding, and providing what we may not have even known we needed. Mom’s final years were hard on her and on all of us who love her and suffered with her. They were hard, but they were also richly blessed with beautiful gifts, big and small. It would take far too long to detail every mercy, but I want to take a few minutes now to share some of the bigger gifts with you.

DSC_0002 copyDad and Mom

-17With Harper Sparrow in 2010

Throughout Mom’s illness my father was the picture of patience, devotion, and tenderness. One by one he let go of his freedoms to take care of Mom, and he did it without complaint or bitterness. But anyone who has been a primary caregiver knows that after a while, the walls begin to close in. As Mom got worse, Dad became a prisoner in his own home. He was determined to keep her there, but he also knew he needed to protect his health and sanity, for her sake as well as his own. And that’s when the first big gift was given.

DSC_0014Mom, Luke, Sarah, and Dad. Housemates.

I wish I could take the time to unfold the series of events that led to Luke and Sarah moving in with my parents, but I will only say that there was no mistaking God’s strong hand of love in every detail. Not that things suddenly became easy for anyone. Mom still had cancer and Alzheimer’s. She was confused and at times unpleasant, and trying to meet her needs was often very stressful, but now there was community to share the load, and with that community came love, laughter, music, and prayer. Several months after they moved in, Naomi was born, bringing new life and unspeakable joy into the home.

DSC_0314June 5, 2011. Naomi is born.

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It was still very hard. It was also very beautiful. But it couldn’t go on that way forever. Mom finished her cancer treatments and started regaining her strength, but her confusion got worse. Naomi grew and was underfoot, and the time came when Luke and Sarah felt it would be best for everyone if they moved out.

And then the next big gift was given. A house across the street became available, and George, Jacob, and I moved to Dallas. Luke and Sarah bought a house five minutes down the road, and now we had four generations living in close community. Lois also joined us for two months during the summer of 2012, and other family members visited as often as they could.

-8My parents and their four children at our house in Dallas

We settled into workable routines, but new challenges kept arising and many new decisions had to be made. We’d never walked this particular path before. How does one know which home health care provider to choose? And what do we do when Mom is angry and lashes out and refuses to let anyone touch her? As some of you know all too well from your own experience, the constantly changing unknown is an intimidating place to be, and the knowledge that your loved one isn’t going to get better but continually worse and worse makes it even heavier. We tried a few things that didn’t go too well, and I admit we were getting tired and frustrated, and then?

Another big gift was given. A young woman I know heard about our situation and sent me a Facebook message. She told me about her mom, Angela, who lives in Dallas, is an RN certified in elder care, and owns a company that exists specifically for the purpose of helping families like ours make a care-giving plan.

We contacted Angela, and she walked us through figuring out what Mom needed and where to find it. She also educated us on what to expect down the road. She asked good questions and empowered us to make informed decisions, and when Mom started sleeping a lot more and eating a lot less, she suggested that there was probably something other than Alzheimer’s going on. She arranged some tests and then a doctor’s appointment.

That’s when we found out Mom’s cancer was back. Her doctor recommended hospice. And Angela walked us through that process as well.

DSC_0177With Naomi, Easter 2013, less than one month before Mom died

And that brings me to the last two weeks of Mom’s life. We didn’t know it was the last two weeks, but we knew she didn’t have long.

Even before we discovered that Mom’s cancer was back and her prognosis was only a couple of months, Lois had planned to spend her spring break in Dallas. She arrived on April 12th and spent the week helping with Mom’s care. She got to lie down beside her on the bed and hold her hand and say everything she wanted to say to her. While Lois was in town, Sharon, Glen, Nathan, Meghan, Brandon, and Molly also came over, and we all gathered around Mom in the kitchen and sang some of her favorite songs. Knowing this would be her last good-bye, Lois left on April 21st.

On April 22nd, Grace and Curtis and their children arrived, and on the 23rd, Mom sat up in her wheel chair in the living room to listen as they sang some of the Brazilian jazz songs she loves. She commented and clapped after each song, and smiled with delight whenever she looked at baby Malia.

IMG_0535April 23

That was the last day Patsy was able to speak or get out of bed.

Friday, April 26, a bunch of family came to town for Harper’s 3rd birthday party. Jimmy, who had been in Taiwan on business, flew directly into Dallas to attend the party and then spend the weekend with Mom and Dad. Deb drove up from Austin and met him here.

