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.