It was a cold, overcast, mid-December day. The 18th to be exact, of 1997. Just one day prior, the doctor had warned us that mom would either pass away that day or the next. Needless to say, that was a pretty tough pill to swallow; and up until that point, we had all been clinging to our hope and faith that she would pull through. That she would recover from this most recent regimen of chemotherapy. She had to. She was our mom, and we needed her. Plus they had told us that she probably had a good two years left in her…it had only been two months. This couldn’t be happening. Not to us.
Dad had been spending his nights with her at the hospital, but given the grim foresight delivered by her doctor, he didn’t know if he could possibly do it one more night…especially if this was to be her last. We arranged for uncle Dave (mom’s youngest brother) to stay the night at home with our four younger sisters, so that we (Aaron, Matt, and I), could keep dad company, and possibly render our last goodbyes to our sweet, angel mother. I’ll never forget that night in her hospital room. It was the longest of my life. She was listless, disconnected, incoherent, in fact. We crowded around her bed. We held her hands. We kissed her face. We snuggled up next to her. We told her we loved her…over and over again. But there was no response. Nothing. Nothing but an emotionless expression. Finally, Matt, in his sweet, pure, angelic voice, held her hand and sang her favorite hymn, I Know That My Redeemer Lives. A hint of a smile came to her face, and if but only for a brief moment, I remember her raising her eyebrows. I imagine that must have taken all the strength she could muster, to manifest her approval, her appreciation, her gratitude…her love. That was her only reaction to anything that night. I know she knew that we were there. I know she was dying to be able to express her love to each of us. I’m sure it was agonizing to have so much to say, but to be trapped inside a body that wouldn’t allow it…a body which sadly, was shutting down. We hovered around her bed the entire night, listening to each rattled breath, and wondering if each of these might be her last. Too much time seemed to pass between each struggle for air, and my heart seemed to stop until the next inhalation. I felt a glimmer of hope as the morning sun made its presence, for that signified that we had conquered the cold and dreary night. We were half way there. If she could just hang on through this new day, I thought, she will have beaten all the odds. Surely we must prove this medical staff wrong, mom was a fighter, and she would pull through.
Dad told us to go home. “Take a break”, he said. “Go home and get cleaned up. See if Uncle Dave got the girls off to school alright. Relax, get some rest, and come back in a while.” Aaron refused to leave dad’s side. Matt and I left. We arrived at home to find that all was well. We quickly cleaned up, and were anxious to return to the hospital. Who could rest and relax while dealing with the possibility of losing their mother? We couldn’t. Not being home more than an hour, we were more than eager to get back. It felt like the longest drive of my life. Neither of us said much. It was cold out, and overcast. Snow began to fall and I watched as the little flurries twirled and danced around before finally settling on the windshield, the trees, the ground, or the cars around us. What gives them the right to be so happy? I thought. Christmas music was playing on the radio. I wish I could remember the song. I only remember that it made mention of spreading your wings, and flying away. Tears streamed my cheeks, as I realized how selfish I had been. I wanted to keep my mom around forever. That doesn’t seem too selfish, in and of itself, does it? I just wanted things to be as they had always been. I just wanted to forget about the last 2 months, and go back to life as we’d always known it…with our healthy, happy, smiley mom. Was that really too much to ask for? No, not at all. Not if that was what the Lord had intended. But deep down I knew He had a different plan for our mom, and for our family. Right now she was lying in a hospital bed with broken wings. I needed to let her go, and allow her to soar to new heights.
After what could be deemed an eternity, we arrived, pulled into the parking lot, ran into the cold grey building, scrambled with the elevator buttons, exited at the cancer unit, rounded the corner past the nurses station, and finally to the entrance of her room. The first thing I noticed was the number of people that were in her small room. Grandma, aunt Dorothy, uncle Emil…but the face I will never forget was my cousin Brad’s. His face was beet-red as he was expressing great, gushing sobs. This must be hard for him to see my mom in this condition. It must be too much for him to have to watch her struggle for each breath. These were my thoughts upon seeing Brad. Dad met us at the door and with his arms wrapped around our bodies, said only two words…she’s gone. No No No No No. No, this cannot be happening. No, it’s just a really bad dream. No, I cannot go on without my mom. I threw myself upon her still, warm body. But she doesn’t seem to be dead. She’s just sleeping. I lifted her hand, and let go as the dead weight of it dropped, without resistance, to her side. Her face was calm. No more twisting and contorting from the pain. But I was not calm. I was a wreck. But 41 is too young to die. How could she leave behind 7 children that needed her? We had plans for the future. What about when I get married and have children? Christmas is a week away…My life is over. How can we possibly go on without her? I will never be able to laugh, or smile, or even be happy, no, not ever again.
Well, life did go on, and it still does. In fact, it’s been ten years since the day I thought my life was over. Our little family managed to plug through the days and months and years that followed without her. I’m now married. I’ve had children. I’ve laughed a lot. I have found many reasons to smile and to be happy. Christmas is a good time. Yes, with it come the painful memories of losing my mom. The long, dark, scary night crowded around her bed. The long, cold, snowy drive back to the hospital. Cousin Brad’s face. Yes, those are memories and images that will forever be engraved in my mind. I will never again see mom with her Christmas apron making her homemade caramels and licorice. I won’t ever again be able to present her with the handmade gift I made for her (a tradition that she started when we were little). I won’t ever be able to listen to her read another Christmas story, or hear her sing her favorite Christmas songs, or see her face light up as we opened the gifts that she had thoughtfuly picked out for each of us. But because of her, the person she was, and the memories she created for me…I can carry on those same traditions with my children, and Christmas can once again be a happy time. Not just good…but wonderful, and magical, and everything it was when she was here.
It doesn’t seen fair, losing a loved one at Christmas. But I have taken comfort in the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, in his talk entitled Christmas Comfort.
If you have to lose your [mom], what more comforting time than Christmas? None of us would want those experiences for the Wilberg Mine families, or the Moab seminary students, or the thousand other painful experiences some people have at Christmas; but even so, in the end it is all right. It is okay. These are sad experiences, terribly wrenching experiences, with difficult moments for years and years to come. But because of the birth in Bethlehem and what it led to, they are not tragic experiences. They have a happy ending. There is a rising after the falling. There is life always. New births and rebirths and resurrection to eternal life.
“If thou hadst been here, my brother would have not died,” Martha said to him once. To which he replied, looking sweet Martha firmly in the eyes: “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whoso liveth and believeth in me shall never die". (John 11:21, 25-26).
So I really can’t think of a better time to have had to say goodbye to my sweet mother, than at Christmas. A time in which we celebrate the birth of our Savior, whose birth would be rather insignificant had it not been for his life, his teachings, his atonement, his death and crucifixion, and finally his resurrection…that glorious resurrection in which we shall rise from the dead and be reunited with those we love. What a wonderful gift our Savior has promised, and given to us all...
"Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her king!...no more will sin and sorrow grow, nor throrn infest the ground; he'll come and make the blessings flow, far as the curse was found."