Saturday afternoon, Angela stopped by Mom and Dad’s house because she was in the neighborhood, and after checking on Mom, she sat down with me, Dad, and Jimmy and gently explained that Mom probably had only a few days. She mentioned some specific bodily reactions to watch for, and also told us exactly how things would unfold with hospice once Mom died. Later the same day the three of us were taking care of Mom and noticed some of the symptoms Angela had described.

I’d already begun looking through Mom’s funeral file in preparation for writing her obituary and planning this service. Saturday afternoon I pulled out the typed pages containing the scriptures and hymns you’ve heard today, and that evening, Sharon and I sat on the bed with Mom. We read the verses and sang the hymns. We told her what a good Mom she had been to us, and how much we loved her. She couldn’t speak, but she reached out for our hands. We told her that we knew she was dying and that Dad knew she was dying, and that she didn’t have to hold on for him or for us. We reminded her that Christ had died on the cross to provide her a way to heaven. If she was ready, she could let go.

When I walked across the street to go home that night, I had the strong sense that my father was about to have his last conversation with my mother, and I prayed for him, that he would be able to say everything he wanted to say to her.

The next morning I attended the early service at our church and then drove straight to their house. When I arrived around 10:30, Jim and Deb were there with Dad, and the three of them were having breakfast in the dining room. Before Dad even spoke, I knew what he was going to say. Mom was gone.

And this was another big gift. He hadn’t had to face this moment alone.

While we waited for hospice to arrive, I slipped into their room. Mom had died in her sleep. Her eyes were closed, and the look on her face was relaxed and serene. For the past year and a half, I’d had a front row seat at this final movement in her life’s symphony. I’d walked with her through the valley of the shadow of death, and now she’d reached the other side. I wasn’t sure what to expect in that moment — wasn’t sure what I should be feeling or thinking. What I did feel was the quiet, calming presence of God, and what I found myself thinking was not about my loss or Dad’s loss or all the suffering and pain Mom had endured, but rather the faithfulness, mercies, and goodness of God throughout the past three years, His grace in offering her the free gift of salvation, and His kindness in allowing so many of her loved ones the opportunity to say good-bye.

And in that moment, the natural response was worship. I bowed my head and commended her soul to the Lord. Then I lifted my hands and sang the song you’re about to hear now.

983585_10200257854029025_529560384_nAt this point in the service, all of my mother’s grandchildren and their spouses sang “Restoration” accompanied by me on the piano, Nathan on the guitar, and Luke on the cajon. In the video below, we only had about half the grandchildren, but we tried our best to reproduce the moment.

Mourning into dancing, weeping into laughing, sadness into joy. He really does make all things new.

Hallelujah, hallelujah.

* * *


I realize this is long for a blog post. This one is mostly for posterity
and, of course, for anyone else who wants to join us in remembering Mom.

Thank you for your patience, friends.





Happy Mother’s Day

12 05 2013

DSC_0028pm

I love you, Mom.

xo





A Long Good-bye (Part Three)

1 05 2013

-2

April 22, 2013: I walk in the front door like I always do, computer in hand, expecting Mom to be asleep and planning to get some work done while Dad goes to the gym and the store. But he isn’t sitting at the kitchen table as usual.

I hear him call my name, follow the sound of his voice, and find them both sitting on the edge of their bed. “Mom heard you come in and wanted to see you,” he says.

She swallows a mouthful of Ensure with effort, then looks into my eyes and smiles. Her face is drawn and sallow, but her smile manages to light her large green eyes. “Hi,” she barely whispers.

“Hi, Mom. How are you today?”

“Okay, I guess.” Her voice is raspy and weak.

There’s a small plastic bowl on the bed along with a half dozen used tissues, and I know they’ve spent the past few minutes trying to clear the phlegm from her throat. Her hand is shaking, so Dad holds the glass of Ensure steady and offers her another sip, but she refuses. He hands me the glass and I take it along with the bowl of spit. When I return, she’s trying to say something but can’t find the words — a new development with her. The past couple of days she’s been saying random things and asking nonsensical questions.

She’s obviously frustrated. Dad kisses her on the head and says, “You’re a sweet girl, and I love you.” His touch and voice are so tender I want to cry, but that’s the way he has always been. With her, with his children. His heart is a safe home.

