I stepped quietly into the room where my mother lay sleeping and walked to her bedside. I took her hand, thin and bony, and held it to my face. Struggling not to cry, I leaned down and kissed her forehead.
“Mom,” I whispered, “The nurses are going to put a tube through your nose and into your stomach to drain it. It will help you not feel nauseous anymore, okay? So don’t panic. They’re here to help you and as long as you hold still, it won’t hurt.”
At first she didn’t respond.
I didn’t think she could hear me, but then she opened her eyes and turned to me and smiled.
“I just saw Jesus,” she said. “He told me…” Whatever insight Jesus had made my mother privy to, it was lost in a garble of sleepy syllables, but her thin hands arched above her as she tried to explain. She laughed quietly and smiled at me, happier than I’d seen her in days.
Then, for reasons I still cannot articulate, I felt moved to sing to her our favorite hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee…”
I made it through the first line before tears choked my voice,
but she, who had barely talked in days, smiled at the sound, and proceeded to sing the rest of the verse and the first chorus back to me. Her voice was clear and unhindered, the way it used to be when she sang solos at church. She was even mostly on key.
And this thought popped into my head,
“I’m closer than you think.”
And along with those words an image : Jesus, gently and patiently and lovingly coaxing my mother away from this world and into the next.
In that moment, a peace and a joy descended on me, something that I had not felt in more than a year.
She died five days later.
After 14 years of fighting against breast cancer, her body had had enough. I watched her vomit several times a day for months before that, watched her abdomen distend not with fat but with fluid, while the rest of her body withered until she was Auschwitz thin.
Forgive my graphic description. There’s something about terminal illness that strips us of our preferred pretenses, the things we wish we didn’t know.
And there is something about watching the people we love die that kind of death that shifts our perspectives on life, on the eternal. It’s an experience akin to staring, nose-to-paper at a stereogram until suddenly, Bugs Bunny’s giant face emerges three-dimensional from empty, chaotic design.
I had always had faith.
I had always believed in Christ and proclaimed Him as my Savior. I had always believed in Heaven as a real place, a place I would go to someday.
But I believed in Heaven the way that I believe in the quadratic formula; it exists somehow, but I just didn’t get the logistics.
I believed in Heaven the way that I believe in six figure incomes; some people have arrived, others are on their way, some are working their asses off to make it, some claim they’re ambivalent, and others just don’t have what it takes.
How foolish I was, how flat and empty and selective was my concept of God’s grace.
In the days before and the days immediately following my mother’s death, life took on a distinct and urgent spirituality. The gap between where I placed God and Heaven and the spiritual world and where I lived my every day life, down here on this tiny planet earth, grew smaller and smaller as I listened to that still, small voice,
“I’m closer than you think.”
It didn’t ease the grief of our goodbye. However, my hatred for life, my distrust of God, my self-perpetuated isolation from His Spirit was not something I clung to anymore.
I wasn’t ready to be motherless, but I was finally ready and able to pray that impossible prayer, God, Please take her Home.