This is the fourth in a series of posts about my mom’s death from lung cancer in November of 2020. Click here to read about her last meal, here to read about her last question, and here to read about our last conversation. The image above is by Kellie Churchman from Pexels.
My mom loved being at home—making food in her kitchen, doing counted cross stitch on her couch, sleeping in her own bed. When she was at home, she knew exactly where and who she was.
A few other places in her life were like home to her. Church fellowship halls, where she served as a pastor’s wife alongside my dad, were home to her. She brought energy and joy with her to worship and made sure to greet people, to make them feel welcomed, to introduce them to one another. She knew exactly where and who she was.
Mom worked in the human resource departments of Medtox Laboratories in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Iowa Bankers Association in West Des Moines, Iowa. She covered the walls of her office or cubicle with pictures of her husband, her children and grandchildren, to help her feel at home. She also exercised her gifts of hospitality right there in her work place – bringing in ten different kinds of her homemade pies to celebrate her birthday with her coworkers each year. When any of her grandchildren came to town, she delighted in parading them through the hallways of her workplace. At home, at church, at work, she knew exactly where and who she was.
But when Mom was in unfamiliar places or with unfamiliar people, she was less at ease. Even when she was with her closest people, if she wasn’t at her house and if the responsibilities weren’t clearly defined, we’d often hear her say under her breath, “I just don’t know where to be.” Her anxieties at family gatherings got under my skin sometimes. I wanted to say (and maybe I even did say), “Mom, just be where you are! If you’re uncertain about what to do or what not to do, ask how you can be helpful. Or just go and do something you enjoy and don’t worry about it.”
If I’m perfectly honest, those anxieties about not knowing where or how to be come up for me from time to time as well. It’s difficult to navigate dynamics in a room full of people, each with their own agency and energy and needs. When relationships and responsibilities aren’t clear, I sometimes whisper under my breath, “Wow – I don’t know where to be right now.”
Although my mom’s diagnosis in November of 2019 disoriented her (and all of us) and broke her heart (and all of our hearts), once Mom decided to stop treatment, I watched the Calm of Home come over her. In a way, those existential anxieties settled right down. She knew exactly where and who she was. She knew exactly where to be and where she was going. She was at home and she was going Home.
She even seemed to know when she was going to make that transition from home to Home.
In May of 2020, just before her 70th birthday, her doctor gave her the six month prognosis. We all knew that this was just a guess, but Mom wrote it on the calendar of her heart. Six months after May 2020 was November 2020. And sure enough, the first of November was the day we decided it was time for me to come from Canada to be with her for the end. On that day, my sister, Tracy, changed the calendar that hung on the wall next to Mom’s spot on the couch. Mom looked at her and said, “It’s November!” And later that month, after Mom had gone, Tracy found the piece of paper in Mom’s purse with the list of new passwords she had made for some of her accounts (after having her Facebook account hacked that summer). All her new passwords were variations of “November2020!”
So, in some sense, Mom knew when she was going. She knew where she was going (she reread Randy Alcorn’s book, Heaven, with childlike fascination and excitement). But she (and all of us) wondered how it would be in the end. I remember sitting in my parents’ basement during our full family’s last visit to Mom in the summer of 2020. I was on the phone with someone from my mom’s hospice team. “I know you can’t predict the future and you don’t know for sure, but what’s your best guess about what it will be like in the end?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said. “It will probably be a little like falling off a cliff.”
Now, this may sound scary and horrifying—perhaps a strange answer to my question. But to me, these words were a mighty comfort. Just that morning, I had joined Mom in her happy place with a cup of coffee. On her lap were her well-worn copies of Heaven and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were the first chapter books I remember my mom reading to me as a child. “Will you read me a chapter, Mom?” I asked. She opened the book to the chapter she was on: The Wonders of the Last Sea.
In this chapter, Lucy and Edmund and their cousin, Eustace, are with Prince Caspian, Lord Drinian, Reepicheep the mouse, and others. They are sailing on the Dawn Treader and everything is getting brighter and brighter and moving faster and faster. They figure that they are heading for the very edge of the world.
“You mean,” said Caspian, “that we might be just—well, poured over it?”
“Yes, yes,” cried Reepicheep, clapping his paws together. “That’s how I’ve always imagined it—the World like a great round table and the waters of all the oceans endlessly pouring over the edge. The ship will tip up—stand on her head—for one moment we shall see over the edge—and then, down, down, the rush, the speed—”
“And what do you think will be waiting for us at the bottom, eh?” said Drinian.
“Aslan’s country, perhaps,” said the mouse, its eyes shining. “Or perhaps there isn’t any bottom. Perhaps it goes down for ever and ever. But whatever it is, won’t it be worth anything just to have looked for one moment beyond the edge of the world.”
With the glee of Reepicheep, my mom got brighter and brighter and moved faster and faster. And she was more and more certain of who she was and where she was going.
And friends, let me tell you, that at the end—at the very end—I caught a glimpse of the edge of the world. On Wednesday evening, November 4, I had just had my last conversation with Mom. My brother was taking his turn, and then he called to us, “I think you need to come. Something is different.” And we rushed to her side. Her eyes had opened just a little bit. We grasped her hands, her shoulder, her arm. And we sang.
We sang the doxology – the same song she sang in the delivery room when my sister was born and she knew that I, as her oldest daughter, would have what she never had – a sister.
We sang Rest in Him – the lullaby she’d sung to us when we had a hard time falling asleep at night.
We sang Go Now in Peace – the song she taught countless children through the years as a Young Children and Worship storyteller.
And then my sister, with the voice of a prophet, an angel, and a lioness, began to recite Psalm 23. The rest of us wept and shouted encouragement to her as Mom laboured through her final breaths.
And somewhere in the midst of those familiar phrases, Mom reached the very edge of the Last Sea. And with her eyes shining, she released a single tear, and went over the cliff.
She knew exactly who and where she was.
She knows exactly who and where she is.
Fall in peace, Mom. We’ll see you when we get there.