Phoebe watched anxiously as her eighty three year old mother laboured for breath…she was lying in Intensive Care, the Doctors unable to figure out what was wrong with her… having done a myriad of tests nothing was shedding any light. Phoebe’s mind flew back to the photograph…’new beginnings? …how could this be?’
Phoebe and her brother held one of their mother’s hands each… she kept saying between breaths – ‘I love you both’. She’d had a terrible night she said; she couldn’t sleep and the nurses had even had to help her stand for the X rays that morning. Phoebe hadn’t really noticed ‘til now how very thin and frail her mother had become and watching her slight frame lying there on the hospital bed, she wondered how she could possibly have missed it.
Her thoughts returned to the photograph. It’d been created by Emily, a fellow art student… Phoebe had waited some eight or nine months for it to arrive. At first sight, it’d struck a chord with her...‘new beginnings’, the theme of her life at the time…and she’d asked for a copy. The day it arrived was quite pivotal too; the very day and hour she and her family were gathered together to discuss their move north – they’d begun to question – was it really a wise move? By natural reckonings it wasn’t – however God’s reckonings she’d discovered are not characteristically ‘natural’…’your ways are not My ways…’1 He’d explained in Isaiah.
When they’d received the photograph, they were preparing to leave their family home of fifty years. This would be a sacrifice for Phoebe’s mother; she didn’t want to leave the home she loved and the beautiful garden she’d built from scratch. Their home held many treasured memories for her…
Phoebe’s parents were eighty two, a very fit and able eighty two mind you…and already the ball was in motion with the house sale nearly through. As they’d talked about their doubts, Phoebe had imagined this must be how Abraham felt when God told him to leave his home country without giving him a destination. Experience had taught her that generally God offers few explanations and destinations are seldom forthcoming….she was learning to walk by faith and not by sight. Phoebe’s parents did at least know where they were going however, but they were older and the move didn’t make practical sense…the timely arrival of the photograph had reminded them that this was God’s leading.
Now, two years later, Phoebe’s mother was very ill… how could this be?
The photograph haunted Phoebe …it was a picture of an old and weathered white grave with a stone cross; on it was a little circle of daisies with a bright pink camellia in the centre; above it fluttered that familiar epitome of beauty… a vividly coloured monarch butterfly… beneath it was the caption…’is life finished, or has it just begun?’ ….‘Finished?’ thought Phoebe…’Surely not?’…
Somehow she was removed from the hospital scene now… distant and not really registering what was happening…. it’d always seemed her mother would never die. With things to prepare before she left that morning, Phoebe hadn’t even hurried in to see her mother… she just ‘knew’ she’d be okay. She always was. She always bounced back. She was always so strong and she so despised illness. Having had her share of it throughout her life… she’d learned to stay strong… she seemed so…indestructible. Yet here she lay in Intensive Care, gasping for breath, hooked up to an oxygen mask, tubes everywhere and her body failing fast.
Suddenly for Phoebe, the spectre of human mortality was coming into focus …as she’d read many times in Psalms; ‘we glide along the tides of time as swiftly as a racing river, and vanish as quickly as a dream. We are like grass that is green in the morning but mowed down and withered before the evening shadows fall’2. Our Creator has a date written in ‘His book’, a date known only to Himself… and on that day we depart. There aren’t usually any warnings of this departure – and if there are we generally miss them – set on our own courses we often fail to hear the whisperings of the Spirit as He begins to prepare us – ‘I failed to hear them’ Phoebe mused…
The previous evening she’d seen the brilliant pink sunset – so beautiful behind the stark silhouettes of naked trees in a row. These displays had so often breathed messages to her in the past – like the rainbows so close and so vibrant when she was leaving her home country for a time – a visible sign of His presence as she went. He knew of her need of comfort then and as always He came and showed Himself in the majesty of His creation. The sunset that evening, the day before her mother fell really ill, was so pretty…so much a hint of the ending of an era… the shutting down of the day. How could Phoebe have missed it? The gears of her mind had slipped into ‘auto’ now – there was no figuring what God was up to – and anyway – her mother was indestructible. She would live for ever…
Phoebe and her brother left the hospital later that morning promising to return in the afternoon…the nurses had asked them to let their mother rest… but that was the last Phoebe saw of her alive…and so much unsaid. The things she never said because she ‘knew’ her mother would come home again…yes, she would be back and in her garden again; or making macaroni cheese for a sick neighbour; that’s what she always did…
…two days later however, here she was, lying on a steel undertaker’s trolley, still, cold, gone…
Phoebe’s tears flowed now…she stepped carefully forward and tenderly stroked her mother’s hair. It was nicely washed – Phoebe had cut it for her as she always did only days before - she would’ve permed it again soon. They’d placed a dark pink camellia on her chest and against her black jersey it looked so pretty. It made Phoebe cry…they’d just celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary only six weeks prior and all around the white tables they’d placed pink camellias. All is so still in death; so final; so irretrievable… she wouldn’t waken this time. There would be no more macaroni cheeses; no more garden…no more anything except memories…she was gone now.
