There are dark days. And then there are a multitude of dark days all strung together, back to back, like a long, black, endless tunnel. If I'm honest, that was the last eight months. Deep dark. Not just sort of dark, but sudden and lengthy deep dark.
It was August 2016. I had just finished a long season of ministry and work--six months of back to back weekends of travel, leading worship for conferences and churches, along with running my vocal studio during the week, a daily revolving front door of students I love. And in the midst, most importantly, doing life alongside my husband of 27 years and our son who was just moving to Arizona. I was tired. This particular season, for many reasons, had no free days, little rest and no margin. I am not saying it was necessarily healthy; rest and margin are necessary things for health and sanity, a thing I sometimes don't think about until I'm in the thick of it and praying for health and sanity and God's grace to stay present in each moment. And then to get up and do it again the next day. I am somewhat used to this life and the calling I have stepped into as I follow Jesus. I'm used to the strange paradox of being completely exhausted and filled up to overflowing at the same time. Jesus meets me there.
The previous month, the end of this long season, I was at Cannon Beach leading worship for three weeks. This was a much treasured time of worship, deep daily teaching from God's word, great friends and vast amounts of sand, sun and surf. God knew what was to come. I headed home and was looking forward to a month of rest and time with my husband and son before my fall schedule started up, and 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.
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 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 couple days before I was to head south to see her, she got sick. Really sick. The doctor scheduled tests and I headed down a couple days 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 our home in the Portland area. She never returned home. We began further testing to find a clear diagnosis. MRI's, 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 wondered what would be the purpose to suffer so much 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, everyday 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 have 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. Lonely and unhappy people. She had become somewhat lonely and unhappy. And now she was dying. One day when I was 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. And I thought, "Jesus, we need You more than ever. And especially in this we need to be reminded of all we have to be grateful for. Lord, 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 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, 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. Boomer 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 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 so often follows. And when we are grateful and aware of the goodness and deep, deep love of God even when ______, His strength is our strength and He is again our ever-present help.
I miss my mom every day. I cry. I relive our memories over and over. Sometimes the sadness is overwhelming. But I am grateful. God taught us to be grateful. Mom showed me how to be grateful even in death. I am stronger for walking this dark road.
'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.
(This post initially appeared on sisterblog.net--a shared blog between my sister Amy and I).
The instructions here say that I should share a little biographical information--as opposed to biological information, like that I have a lot of freckles, or that I have a Miller's thumb. (You'll have to google that). So here's some biographical info, for what it's worth.
I was born in a small town in upstate New York back in the 60's. We moved to a little bigger small town in Washington when I was three, where I grew up in a little white house (with my mom, dad and older sister and where Mom still lives). There were several mills in Longview (International Paper, Weyerhauser, Reynolds Metals) being that the city borders the north bank of the Columbia River before it makes it's final 50 mile journey to the ocean and where ships from Japan and other countries can come and go easily. My dad worked at Reynolds and Mom worked down the river at International Paper. All those mills gave the town a pretty potent rotten egg odor on warm days.
I had a Dorothy Hamill haircut and I wore a lot of big-flower-printed tops with my bell bottoms. My favorite pair were gold and purple plaid. They didn't go very well with my big-flowered tops. My sister was tall and thin (like my mom) and I was sort of tall and not-so thin (like no one else in my family). Which was a bit of a sore spot with me until I realized it meant I didn't have to share my clothes with anyone. A good reminder that there are always benefits to any situation if you look hard enough.
I thought I loved a boy named David in the fourth grade. He moved away before I had a chance to write a love note to him on a scrap of notebook paper and stick it in his math book like I did with Jeffrey the next year. Every time I hear the song
"I Can See Clearly Now" I think of David, since that was the big song that year. I think I thought I loved four or five other boys before I graduated High School. I don't think any of them thought they loved me back.
Our dad drank a lot during our growing up years. He moved out when I was 12. It wasn't a particularly happy time in our family, but my mom was adept at making things seem okay in spite of some pretty dark circumstances. I am grateful for such a strong mother.
I played the piano ALL the time back then and took piano lessons from age 7 to age 18. I met a lot of great friends and had a lot of great musical opportunities throughout high school since I got to accompany just about everybody who sang at my church or school or around town. I loved to sing too, but played more during those years. I ate, slept and breathed music when I was young.
