How Great Thou Art

sunrise over ocean

Last week on the Allender Center Podcast, we launched a two-part series in which Dan and Becky Allender are reflecting on the nature of grief in the wake of Dan’s mother recently passing away. Here, Becky writes more about the experience of that loss, and about the unexpected collisions of life, death, great pain, grief, and—somehow—hope. As we move through Holy Week and remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Becky’s words invite us to stare full-faced into the broken realities of our world while daring to live into hope. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living.

It was almost April and one news station reported that our city had had a mere 40 hours of sunlight since October! It had been the darkest five months of my life. Record-breaking rainfall had been our plight this year; even the interior of my car seemed soggy. However, on this morning when I opened my eyes, there was hope of a sunny day! By the time that Dan joined me downstairs the house was filled with sunshine. We soaked in the rays like turtles on a mossy rock.

We had a regular hike planned for the day but Dan had a different plan. We drove to Fort Ward to walk along the water. Joy was in the air! It was evident as people were out in droves drinking in the sun. We walked hand in hand like lovers and even greeted strangers. It was a glorious day.

We returned home and the phone rang. I listened to Dan answer it and knew immediately that it was Sondra, Dan’s childhood neighbor who had power of attorney for his mother’s health care. The day changed in an instant. I sighed and in my mind could hear my father say, “There is never a good time for death.”

I told her I loved her and how beautiful she was even now.

We arrived in Columbus at 4:30 the following afternoon, and when we walked into the assisted living care facility everyone seemed to know who we were. A nurse came to us and said that she hadn’t thought that Jo would make it through the night. “She’s been waiting for you.” She opened the door and Dan and I immediately went to her bedside. Her body under the white quilt looked like a small child’s frame. She looked at peace, and when Dan touched her head and greeted her, her breathing changed. I went next and stroked her hair and told her I loved her and how beautiful she was even now. Once again, without being able to do anything but breathe a bit differently, we knew that she had heard us.

Wayne, her partner, was in a wheel chair next to her bedside with vacant eyes. We hugged him and then met Veronica, a “sitter” from Ghana. Immediately I knew that she was a believer. I hugged her too. The next three hours were on ground where the veil was more torn aside than where we normally live.

Keith Anderson, the President of The Seattle School, had emailed Dan saying let your heart find all the peace that you can. The Dean of Students, Derek McNeil, had also emailed Dan: “Make sure you ask for forgiveness and make sure you grant your mother forgiveness for what she needs forgiven of.” With those men’s orders Dan was valiant and prepared.

We needed to love on Wayne since his loss would be much greater than ours. He was lost in his own grief. His eyes seemed glazed over and he would not look at Jo. Our children Annie, Amanda, and Andrew called to say their last good-byes.

The holiness of the words they spoke also caused Jo’s breathing to change. Her spirit told our spirits that she had comprehended their farewells. I looked at my watch and asked Wayne when the nurse would provide food for his stomach stent. The timing was perfect, and I wheeled him out through the many locked doors so Dan could be alone with his mom.

When I returned Dan was at peace and I could tell that all that needed to be said had been said. It was my turn. I told Jo that I loved her and thanked her for being a good mother-in-law. I said other true words that rolled easily off my tongue, and I meant every word. We then joined hands with Veronica and sang and prayed over this shell of a 93-year-old mother. Veronica closed our time together and I felt like the angels had already arrived in the room. It was the right time to leave.

Dan’s phone awakened us. It was Veronica calling to tell us that 10 minutes ago, at 8:47am, Jo had “passed unto the blessed bosom of Jesus.” I looked at Dan and he said, “I am at peace. I said everything that I wanted to say and I have no regrets for not being there when she died.” I couldn’t help but think that our being there would have been an intrusion. I think If I could choose any guide to escort me from this world to the next, I would choose Veronica to sing me into the arms of Jesus and my family. I was at peace too.

The rest of the day unfolded moment to moment with heavenly provision. A morning service was arranged. We were seated in the “Buckeye Room” and Dan thanked Sondra and Wayne for their care of Jo. I thanked the five administrative staff and nurses for their kind care. We all told a few stories of Jo and that brought good laughter and tears. Then Steve, the hospice chaplain, gave one of the greatest sermons of love and faith I had ever heard. Each psalm, passage and prayer was food of hope to my heart and a glorious testimony to Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension. Dan had planned on speaking, but halfway through the service he heard Jesus say, “Just be a son and receive.” In this hearing he realized that he was released from a lifetime of caring for his mother. It was a new day.

He realized that he was released from a lifetime of caring for his mother. It was a new day.

We went with Sondra to Jo’s room to gather her outfit for the funeral home. We hugged Sondra and Wayne goodbye and walked out to our rental car. We had an hour before meeting with bank trustees. The sun was shining and the outside world beckoned. “What do you want to do?” Dan asked. I knew in an instant exactly what we should do, and when I told Dan it rang true with him as well.

We drove to where Dan’s father’s bakery used to be and on the property’s sidewalk gave each other communion with a chocolate chip cookie and black coffee. Both cookie and coffee were the favorites of my mother-in-law. With these fitting elements, we put closure to Dan’s mother’s life. We partook of the sweetness his father and mother had given him. With tears of gratitude, we ate and drank and remembered a woman whom we will one day get to dance with in glory.

What is a life? What is a life lived well?  What does a tombstone convey? What words remain when we are dead? Dan’s mother gave life and at times took life from my husband. There were times I couldn’t bear her. There were times her laughter brought so much joy. She was the mother of the man I love, and without her I wouldn’t know the love I know as a wife, mother, and grandmother. As I beheld the emaciated and shrunken body of a dead woman, a broken and beautiful woman, I quietly sang, “Great is Thy faithfulness, oh God my Father. There is no shadow of turning with Thee.”