The Haint of Death

“This day is not a sieve, losing time. With each passing minute, each passing year, there’s this deepening awareness that I am filling, gaining time. We stand on the brink of eternity.”  Ann Voskamp

When that soldier came to our little trailer house in 1966 with that Regret-to-Inform telegraph in hand the whole thing tore me so that for years, decades really, my memory of that moment got all catawampus.

I have that very same catawampus feeling in my head tonight. I’m sure it’s due in part because I miss my bed. Sister Tater and I have been sleeping in Mama’s room, in chairs. Other family members have offered to stay with Mama but she said that tonight she wanted the both of us to stay. So here we are again on the night shift. I just asked Sister Tater if she would rub my feet and we both erupted into laughter. I was sure Mama was going to tell us both to hush up but she’s finally fallen into a deep sleep, with help from the purple fairies.

Mama worked the night shift in those years after Daddy died. It paid a little more extra than the day shift, and the jobs were easier to come by. But night shift jobs are hard on a mother trying to raise a family by herself. She thinks about that a lot, about how absent she was as a mother in those years after Daddy died. It’s weighing heavily on her.

Self-doubt is inherent in any person desiring to be a good parent. I suppose it is also true of anyone who just wants to be a better person. Mama asked me if I thought her life had any impact on people. “You know, for Christ?” she asked.

So I read her your notes. All of them, from those of you I know, and those of you I’ve just met. I told her about the young war widow in Georgia who started school after her husband was killed in action, simply because she’d read the memoir about Mama and it had inspired her. That young widow was only one of dozens of Gold Star Wives who felt a kinship with Mama. So many of you have sent notes, written of your own grief over loved ones lost to cancer and other illnesses, and sent encouraging words to her. Thank you so much for all those prayers.

Mama needed the affirmation.

“Sometimes a person gets driven along, day by day, just getting by, sometimes I didn’t know anyone cared about me,” she said. Then added, “I’m guilty of that too. I could have done more to let people know I cared when they were sick and dying.”

Sick and dying or not, that’s the thing we all need, isn’t it? Knowing that we matter to somebody. It seems like ever since Daddy died Mama has been searching high and low for the affirmation he had provided her. She could have used him at her side tonight when the doctor came in with the biopsy results.

Just confirmation of what has been suspected since Friday when that headache began in full force: Stage IV Lung Cancer, Metastasized to the brain.

The problem with being a nurse when you hear news like that is that you know way too much.

It was like that moment when Jesus prayed for God to spare him the way Abraham had spared Issac: “Father if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering from me.” 

No such luck.

Cancer has jerked a knot in the loose reins. Decisions can no longer be postponed. It is a matter of living intentionally or dying haphazardly.

The course of action that will begin in the next few days includes two weeks of full-brain scan radiation, followed by chemo targeting the mass in the lungs.

She gets to go home and do this treatment as an outpatient, but doctors are clear that any hope we cling to now has to be in the God we serve and the family we love and nothing more.

When face-to-face with the Haint of Death, Mama does not back down, nor does she flinch. She simple beseeches others to please pray that God be ever closer, an ever more present help.

It was Mama who first taught me that courage is not the absence of fear but the mule-headed determination to go into battle in spite of it. She continues to teach us all how to do that.  

Grandson Gabe, himself a recent graduate from the pastoral program at Northwest University, came by to visit tonight. Grandma asked him to read to her from the Word. Gabe opened his iPhone Bible and read:  Let your reasonableness be evident to all. Do not worry about anything, but pray about everything,  giving thanks, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding,will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

And then he prayed over his grandmother, that she would continue to be a source of encouragement and inspiration to many.

What a difference a week makes,  heh?

Last Thursday I was headed to Bend to speak to a group of directors of child abuse centers around the state of Oregon. Afterwards, I had plans to float the river, to see a movie, and to enjoy a lazy summer weekend with my daughters.

Mama had plans of her own — some gardening, some shopping, some reading.

Room with a view

Sitting in a hospital room overlooking Seattle’s Pacific Avenue was not part of either of our plans for the Summer of 2012.

But Mama smiled broadly and her brown eyes danced when I read a note from Carmen Slaughter from Atlanta, a woman she does not know but who has long been a fan of the woman an untold number of people know simply as Hero Mama: “To know you is to love your Mama,” Carmen wrote. “She is still rocking it like the hero she has always been.” 

Be forewarned Y’all: Grandma Shelby’s Rocking It days aren’t over yet.


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