I don’t know where to begin, so perhaps I’ll begin at the end.
The final three months of Mom’s life was a precious gift to me. She longed to be with Jesus. As her body broke down with final stage kidney failure, Mom expressed words and meaningful touch in a way I had never experienced before. Her words of love and affirmation meant the world to me, something I wasn’t expecting at the end, but wished for all my life.
The grief comes and goes, as I know it should and will. It can be random, appearing out of nowhere, but God’s promise to comfort in times of grief is sweet, and his grace, beyond measure. Mom passed into the arms of Jesus only a month ago, March 30, 2021.
Even with my strong strengths of empathy and connection, I couldn’t always understand Mom. In my mind’s eye I saw a lack in knowing how to nurture, or an inability to express her emotions, or an awkwardness to tell me she loved me, or a lack of awareness that I needed a hug. As a child, it was normal, and I didn’t know what I would long for as an adult.
Most of my memories with Mom include working alongside each other. The only daughter out of four children, the cleaning and baking were up to us. Mom lived to the mantra: all in a day’s work. Her daily routine is what grounded her. Every single Saturday the two of us would bake, often baking the same cake and cookies, veering from the usual for Christmas cutouts or mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving.
In the summer, yard work often became our job, and a large summer garden kept the whole family busy with planting, weeding and harvesting. Summer trips to a local strawberry patch or an orchard meant freezing or canning for the winter months. She once told me she was a bit of a tomboy growing up, and I can totally see it. She grew up in the hills of Virginia until she was 10 years old, when my papa moved his family of six to Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, with a promise of a better job.
Mom seemed to find work to be therapeutic. Maybe that’s why she worked so hard. My oldest brother was born with a cleft palate and a double cleft lip. For the next 16 years, she would take him to Philadelphia for restorative surgeries. That same son, at age 24, was in a farming accident, losing two fingers on his right hand to a corn picker. She bucked up during that time, filling in for weeks and months of hospitalization and recovery.
Her fourth pregnancy, unknown until she was on the delivery table, was to twin boys. Twenty-two hours after birth, she received the news that one had died to hyaline membrane disease. She was unable to attend the graveside service for this little one. I learned later that she was still in the hospital with blood clots, while my dad and I stood by the small grave with my two sets of grandparents.
She had a full-time job as a secretary at a local elementary school for 25 years, still coming home at the end of her day to do farm chores, keeping up with housekeeping and four children.
Mom had grit and determination. She had to. She brought order and routine to our lives, whether we realized it or not. It was something she needed to keep on going when life’s challenges were coming at her in full swing. Her love and dependence on the Lord were as disciplined as I ever saw in a person. Mom’s daily time in the Word and in prayer gave her the strength she needed to carry her through difficult times.
It is said that it takes a lifetime to get to know our parents. We grow up not thinking about what they have been through in their own growing up years or what they may have be experiencing even while raising us. We only know our parents from the day we were born. To us, they didn’t exist a moment before. Only now, as an adult (and a senior adult at that) can I imagine my mom as a whole person, as a wife, a sister, or a daughter. As one who lived beyond the walls of the farmhouse I grew up in or the boundary lines of the fields that surrounded us.
It was as if when she had no energy to work any longer, when she was just plain tuckered out from physical exhaustion that the mom I hoped for in earlier times showed up. The last three months of her life covered up the “lacks” I felt later in life and will forever be a gift of grace to me.
Yes, she and Dad cared for us, provided for us and loved us in the best way they knew how, but God brought so much healing and restoration to the longings of my heart in the final months of her life. To hear “I’m so proud of you” and “I love you” and “thank you for caring for me” said with a hug or as I cried on her shoulder were more than I could ask for. She taught me perseverance through the challenging times of life, responsibility for those things given to my care, practical love in serving others and a prayer commitment to her family.
Her final words, 36 hours before she peacefully passed, were said with a sincerity that held no awkwardness, “I love you, Gwen.”
With a heart of gratitude and love, I responded, “Oh, Mom, I love you, too,” as I placed a kiss on her forehead and cupped her face in my hands.
Gwen Jackson is the author of “Unforced Rhythms.”