She whispers, “I love you, too.” Then she tries again to find the words she couldn’t find before, but all she manages is, “I can’t (long pause) determine (long pause) what . . .” Her voice trails off, and she brushes at imaginary lint or crumbs or something on her pants. He kisses her again and helps her lie down, and I ask her if she wants me to stay or leave the room to let her rest.

“Please stay.” Her eyes have already closed and her breathing is even. I sit at the end of the bed and watch her, study her, try to take her in,  and even though I see her every day, I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this.

My mother is dying. She’s lying on her side in a loose fetal position, and was it really that long ago that my infant form curled much the same way inside her womb? Was it really that long ago this fragile woman was young and beautiful and full of life, her strong, healthy body swollen with mine? I imagine her in labor, awaking in the night to feed me, holding me when I cried and comforting me with soft songs. She influenced my life in a thousand big and little ways, day adding to day, and year to year, and here we are.

I sit at the end of the bed and watch her, and the prayers rise of themselves — that the God of the universe who created this woman for His glory would come. That He would fill the room and her thoughts with His presence. That light would shine and darkness would tremble and that the God who welcomes sinners would take her frail body into His strong arms and carry her the rest of the way Home. Oh, Jesus, will you carry her Home?

Something startles her awake and she sees me. Surprise becomes pleasure and she says, “Jeanne?”

“Yes.”

“Have you been sitting there all this time?”

“It hasn’t been very long. You asked me to stay and I like to be near you. I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too.” She pauses and then says, “Do you have any pah . . .”

“Do I have any what?”

“Do you have any pah . . .”

I wait.

“Do you have any positives . . . for Christmas?”

I puzzle a bit, then say, “At Christmas I like to celebrate the birth of Jesus and spend time with the people I love.”

After another pause she says, “Well, do you have any ideas? For Christmas?”

No, I tell her. I haven’t been thinking about Christmas, because it’s still a long way off.

But I’m thinking about it now. Thinking about a silent night split wide by the cries of a woman in labor — about Almighty God coming to us as a helpless baby, entering this world the same way my mother did and I did and every other human being has. Coming to us on purpose to die in our place. I’m thinking about what it cost the holy God of heaven to offer us peace, and how we see and receive so little of all we’ve been given, distracted as we are with so many silly things.

And the song we sang in church yesterday — the one that wiped me out — it echoes in my thoughts again.

When we arrive at eternity’s shore, and death is just a memory, and tears are no more.
We’ll enter in as the wedding bells ring, Your bride will come together and we’ll sing,
You’re beautiful.

* * *

May 1, 2013: That’s as far as I got on April 22. Then I saved the draft, and family arrived from out of town, and a busy week culminated in a weekend of celebration, and then early Sunday morning? She went. Peacefully, in her sleep. And I will write out all the mercies of those last two weeks, because they are many. I will write them here soon, for you and for me, and I will remember them, because they magnify the One whose strong hand of love is always, always hidden in the shadows.

Friends, I thank you for your prayers. May I ask that, as often as you think of us, you continue? Especially for my Daddy.

Jesus, I thank you for my mother’s life. That every day ordained for her was written in Your Book before there was one of them. I thank you for the cross. And I thank you for hope, and for peace, and that every breath is grace.

Jesus, You’re good. So very good.

And so very, very beautiful.

* * *

For those who are interested,
you can read my mom’s obituary here.

Much love.

 





A Long Good-bye (Part Two)

9 04 2013

DSC_0052

Dear Mom,

First, I want to say thank you. Thank you for always letting me be who I was created to be. Even when you couldn’t understand, you never tried to change me. For this I am deeply and eternally grateful. I’ve always known I could be honest with you and you would accept and love me. That’s an amazing gift, and it emboldens me now to bare my heart.

There are many things that I long to say to you — or rather, that I long for you to hear. Some of them I have said before and others I have attempted to say, but in recent months I’m not sure my words have penetrated the fog of forgetfulness or the bone-deep weariness that no amount of sleep seems to satisfy.

And now? That longing has become urgent.

A couple of weeks ago we found out your cancer is back. The doctor predicts you have four-to-six weeks left.

Soon your spirit will leave your body. You’ll stand face to face with God, and Mom? I have to say this. I know we’ve gone ’round and ’round about Jesus for the past forty years, and sometimes you’ve been annoyed by my “fanaticism,” but all those conversations have been swirling in my head, and I can’t let it go. Not now, with death standing at the door.

