October 21, 2018. Sunday morning. I rushed around the house like most Sunday mornings, going about my usual routine of getting my family ready for church.
But then I got the phone call that not only changed my plans, but my life – my eighty-three-year-old Momaw had finally stopped fighting. She was gone.
As Chad and the boys and I drove to Wabash Christian nursing home to see her and be with my family before they took her body to the funeral home, my mind raced. An incoherent jumble of thoughts: childhood memories of swimming in her pool, then coming in to a “strawberry soda”(ice cream and strawberry crush) because she knew my cousins and I would be hungry; watching my children play with things she brought from her purse as we sat in church; her laughter. We sat at a stoplight in Carmi and I watched all the other cars around us, feeling jealous as they went on about their day, oblivious to the pain in my heart. It wasn’t fair that the rest of the world kept turning when for my family, it had stopped.
She was one of the strongest women I knew. Even through her battle with cancer, I sat next to her and listened with a full heart in church every week as she stood up and gave God glory and praise in front of the whole congregation. She had to be weak from the chemo and radiation, but she pretended not to be. She constantly thanked God for giving her strength and comfort through the process – an inspiration to our whole family. We knew she was hurting on the inside, but she knew how to look for her blessings in the midst of the trial. And I know that’s where her strength came from.
Family was everything to her. She was happiest every Thanksgiving as she cooked a big meal for all of us and just sat around the table, listening to the chaos that came with our family get-togethers. Kids chased each other and screamed (along with some of the adults who are really just big kids). We talked and caught up on things that went on in our lives and while she contributed to the conversation, she also just sat and smiled, listening with contentment.
When we, like all families, had an issue – when a situation found some of us angry with others in the family – she called me. “Katy, I’m not mad at anyone.”
I smiled. “I know, Momaw.” The truth was, I was still processing the whole situation. I didn’t agree with some of the things that had happened, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it. It didn’t really involve me, but it involved some of my immediate family and in my loyalty to them, I felt some anger, too.
“Listen,” she continued, interrupting my thoughts. “Life is too short to fight. I choose to forgive, even before apologies have been given.”
I swallowed, fighting back tears. “You’re right, Momaw. Thank you.” There was the wisdom I had been praying for – like He often did, He told me what I needed to hear through Momaw.
She was fiercely loyal. When I was going through the darkest time in my life – when I experienced the ultimate betrayal, feeling lost as I packed up and moved with my newborn son back to Ridgway, where I’d grown up – she called me. “You will get through this. You will be okay. We are all here for you.” Her words echoed the words I had heard from so many in my family – and I was thankful for the support. But to be honest, it didn’t bring much comfort. I was terrified. I had to start over? I had to be a single mom? Of course, I thanked her, but I doubted what she said. I wasn’t sure I would ever be okay again.
I went to her house that weekend, seeking the comfort that came when around my family. All over her house, Momaw kept lots of pictures of our family. As I walked around and looked at them, I started to notice small lime green Post-it notes stuck on some of them. I leaned in closer and noticed that those Post-its covered up the link who was no longer part of our family – the one who had betrayed me. As I scanned the pictures, noticing more and more mini Post-it notes over his face, I started to giggle. Soon, it progressed to laughter. Like, real laughter. For the first time since it had all happened, I truly laughed. This was her small way of showing her solidarity. And it was hilarious. For whatever reason, her words and the words of the rest of my family finally began to sink in. I really was going to be okay. Someday.
But a few months later, as I still struggled in my anger with him and the whole situation, she leaned over and grabbed my arm. “You have to be friends with him.” I gave her a look, which she ignored. “You have to,” she insisted. “Not for you, but for Aven. You have to get along with him and keep the peace.”
I nodded, though inside, I thought, yeah right. Like that will ever happen. But her words stayed with me. And guess what? She was right. After a lot of prayer, I reached the point that I was able to do that. It will be the best thing for my son – he won’t have to see or hear us fight, won’t have to feel like he’s caught in the middle or betraying me if he wants to spend some time with his dad. Once again, God had sent His wisdom through Momaw.
She found joy in the smallest things. She loved her hummingbirds, and spent lots of time watching them eat from the feeders that hung around her sun room. She probably spent just as much time refilling those feeders several times a day, but it was worth it for her. She enjoyed them so much.
When she finished her chemo and radiation and the doctor told her the next step was surgery to take out the remaining tumor, she frowned. It was March. “Can I please get my flowers planted first?” Her flowers – another one of her joys – meant so much to her. She traveled around to different greenhouses and brought home flowers that filled her yard each spring, and she loved taking care of them and looking for them. He laughed and agreed, not knowing she never actually intended to go through with that surgery.