For the next few days Phoebe felt the smarting of grief like a cruelly amputated arm…the disbelief that her mother had gone forever…the agonizing over what was not said and done…over missing the signs in their conversations. Some of the things she’d said sprang to mind now and she realized her mother must have ‘known’ she was going; how could Phoebe have missed the signals…maybe she didn’t really want to see them? Deep down human nature does not want to face death; it’s always what other people face; not they themselves….so and so’s aunty or uncle or grandfather dies, but not their own mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters.
Like a surreal dream the days passed swiftly; the funeral, the flowers, the cards; the finality dawned eventually but the smarting remained; a sharp thorn in her heart. ‘I’m sorry Mum’ she whispered through her tears; ‘I’m sorry I didn’t understand; didn’t say the things I should’ve’…it was too late now; she’d gone yet somehow Phoebe hoped her mother could hear her. The morning light was dawning and the clouds seemed to have formed a square almost like a window, like a window into heaven, with the sun’s dazzling rays bursting through it – she felt she could almost reach out and touch it - it was a visible place. There in the early morning, communing with her Father, Phoebe felt His tangible presence for the first time since her mother had departed. A peace enveloped her and she just ‘knew’ in a way only God could convey to her… in her heart and not just her head… her mother was in His arms. The memories of the previous months crept back into focus…
Just a few short weeks prior to her illness Phoebe’s mother had obtained from a friend the recording of a song called – ‘Come Fly Away’….’come fly away with the Lord’ (the words were coming back now – she’d played it often and they’d sung it at the funeral)…‘let me take you to that secret place, where He promised you would be free; and He will give to you the wings of an angel, and you can fly away, come fly away with the Lord’. This realization brought a new flood of tears as she realized the aptness of that song – her mother had literally flown away that night in the hospital helicopter and gone into God’s presence before it landed.
‘But how is this a new beginning Lord?’ Phoebe questioned, remembering the picture again. Butterflies had always spoken to her of new beginnings – the chrysalis and the change time when the old became new; the unattractive became beautiful; the struggle emerged into freedom; and beauty was born. Who else but her heavenly Father could transform things in such a way?
He reminded her that morning of a scripture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; ‘Now also we would not have you ignorant, brethren, about those who fall asleep [in death], that you may not grieve [for them], as the rest do who have no hope [beyond the grave]. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will also bring with Him through Jesus those who have fallen asleep [in death]…’ (Amplified Bible) The scripture unfolds further offering such fresh hope for the bereaved ‘….for the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a loud cry of summons, with the shout of an archangel, and with the blast of the trumpet of God. And those who have departed this life in Christ will rise first. Then we, the still living who remain [on earth], shall simultaneously be caught up along with (the resurrected dead) in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so ALWAYS – THROUGH THE ETERNITY OF THE ETERNITIES – WE SHALL BE WITH THE LORD! Therefore comfort and encourage each other with these words’….
These were the words Phoebe needed to hear! God had brought perspective again and she could rest in the certain hope that she and her mother would meet again; in fact they would meet with all her family members who’d gone before. She comforted herself further with the knowledge that her mother was now reunited with her own mother as well as Phoebe’s brother who had died when he was thirty…it was then her mother had started gardening…busying herself in the healing therapy of the soil. God is tender with those that grieve; He is ‘near to those whose hearts are breaking’3. ‘He collects their tears in a bottle’4
Refreshed and comforted Phoebe could now go on, knowing her mother was in God’s hands. Further, the circumstances of her mother’s death had meant that a post mortem would reveal cancer. She’d always said that when she died she wanted to go quickly and quickly it was. At eighty three she was spared the gruelling treatment that cancer sufferers often endure – she‘d been taken quickly, just as she wanted. She had lived a long life….she’d had her three score and ten and then some and God was ready for her to go home. ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord’ remembered Phoebe ‘is the death of His saints.’5 It was this scripture that had comforted Phoebe when her brother died. Death is precious to God because one of His loved ones is coming home; how differently He sees it!
It was in late September that Phoebe’s mother went to be with the Lord. She’d left behind another beautiful garden and often Phoebe would be reminded of her when a new set of bulbs came up. Her mother had marked them with a little stick to remind her they were there, buried beneath the ground. All the next year there was a succession of glorious colour… freesias, tulips, crocuses, dahlias and Christmas lilies, all pushing forth out of the soil at their set times, displaying their beauty and fragrance, and reminding her of God’s promise of resurrection. Plain bulbs buried in the darkness; like Christ in the tomb; like her mother in death; they’d come forth in another form; lovelier; more beautiful …
‘No’… whispered Phoebe, ‘life hasn’t really finished … it’s only just begun.’
1 Isaiah 55:8
2 Psalm 90:5,6
3 Psalm 34:18
4 Psalm 56:8
5 Psalm 116:15
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