God’s timing is always purposeful. It’s no accident that the news of your cancer’s recurrence ushered us into Holy Week. It accompanied me as Jesus broke the bread and poured out the wine, and as He stooped to wash His disciples’ feet. I felt its weight as He bowed low in the garden and prayed, “Not my will, but Thine be done,” and again as He silently endured hatred, mockery, and scorn — all crimes He knew He would soon willingly take the blame for along with every other sin that ever had been or ever would be committed.

The news of your cancer rang in my ears as the crowds shouted, “Crucify Him!” and as He stumbled under the weight of His cross through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to Golgotha.

And as I heard Perfect Love utter, “Father, forgive them”?

It was for you. For you.

And I want to be sure you know this, but I fumble for words, and then I open the Word, and Isaiah speaks.

A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

The word of our God will stand forever. And this is the word of our God:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:11,27-28)

And this from Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And this is what I hope with all my heart that you know: that God has made this beautiful, pursuing love available to you, to me, and to anyone who hears his voice and follows, but that’s the only offer on the table. There is no one good enough, no one entertaining enough (you once told me God wanted you in heaven because you’re fun), no one even remotely deserving of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We can’t earn God’s favor, and the good news is we don’t have to try. Even when we were filthy, disgusting, and putrid in our sins, Christ loved us, came for us, died for us, rose from the dead, and has gone to prepare a place for us.

We can’t do anything, and we don’t have to. He has done it all.

I hope you understand that you can only come to Him empty handed. You can’t do or be a single thing to gain eternal life. You can only receive it. God loves us so much, He sent His only Son to take our guilt, our shame, our lies and selfishness, and to replace them with His goodness and perfection.

Jesus laid down His life for the sins of the whole world, but that doesn’t make salvation automatic. God is loving and good, but He is also fair, and eternal death is our due. Eternal life is a free gift Jesus paid the ultimate price to offer, but He doesn’t force it on anyone.

A long, long time ago you told me you believed Jesus was God’s Son and that He came to show us how to live. When I asked you why He died on the cross, you said, “I don’t know. I’ve always been upset with God about that.”

And I don’t remember what I said back then, but I want to say this now: Yes, Jesus did show us how to live, but that’s not why He came. He came to die our death. He came to break the teeth of cancer and Alzheimer’s and pride and self-sufficiency — to obey His Father’s will, to pay the penalty for the sins of the human race, and to usher us whole and holy back into the presence of God.

You are fun, Mom, but God doesn’t invite party guests into His kingdom. He adopts sons and daughters.

In your lifetime you have feasted abundantly on common grace. You’ve been cherished, protected, and provided for. Your husband adores you, your friends admire you, and your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren love you dearly. Your portion has been sweet.

But the flower is fading. The grass is withering. And God’s Word is relentless. Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.

You’ve feasted on common grace — the sun that shines and the rain that falls on the just and the unjust — but have you ever tasted saving grace? Have you heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and followed Him?

If you haven’t, there’s still time. Jesus’ body was broken for you. His blood was shed for you. Take. Eat. Even now the Lord of the universe stoops low to wash your feet. Won’t you fall into His embrace and live forever?

I love you so much, Mom, but not nearly as much as God does. Please hear. And please, please be His.

When it comes time for good-bye, may you go in peace.

And may we meet again.

Your daughter,
Jeanne





A Long Good-bye (Part One)

28 02 2013

DSC_0050

“Who’s that girl over there?”

I’m standing at the stove making tea. Mom is a couple of feet away, sitting at the kitchen table with Dad.

“That’s our daughter,” he tells her. “Jeanne.”

And this is the new reality. Her face a distorted mask of fear, confusion, and frustration. The endless stream of questions that circle around and around but never land — like a bewildered dove, lost in the fog, and wasn’t there once an ark and a warm nest, and why can’t I find my way back there?

These eyes that embraced my newborn face, that delighted in my first steps — that read aloud innumerable pages, the words inviting me into Alice’s Wonderland and the Secret Garden and the Hundred Acre Wood, expanding my horizons and giving my imagination wings. These once passionate eyes, that smoldered at my willful disobedience and glowed at my simple accomplishments, now dull. Suspicious. Distant.

Or angry. And she lashes out with cruel, unfiltered words, mocking, accusing, working herself into a fury. “I don’t understand any of this! I don’t need a babysitter! Why don’t you just go home! Go home!”

