Written by: D.D. Emmons
It snowed the night before the funeral and was still snowing when we arrived at the small country cemetery. Because of the deep snow, none of the vehicles in the procession could traverse the hill leading to the grave site. The casket had to be transferred from the funeral car to a small truck and then moved up the hill. Although it was fourteen years ago, I can clearly remember walking through the blowing snow and thinking of my Mom’s life. She was on this earth for seventy-eight years and I had kept her at a distance. Only at the end of her life, when she was confined to a nursing home, did I acknowledge and return the unconditional love she always gave to me.
Mom grew up in a large God fearing family at a time when there was much hard work and few rewards. She knew the poverty of the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II. Life was tough. In her family you practiced the message of Jesus through acts of generosity and kindness but few words. Those beginnings formed the simplistic and frugal manner in which she spent her life. Uneducated about worldly affairs, she performed no publicly renowned feat, sought no attraction but glorified God through her neighborly compassion and charity. While I give from my excess, Mom had no excess, thus her giving and sharing came from her basic existence. If I somehow enrich the life of one person, it is the exception, with Mom it was natural. No neighbor ever went hungry, unclothed or suffered alone. She wouldn’t (and couldn’t) send a check; instead, she took a crock of soup next door. It took little to make her happy; Mom never sought any of the earthly attachments I hold so dear. She never drove a car, never spent a night in a hotel, never saw the ocean, and was never on an airplane. Her life revolved around family, home, neighbors and hard work. When I was young, Mom worked at a variety of jobs not only to augment Dad’s small income but to ensure I had what the other kids had. Her life was an example of putting others first and self second. I was slow to learn that lesson.
I remember as a boy, we lived a couple blocks from a railroad track and hobo’s used to frequent our neighborhood seeking any kind of work in return for a meal. Mom seemed to always find an odd job they could do and then gave them lunch from the pot that seemed to be ever-simmering on the stove. She treated these complete strangers with respect and as individuals simply in need or down on their luck.
At age 76, a few years after Dad died, Mom gave up her friends and hometown surroundings in order to move near me. She loved her friends, her neighbors and small-town lifestyle, but, as I realized much later, she loved me more. Prior to her move, we looked at many houses and apartments where Mom might be comfortable. Eventually, she selected a complex for seniors and we moved her into a modest three room apartment. Her primary interests were my infrequent visits and the long walk she took several times a day. She loved being outside, walked as often as the weather permitted and soon knew the streets of her new hometown as well as any life-long resident. According to Mom, those long, solitary walks were her best prayer time, a kind of holy oasis where she could have a private conversation with God. All in all, she seemed content and it amazed me that she could find happiness in such simple surroundings.
Even though her apartment was less than fifteen minutes away, I didn’t visit her very often and when I did, it was always to take her somewhere else. I went mostly out of a sense of duty and never just stopped by for a cup of coffee or to talk, which is what she would have enjoyed most of all. On Saturday mornings I would pick her up and take her food shopping. She was always ready, standing outside her building, eager for my arrival. I, on the other hand, was equally eager to get the shopping over with so I could get on with my interests, spend time on myself. My anxiousness must have been apparent but Mom never let on. I remember once, while following her up and down the aisles of a food store, thinking that someday I would regret being so impatient, regret not spending more time with her. Right then it was as if the Holy Spirit was whispering to me, nudging me toward her, but I ignored His prompting. I was wrong.
At age 77, Mom was diagnosed with throat cancer. Except for broken bones, she had never been sick and, at first, the illness only slowed her down. The frequent radiation treatments, which she accepted without complaint, seemed to keep the cancer in check and she could still enjoy the serenity of her daily walks. But in a few months the disease began attacking other vital parts of her body. She quickly became noticeably weak and the long walks soon gave way to naps several times a day. Although the doctors told me she was often in pain, she never once complained in my presence. She suffered quietly and had a special inner strength that only comes from God. Mom began spending more and more time in bed and we finally had to turn to a nursing home for help. The assigned room had a large window facing out over a grassy knoll but she refused to have the shade up. It was as if she couldn’t bear to look at the outdoors she had always loved so much. Her only activity at the nursing home consisted of my nightly visits; she liked to sit in a wheelchair while I pushed her up and down the hallways. She might say hello or smile at someone but she never entered into a conversation. I had the impression that she thought talking with someone else would deprive her of time with me. Mom had left the place where she was born, the place she loved most to come and die among strangers. She did it for me.
I watched her slowly deteriorate, realizing at long last what she meant to me. She died peacefully on Valentine’s Day. I was there holding her hand, wishing I could stop everything, wishing I could go back and have another chance to care for her, to be close to her. But it was too late. If only I had responded to the Holy Spirit’s gentle nudging; if only I had given myself long ago rather than waiting until the end. Her final days may have been among her happiest because she knew I was there just for her. She knew I loved her and that my love was unconditional.
Mom is buried next to Dad on that hillside cemetery not far from the place she always called home. I think of her often and in my prayers I ask for her forgiveness.