It was the day I had dreaded all my life. It didn’t matter that I was an alleged adult with children of my own. I just wasn’t ready for my mother to die.
Standing by her bed I became a small girl again, staring at the familiar shape of my mom’s still hand, weeping and wanting only to hold it, warm once more.
I did not know where the day of dread would lead. To my wonder, it opened the door to a flood of fresh grace. Riding it, I’ve been upended, soaked, carried far downstream . . . and lifted, always lifted, by the buoyant gift of a grateful heart.
That bequest, it seems, was my mother’s parting surprise. I too had been a surprise. Mom had me at age forty-three, back in a time when middle-aged mothers weren’t the norm. She had seriously spaced her children—I had siblings ten, twenty, and twenty-five years older. When I was little, my parents were my grandparents. At age ten I earnestly made my mom promise to live until she was eighty. That seemed impossibly far away, and Jesus would certainly return before then anyway.
But over the years, more than I realized, I learned about Him from the depth and breadth of my mother’s bond. Her love was secure . . . not based on who I was or what I did, but on who she was.
I thought of her today. Two birds wheeled in flight at the edge of the woods beyond our backyard. They were synchronized, wingtip to wingtip. Then one diverged and veered off sharply. I could not see where it went. The other continued alone.
Then, unexpectedly, came the tears. Why? My mother lived a long, full life. Her death was neither premature nor unexpected.
I’m at peace with that.
But peace and loss are not mutually exclusive. Despite the assurance that I’ll see her again, I grieve. Her loss kaleidoscopes, multiplying through whatever prism I regard it. It telescopes, moving in and out like a zoom lens focusing on all the loss I feel. Past and future combine in the present: that diverging bird just now represents not only my mother and others who have gone before, but my husband, friends, children—all those I’ll ever lose, one way or another. They’ll drop suddenly from our bobbing flight, and I must continue alone.
Mildred Miller was born in 1913 in her parents’ home in the valley of Virginia, one of nine durable children born in twelve years to John and Helen Miller. In spite of their perfectly respectable proper names, their dad called them Philip, Punker, Dutch, Puss, Cabbage, Jake, Beaner, Miss Moon, and Mouser.
To hear my mom tell it—which may not be the way it happened—she was an unusually gorgeous, intelligent, insightful, and whimsical child with short blond hair and hazel eyes. She walked on three miles of narrow dirt roads to school each day.
Occasionally a car—one of those new Model T Fords—would pass Mildred and her sisters as they trudged along.
When she was twelve, she and her sisters found smooth stones and dammed the creek on the back of their property. Three days later, when the resulting pool was deep and cold, the Church of the Brethren minister arrived and dunked them all. Mildred was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Over the years, her faith grew quietly, a steady flame within.
She loved stories of brave missionaries bringing the Gospel to China or Vietnam or India or the Ivory Coast. She prayed faithfully and tithed from her grocery money to advance their cause.
She taught Sunday school, met with young women whose marriages were troubled, made curtains, dresses, and quilts, and raised her family.
Her own mother had been a domestically challenged adventurer.
In spite of her nine children, she longed for the open road—and often took it. Mom’s response was to become a woman who created security wherever she was; her children’s roots could grow deep and strong. Home was sun-warmed laundry fresh off the line and roast beef with rich gravy, marigolds and ripe tomatoes on the vine, new neighbors at the dinner table and furloughed missionaries sleeping in our spare beds.
When I was young, she packed my lunch for school each day.
Sometimes, wondering if I was paying attention to details, she would take a bite out of it. There I was, a big-eyed, dark-haired, unsuspecting child innocently unwrapping waxed paper in the elementary school lunchroom. I’d find tuna salad or ham and cheese, stacked neatly on good white bread, pristine except for the halfmoon missing, Mom’s dental surprise in an otherwise normal day.