I steady my voice, try to explain that I’m not there to babysit but to keep her company, and I’m not going home until Dad gets back. She snorts her disgust, snatches her walker, and retreats to her last safe place, hobbling into her bedroom, disappearing into the oblivion of sleep. And I collapse on the couch, my heart all one aching prayer. Jesus, meet her in her dreams. You know what she needs. Please, come Lord Jesus, and meet her in her dreams.

Once upon a time, I wrote a song just for them — a thank you for countless gifts given and a prayer for only good to come — and George and I recorded it on my twenty-first birthday. The chorus echoed a childhood bedtime routine, a dialog that played out night after night, with their, “We love you, Jeanne,” and my, “I love you, too.” Then “Sweet dreams, now” and “Same to you.” And I’m back there in my mind, bowed bedside on little knees, praying the Lord my soul to keep.

And if I die before I wake?

When we’re alone, she often asks me if Dad is dead, but one day after I said no, she asked, “Am I dead?” And I wonder, can the fog get so thick that waking feels closer to death than sleep?

The song’s last chorus ended with, “It’s not just Jeanne loving you, sweet Jesus loves you, too. And I pray He’ll bless Mommy and Daddy forever, Amen.” She played that recording for anyone who would listen; played it again and again until the cassette tape wore out, and there wasn’t another copy, and how is it that we treat our memories so carelessly, as though they, like God’s blessing, will last forever?

Sweet dreams, now.

Oh, God. Please.

I spend part of almost every day with her, but these furtive, frightened eyes, they rarely recognize me now. Rarely, yes, but there are still moments when I crack a joke, and she laughs out loud, and she turns and looks at me — sees me — and the happy years dance in her eyes again, like a hint of a wisp of the splendid energy that marked my childhood home, where banter begot banter, and we laughed until tears flowed and our tummies ached.

It flickers there, a spark, and I grasp the moment for what it is.

A gift.

Because I’m learning that each moment is the only one, and I beg God for wisdom, for creativity, for the right words that will comfort and calm, but all He keeps whispering is enter these moments with her. So I lean hard into grace, and I try.

We sit in the same kitchen where seven-year-old me packed her lunch-box — the pink one with the black poodle on the front — and it was PB and J on Mrs. Baird’s Bread and Lay’s Potato Chips and a baggie filled with Chips Ahoy. I open the pantry and can almost see the colorful row of cereal boxes — froot loops, and that silly rabbit, and I could honestly use a few lucky charms about now — but today those shelves are much less crowded and chaotic. Pistachios and prunes. Olive oil. A bottle of wine. This kitchen where she worked the NY Times crossword puzzle every morning, and slapped together hamburger helper for dinner, and all six of us sat in the orange molded-plastic chairs around the Formica-topped table, arguing or singing or sharing adventures from the day. It was loud and safe, a place where children were not only seen, they were heard and celebrated.

I was seen. Heard. Celebrated.

And now, almost fifty years later, those orange plastic chairs and that same round table remain — but the children are grown and have children who have children, and she sits alone in her place, her eyes shifting here and there, and she asks me, “Is this our house?”

“Yes,” I say. “You and Dad live here together.”

She looks again, slow, searching deep, and when she asks the next question, my heart is as tortured as her face.

“Why don’t I recognize it?”

I don’t answer, because I don’t know.

I don’t know why God leads some of us into dense fog at the end of life’s journey. I don’t know why the Alzheimer’s-afflicted suffer a long, slow fade, slipping farther and farther away, while those who love and care for them watch and grieve and offer comfort that can never cure. But who am I to question His goodness or demand that He give different gifts?

No, I don’t know the why, but I know the Who — that there is a God who knits us together in our mothers’ wombs and numbers our days, and no, I’m not equal to this, but I haven’t been equal to a lot of things God has chosen for me, and He has proven Himself faithful and immeasurably more in them all. I’ve learned to trust His ways — to keep my eyes open for the beauty that He always creates out of His children’s brokenness, the beauty that He must create because He is Redeemer, and everything He touches He makes free.

I’m not equal to this, and that is part of the gift. His strength in my weakness. His sufficient grace. If I could see my way clearly, what need would there be to reach for Him? So then. Even the fog is a gift.

I enter these moments with her, and I can’t see the next step in front of me, but this one thing I do have.

I can feel the pressure of His hand in mine, and it is enough.

