As a daughter I had an indelible desire for my mother to love me. It was an inherent need that could not be squelched by her inability to do so. At the age of ten, I lost my childhood to the responsibility of caring for my four younger siblings. In lieu of love, I grew up playing head games and was showered with guilt, belittlement and betrayal.
As a child I thought Mom strange; as a young adult with children of my own, I realized she was mentally ill. Suffice it to say that ours was an extremely dysfunctional family.
After 50 years of marriage, my stepfather walked out on Mom. By this time I had become a Christian. I had been raised Catholic, then floundered for years between atheism and agnosticism. When I spiraled into the black pit of hopelessness, I cried in desperation for God’s mercy and He stretched His loving hand to mine and lifted me out from under the rubble of my childhood.
The divorce sent Mom into the depths of despair. She would have been homeless, but we bought her a place to live. She would have been lonely, but I was there for her. My strength and ability to give her honor came from the Lord.
Our relationship was still rockier than the West Virginia roadsides that we travelled together. As we walked the streets of her childhood home, I listened to the story of her poverty-stricken upbringing and understood what had scarred Mom’s heart and made her who she was.
Then came the day that we learned she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. I was with her almost 24/7. I prayed for her as she went through denial, I held her in my arms as she cried with acceptance and I prayed again as she took her anger out on me time and again. God gave me the strength to remain silent, with tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart, as she bitterly voiced every hurt (real and imagined) that I had ever caused her.
Through the years, whenever I tried to talk to Mom about God, salvation, forgiveness and eternity, it only served to anger her. Now I enlisted a minister to assist with the saving of her soul. I cried with gratitude when he assured me that she was ready to stand before God.
Before I took Mom home on hospice, she asked me to wheel her to the chapel. There we came across a beautiful stained-glass window with the image of Jesus. I watched in awe as she gave Him a thumbs-up and whispered, “I’ll be seeing you soon.”
For as long as I could remember, Mom’s “I love you,” came with an attachment of need. But that last week of her life, I felt sincerity in the appreciation and love she expressed. I saw my mother in a new light, as she accepted her impending death with grace.
As I feared she would, Mom made death-bed requests, only one of which I would not honor. When I told her that I couldn’t make that promise, she simply said, “You’re right. That was unfair of me.” Only God and I know the miracle of that moment.
Then, hesitantly, I said, “Mom, can I ask something of you?” I didn’t wait for an answer, as I feared my courage would dissipate. “When you get to heaven, would you send me a feather so I know you are there?”
She laughed, but said, “Yes, I’ll send you a feather.” Later she told my two daughters she would send each of them one too.
My husband and I had been caregivers for his mother three years earlier. As I watched her struggle to breathe in those last days, I remember praying aloud, “Please God, don’t ever ask me to go through this with my own mother.”
Sometimes our prayers don’t get answered because God knows what’s best for us. It took 57 years for me to feel the warmth of my mother’s love. It took dying for her to give it.
We all received our feathers on the same day, in different ways. I knew without a doubt that my feather came from Mom. But that’s another story. . .
The last five heart-wrenching weeks of Mom’s life were a gift from God. I had always believed that her mental illness was what most profoundly touched my life. But I was wrong. It was her death.
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