Once my sister got two pieces of bread with a chicken leg stuck between them, its tendoned knob emerging from between the crusts as if it had been trying to escape but couldn’t. We grew up wary, on the lookout for eccentric sandwiches and odd visitations like stuffed animals perched on the hearth, suddenly sporting cruise wear. It wasn’t surprising that such intrusions on the ordinary sharpened my sense of the absurd and weakened my connection with convention. But what was lovely was that Mom’s twisted wit also created a sense of wonder, humor, unlikely juxtapositions that whispered to me of a universe filled with the surprises of God.
Once, years ago, she had a coronary crisis. My dad bustled her to the hospital.
Dad was a retired Army colonel whose love of military order was both served and sabotaged by his obsession with all things technological. His office was a maze of jerry-rigged wires and surge protectors. Once he was sitting at a traffic light, mesmerized by the alternating time-and-temperature display on the bank sign at the corner. When the time changed to temperature, Dad obediently caromed into the intersection. The only problem was that the light was still red.
This was the man who sat, lovingly if not distractedly, by Mom’s bed in intensive care. There were tubes for oxygen and other functions, IV carts and monitors that looked like television screens. One showed heart activity, the other respiration. Dad stared at them, transfixed by the squiggling images. They showed, reassuringly, that Mom’s heart was beating and her lungs were breathing.
An evil idea evidently presented itself to my mother.
Accordingly, she held her breath. The respiratory device flatlined, alarms went off, and Dad had to be revived himself.
In the end, he made the final journey first. After he died in 1988, she gave away his stuff, had the house rewired, and commenced widowhood, as she did all things, with an eager and orderly spirit that concealed, just barely, her strange and quirky side.
When she came to live with Lee and me and our three children many years later, her body was breaking down. Rheumatoid arthritis was having its way with her, stalking her nerve endings and tormenting her with terrible pain. She never talked about it unless she was asked. Her vision dimmed. But Haley and Walker, her grandchildren twins, would sit on her lap and read from their first-grade books. Buried Treasure. Paths of Gold. We found Barbies in strange places around the house, always wearing unusual outfits, sometimes carrying small picket signs. Mom dressed for dinner each evening, appearing with the anticipation of a special event.
We all held hands and said grace. We did not serve sandwiches made of chicken legs.
As proof of her cheerful perversity, she loved our dog. He is a shaggy white labradoodle, a premeditated blend of Labrador and standard poodle. He is named for C. S. Lewis. After being a puppy for about five minutes, he commenced to grow as big as a pony, developing along the way a passion for ripe pears and any kind of bread. In defense we began storing sandwich bread on top of the refrigerator. Eventually, after foggily realizing that whole loaves were turning up missing, we realized that when Lewis stood on his hind legs he could pull them down.
One winter morning Mom felt unusually weak. After breakfast she returned to her room and crept back into bed. As he often did, the dog lay down with her, his long back fitted carefully next to hers, an innovative bed warmer with fur and paws.
I sat downstairs at my home office computer but soon felt too distracted to work. I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for that momentous moment that could so easily be missed.
What if she died and I was sitting at my desk, trying to write? Or far worse, and far more likely, obsessively playing software Boggle?
I crept up the stairs, unsure what I would find. Had she slipped away? Was this the moment?
I stood outside her bedroom door, bracing myself. It was not latched. I started to push it open, gently.
Suddenly, the door burst open the rest of the way. The giant dog flew out of Mom’s room, tail wagging, teeth shining, Rastafarian hair sticking straight out, quivering and prancing with pride and the delight of the moment.
He was wearing Mom’s nightgown.
Just how did her brain work? I wondered later. What was the intellectual process that moved, thought by tidy thought, to arrive at the logical conclusion: Clearly, the next right thing to do is to put my nightgown on the dog.
Now, when I remember the day of the dancing dog in the long, pink nightgown, I see a cascade of images spiraling to decline. Soon came Mom’s tumble on the carpeted stairs. I remember holding her and figuring so carefully just how I would get to the phone to call 911. Surgery, a cast, rehab: her challenge to the elderly man across the hall that she could beat him in a wheelchair race. A move to assisted living. “Here I am living with all these old people,” she said one day after forgetting someone’s name, which was unusual.
“And now I’m starting to talk like one! Get out while you can! Save yourself! It’s contagious!”