* * *

{Dear friends, I haven’t written much about my mom’s Alzheimer’s, but lately I’ve been sensing that I need to wrap words around this journey. I don’t know how often I’ll come back to it, but future posts in this vein will also be titled A Long Good-bye, mostly for the sake of anyone who would rather not go there. Believe me, I know it’s hard. But this is where I live right now, and words are the way I process. As I expected, writing this post was cathartic for me. I pray it’s a blessing to someone else, too. Thank you for understanding.}





Who they are

10 09 2012

The coffee shop bustles with activity. Moms in work-out gear grabbing a latte for the road, business people conferring with colleagues or tapping away at their computers, and probably at least one writer, fingers poised over keyboard, awaiting caffeinated inspiration.

All the tables are taken, so we carry our coffee and scones to the counter by the window and perch on stools, a hodgepodge of humanity coming, going, talking, and laughing around us.

I’ve known her only a couple of months, but it doesn’t matter. We commune as sister to sister, soldier to soldier, our connection immediate and soul deep. She, too, has a story of beauty from brokenness, and she laughs with the freedom that comes from knowing nothing can separate her from God’s love. No stranger to pain, darkness, and hope-waiting-long, she lives in the tension of already-but-not-yet, confident in her assurance that all things must serve His purpose.

This confidence lights her smile with peace.

I drink deeply the river of life flowing through her and over me — swallow it right down to my bones, because the truth is, I’m tired. Tired, and thirstier than I realized.

Our conversation ranges wide, all its paths winding back to Truth, and I sense that these moments matter — that they won’t be lost but are etched in eternity. She shares her journey (she already knows mine), and as story begets story, I tell her about a time I glimpsed true greatness.

We’re both amazed by the higher ways of God’s upside-down kingdom, and then, without warning, it happens.

There may be a thousand reasons God wanted me right here, right now, celebrating His faithfulness with this friend. But what she tells me next rips a veil from my eyes, transforming this busy coffee shop into the house of God and the gate of heaven.

It’s the story of a mother and her son. And it’s so much more.

When Michael was born, the doctors told his mother, Angela, that he was missing a chromosome. They said he probably wouldn’t live more than a few months, and even if he lived longer, he would never walk. Never talk. Never live a normal life.

Michael did live. He’s going on his eighteenth birthday. And he not only walks, he dances with joyful abandon. But his condition causes complicated problems that aren’t easy to pinpoint or treat. He can’t talk, and even though he can use an iPad to communicate, Angela is often left guessing what to do for him. The past eighteen years have been spent in and out of medical facilities, and many nights she is awakened to come to his aid for one reason or another.

One night she was up yet again at 2:00 AM, massaging his feet, trying but failing to relieve his pain, and she wept for sheer exhaustion and frustration. And then God spoke.

Do you know what a privilege it is to serve Michael?

The question startled her. But that wasn’t all God said.

You have no idea who he is.

These words — this truth — it blazes with the sun’s brilliance, blinding me with reborn sight. This is it! The puzzle piece I’ve been groping for, the mystery I’ve been missing. I’m looking at my friend, but I might as well be looking straight into the eyes of Christ, because Jesus is speaking these words to me here, now, as surely as He spoke them to Angela in the dark night of her discouragement.

You have no idea who he is. Who she is. Your son with his brain injury. Your mother with her Alzheimer’s. Your heavy-laden father with his tender, generous, broken heart. You have no idea.

And yet, shouldn’t it have been obvious? How could I have missed it? Here I’ve been, purposeful parent to the one and dutiful daughter to the two, stoically taking up my cross, enduring as though Christ’s kingdom, the salvation of my loved ones, and everything good and holy depended on me.

You have no idea who they are.

Oh, yes. I’ve been obedient. And prayerful. And much of the time I’ve even remembered to cast myself on the Lord, leaning on His grace moment by moment. (Of course, I’ve also noticed myself doing and being these things — the self-righteous always do.) I’ve taken to heart that I’m called to be salt and light, but deep down I’ve wanted a bigger, more glamorous hill for my little city to shine on. I’ve imagined the beautiful things I could be doing for God if only I didn’t have these obligations, and I’ve comforted myself with the hope that He’s using these difficult days to sanctify and equip me for fancier, funner ministry — a ministry that makes better use of “my gifts.”

Ugh. Am I really that pathetic? My son. My mother. My father. They are the gift. And infinitely more.