She was so generous. She would literally give anybody anything she thought they needed. She shared whatever she had. But she had a feisty streak – anyone who knew her can attest to that. Once at a local festival, my dad’s band played. She came to watch them, then they all stayed to watch Jerry Reed play after he was finished. My dad stood next to her, when suddenly, he saw a brown whirlwind fly past from the corner of his eye, hitting an obnoxious man who stood a few feet in front of them.
Dad looked over at Momaw and noticed she was no longer holding the brown paper trash sack from the food she’d eaten. He stared at her, then back at the man, then back at her. “Sue,” he finally said, “if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you just threw that trash bag at that man up there.”
Momaw leaned over, getting closer to my dad. “He needed to sit down.” Then she went back to watching the show. No further explanation or apology needed.
She was fiercely independent. Here she was, eighty three years old and battling cancer, and she insisted she still mow her own yard. She didn’t want anyone else to do it, especially around her house – they might mess up some of her beautiful flowers. When people would offer to drive her places, she would roll her eyes at me. “They think I’m an invalid. I can drive. I can get around.” So when she got it in her head that she wasn’t going to have that surgery, there was nothing we could say to talk her into it. “I’m too old for surgery. I’m not going to do it.”
She even asked a local doctor what would happen if she refused the surgery. The doctor, a friend of our family, was honest. “You will die.”
She nodded. “That’s okay,” she said.
She didn’t fear death. She knew where she was going. And when my Papaw died four years earlier, something inside of her changed. She had lost her best friend, and to be honest, her will to go on. Sure, she loved us. She loved watching her great-grandkids play. (As long as they weren’t being too rowdy – then she’d be quick to try to make them settle down.) But when Papaw died, a piece of her died, too.
I remember being at her house the day he died, sitting on the floor next to the couch where she sat. I watched her – the light in her eyes was gone, replaced by an emptiness I’d never seen before. We sat in silence for a while before she sighed. “We were supposed to grow old together,” she said.
It knocked the wind out of me. They had been married for sixty years – yet for her, it wasn’t long enough. He was truly her best friend, her world, her life. I looked across the room at my new husband of just a few months and held my stomach – the baby we’d just found out we were going to have. I closed my eyes. Lord, please let us have that. Please let us love like that, no matter what the years bring.
She was a rock for our family. She held us together when our crazy lives took us in all different directions. Her wisdom is instilled in all of us, and we will carry that with us as we go on.
Later on that day she died, I went to her house with my mom and sister to help pick out the outfit she would wear for the funeral. I ached for my own loss, but I ached even more for my mom, whose deep pain seemed to be engraved in her eyes and on her face. And for my sister, her eyes puffy from a never-ending stream of tears. As I left, upset and hurting, “I Can Only Imagine” came on the radio. And when I pictured her up there in Jesus’s arms, I smiled. She was no longer in pain. She was finally reunited with Papaw – something she’d wanted all along. Some of the pain was lifted at that moment.
My seven-year-old son, Aven, said that night, “Mom, Momaw doesn’t need her wheelchair in heaven, does she?”
“No, she doesn’t.” I smiled. “She’s running around up there. Spending time with Papaw and Jesus.”
Brayson, my three-year-old, said, “When I go to heaven, will Jesus play toys with me?”
I hugged him. “I’m sure He will. He will love to do that.”
Brayson nodded, his little face so serious. “He can be Luke Skywalker when we play Star Wars.”
God showed me, in the middle of the pain and sadness, the blessings that were all around me. Momaw is gone, but I will see her again. And while I’m still here, I’m surrounded by love. I’m thankful for the time I had with her. I’m thankful for the family I have who are still here – I am surrounded by strong, Christian men and women, and we can lean on each other in this difficult time. I’m thankful for a loving, merciful God who loves and forgives me and helps me to love and forgive others.
As we deal with her loss, we take comfort knowing that we will be together again in heaven. My prayer today is that you – whoever you are – can say with confidence that you will be there, too. If you can’t, talk to Jesus. Invite Him into your heart. Let Him work in in your heart and give you a life you never even dreamed of. Let Him surround you with His peace and rest in life’s difficult times. Let Him show you His plan for your life; trust me, I can tell you from experience that His plans are better than anything you could plan for yourself. Come to Him, just as you are. He loves you, no matter where you are in life, no matter what you’ve been through or done or gotten yourself into. Let Him guide you through your days on this earth, and find hope in Him for an eternity we can only imagine.