I graduated and went to college in Seattle where I broadened my world, made some more great friends, had wonderful roommates, thought I loved a few more boys and got a good education. My mom worked really hard to put me through school. I didn't appreciate it or realize the significance of her selflessness at the time like I do now. I've used my musical education just about every day since I graduated. What a gift my mom gave me.
I traveled with a few singing groups after college--around the country and overseas to Peru, Brazil, Chile and Colombia. Singing has now taken me to Africa and all over Europe as well as every state but North Dakota; I don't if I'm missing much, but I think I'll probably get there some day.
I met my husband in 1989 and we were married in December of the next year. He sings too, and that's how we met. I was in a Christian rock band, Komunique, and he joined us when we found ourselves short a member. I was actually verbally engaged to someone else at the time. I say "verbally engaged" because I didn't actually have the ring. Never call yourself engaged until you have the ring. My verbal fiance' was seeing someone else, and things didn't work out well. But again, if you look hard enough, there are benefits. As a result, I ended up with the most amazing man--the first one that really loved me back.
Now we are many years into our marriage and I'm looking forward to many, many more. One of the best gifts of the life we've built together is our son, Jake. He makes our life fun and so much more deeply meaningful. How life changes when you bring another human into the world. What a blessing he is to our hearts.
There are a lot of things that have happened in my life since I showed up on the planet back in the 60's, but the very best was that day at Vacation Bible School back in 1975 when I met Jesus. He has walked with me ever since that summer day in Longview Washington, through every situation good and bad. I haven't always made the best choices. (That's a blog for another day). He loves me no matter. I want to live my life for Him, every moment; there is no good thing in life that doesn't pale in comparison to knowing Jesus. There is no greater thing. I'm often a selfish girl and need Him every day. I love Him with my whole heart, and will never stop being thankful that He saved me from myself all those years ago.
I am unashamed to say that I am living my life in full pursuit of knowing and walking with Jesus. And that's the very best part of my biographical info, no question.
I fell in love with music at an early age. At night after we were tucked in bed in our prospective bedrooms, my sister and I would have song wars; we'd sing at the top of our lungs in an attempt to drown each other out. We also sang along with every commercial and sitcom theme from the time we could remotely talk. We sang at the dinner table until our parents made us be quiet. Our growing up was fully immersed in music.
She started playing the violin in grade school and I started piano lessons at the age of seven, when we moved my grandmother's antique upright from her house to our dining room. I first played by ear and spent hours imitating songs I heard on the radio. I clearly remember the day I got my first cassette player. My first tape was of Olivia Newton John. I really wanted to be her someday. I used to put the cassette player in the basket of my green bike with the sparkly banana seat and ride down the hill to my elementary school--there was an echoey tunnel type area where I could be alone and sing along to "I Honestly Love You" at the top of my pre-teen lungs. Then I went to see Evie at the Portland Memorial Coliseum and almost cried--after that I wanted to be her someday. The list grew longer over the years: Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston; I spent much of my youthful energy playing, singing, writing and accompanying anyone who asked, secretly hoping I'd be someone someday.
I met Jesus at the age of 12, and He took the passion for music He had put in my soul and gave it a purpose. It was the most amazing thing. For years I have worked this out in various forms: solo ministry, worship leading, church music ministry, touring, studio session work, background singing, piano solo and accompanying work, event singing, teaching and coaching. I've loved it all, and still do. The love of music is indelibly written on every part of me.
I've written music since I was a young girl (my first song was titled "Sam's Song," an aptly named and very cheesy rhyming song for a boy I thought I loved), but only recently began finishing the songs I've started. People used to ask me when I was going to do something with my music. That was an interesting question because I thought I had been doing something with my music. At least I have tried to. I think what they meant was that anyone who was a real musician would make a CD--like that would really be doing something important. One of these days maybe I will finish a few of the many recordings I have begun through the years so I can pass my musical thoughts down to future generations, with the hope they can be encouraged in their walk with the Lord. But in the meantime I will be faithful with what's in front of me: loving my family and those who cross my path, the leading of worship and the pouring into my students. As a good friend often reminds me, "Just do the next right thing." I think that is what matters most, our faithfulness to use our gifts for God's glory in the every day, right where we are.