Jesus never said, “Impress presidents, and you’ll impress Me.” He never said, “Win awards on earth, and you’ll win awards in Heaven.” But He did say, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for Me.”

You have no idea who they are. It’s time to wake up.

We’re still sitting in the coffee shop, perched on our stools amidst a rush of sights, smells, and sounds. But in the realer Real a ladder reaches from here all the way to heaven. I’ve been asleep in the middle of nowhere, beating my aching head against this stone, and now I’m stunned awake and find myself face to face with God.

I came here today to meet a friend, and Jesus showed up. Words can’t express the wonder of such a kind, undeserved, unexpected gift. But I know it doesn’t mean the challenges are over — that life from now on will be all music and roses. And that’s okay. Because He gave me exactly what I needed to enter these moments fully with gratitude and holy joy. No, I don’t have it all figured out, and I’m sure I’ll struggle and stumble again. But this one amazing, humbling thing I do have, and I pray I never forget.

I know who they are.

* * *

Giving thanks in community for (#576 – 601)

Mom
Dad
Jacob
friendship
encouragement
holy places everywhere
stories that help us remember
Peggy
Elaine
Lizzie
birthday flowers from George
Luke at the door with birthday surprises at 7:30 AM
a clean house
traveling mercies
conviction of sin
the promise of wisdom
provision
George’s voice over the phone
grace that covers even the oldest, deepest wounds
Sarah’s insight
Luke’s servant heart
a serendipitous meeting on the way to church
Naomi in my lap on the shuttle bus
worship with beloveds
a long chat with Grace (who wears her name so well)





Never Enough

13 05 2012

You were a stay-at-home mom, who married in 1954 at age twenty-two, and by deliberate design gave birth to four children before you reached thirty. And I bet if I stopped right there and said nothing more, no one would have the slightest clue who you really were.

Because June Cleaver you were not.

You were more comfortable wielding a paint brush than a spatula. More at home behind a microphone than in front of a stove. A complicated recipe unnerved you much more than a television camera.

You were a free spirit, and you gave your children the gift of freedom.

You recognized that we were not extensions of you, but our own selves, and you encouraged us to explore all the possibilities of what that meant.

You were fun and funny. Playful and passionate. True, your temper could be a bit on the heated side, but your love was every bit as intense.

And we flourished in that love. All four of us. You instilled in us a confidence that didn’t bow to the crowd. You gave us the wide-angled view and by your own zeal for life, made us hunger to live it to the full. I can still see and hear you, rinsing dinner plates while belting jazz standards, and none of my friends understood why I could sing those songs (or any songs) without self-consciousness or fear.

I never thought about it. Joie de vivre was mine by birthright.

You never baked a cookie in your life. Never frosted a cake. But you lavished love after your own fashion. Hand-painted paper dolls with clothes that matched the ones in our own closets. And when we were sick? You danced into the room with a stack of brand new color books, let us select the one we wanted, and then sat for hours on the edge of the bed, coloring pictures with us.

You made those pages come to life, and with them our achy little bodies.

You were model gorgeous, and I always hoped I would look just like you. But your hair was dark brunette, and mine blond. Your eyes a dreamy green, and mine blue. You were taller by at least four inches, and your figure had curves mine never managed to attain.

But you never once made me feel less than beautiful.

And as the years passed, you shared all my milestones, delighting in my successes, cheering me up in my disappointments. You never tried to force me to be who I wasn’t, and when Jesus invaded my life at sixteen and — from where you sat — turned me into a fanatic, you asked questions and listened to my answers, and you let go and let me stretch these wings, test them on the winds of real life, and soar into a faith you couldn’t fully understand.

You gave me life. You gave me a safe place to grow and flourish. And you gave me the freedom to become who God created me to be. I’ve thanked you through poems, and I’ve thanked you through songs. I’ve sought for words to thank you again and again, but I could never, ever thank you enough.

And now we live across the street from each other. I see you almost every day, but in a lot of ways our roles have been switched. I make your lunch and I give you a hand up. I look for creative ways to bring a bit of joy into your day, and so we sit at the keyboard and sing the old jazz standards. But you tire quickly and often just want to go lie down.

This Mother’s Day I’ve been trying to think of something I could give you, and as I wrote this post I had an idea. Get ready, because some day soon I’m going to dance into the room with a surprise for you. A stack of brand new color books.

And I’ll need your help to bring them to life.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

I love you.
Jeanne

1000 Moms Project
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