More hospitalizations. Nurses cutting off her clothes in the emergency room. Conferences with doctors; mind-numbing bureaucracies. Calls in the night when she was in such extreme pain that she was praying for death.
But the next morning was always new. “Here I’ve worked like a field hand all my life,” she grumbled, “and I just can’t seem to die well. And my mother—never worked a day, lazy as sin, and she gets to die at home, in bed, in her sleep! Peacefully! Doesn’t seem fair, does it?” Then she would laugh at herself. She had never expected life to be “fair.”
One afternoon I was sitting at my computer, nervous about meeting a writing deadline. Then came the sense that I should go be with her. I went. Her pain had been radiating, cruelly pervasive, and now she was on so much morphine that she had morphed to another place. I sat with her as she floated in and out, surprised at how her conscious and subconscious minds were such great friends.
She saw fairies riding bright specks of dust down from the ceiling, then ladders stretching up to heaven. “They’re having a party,” she told me.
Dinner arrived: mysteries on a tray, hiding under covers, a magician’s show. I held her hand and we said grace. I fed her six or seven bites of mashed potatoes, like an infant, as gently as she had once fed me.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” I told her before I had to leave.
She pulled herself back from the party. “Bye, honey,” she said, as she always had. “I love you.”
The next day she waved broadly when she saw me, more robust. We talked as the nurses gave her a bed bath. Then, suddenly, she pitched forward like a sack of sand. Even in her most helpless moments, I had never seen her look so stripped of a certain, habitual grace.
Still, I thought it was the morphine. What did I know? It was a massive stroke to the right side of her brain.
My sister and I moved into Mom’s room in assisted living and were assisted ourselves. Hospice nurses arrived and told us what we might expect. Friends brought food and flowers; others came from far away to say good-bye. We sang hymns, prayed, hugged everyone, and held Mom’s hands for hours, relishing this luxury of a prepared farewell. Our calling came naturally, an unspoken understanding that we were to be midwives to her rebirth even as she had so kindly birthed us in pain long before. We slept on the sofas. Aides came and went in the watches of the night. I wore red slippers and big pajamas, drinking my weight in coffee each morning and prowling the halls at night like a comparatively young, but ever so slightly unbalanced, resident.
Then we came to the end, the final tableaux around the deathbed. So odd: even as you unconsciously arrange yourselves in the postures people have assumed for ages as they bid farewell to the ones they love, you cannot believe it is happening to you. My sister’s face, red with tears. My distinguished brother, weeping at the foot of the bed. My husband on one side, me on the other. And Mom, her silver hair, that particular curve of her once-capable hand, the shape of her face and the plane of her cheekbone, never to be seen again. So still.
I wept, shaking my head up and down and back and forth, a combination of total recognition and inability to believe that she was really gone. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” I kept saying.
It was a fusion of thanks to my mom, thanks to God for freeing her from the pain, thanks for what I could not see. I saw a dead body. I knew, with eye-stinging clarity, that she was alive. And I will see her again.
Like most artistic people, I have an endless capacity to envision doom. Even as a child I had identified the occasion of my mother’s death as a dark-edged day of horror.
How like God to turn it inside out, to reverse my shadowed expectations! The day I had dreaded all my life became the doorway to real renewal. It was as if I tiptoed up to the dark gate, afraid of what I’d find, and it burst open with untrammeled freedom and joy. It wasn’t the dog wearing Mom’s nightgown. Thankfully. The doorway of death unleashed an absolute flood of gratitude that has rushed like a river over my life, reconfiguring my landscapes, overflowing my shallow places, nourishing a great thirst within me, and carrying me to new destinations far downstream where the vistas go on forever. Never have I felt so free, or eager: death makes it clear that each day of life is an opulent gift.
The good news is that these great realities and wild metaphors that I’ve been enjoying since my mom’s death have not gone away.
Though they are experiential in the fact that I’ve been experiencing them, they’re not just feelings. They are rooted in fact, in the truths of the Gospel.
That means two things. First, their power can flow on days when my feelings ebb. And second, they can be shared in this book about gratitude and its gifts, that others might enjoy the great fountain of grace.