After the death of a loved one, you start counting off the firsts. First trip home when he’s not there; first Thanksgiving dinner; first Christmas; first New Years; first birthday. All of those firsts are hard.
Today is another one of those firsts.
Today my parents would have been married 70 years, and for the first time my mother is celebrating alone.
Even though my dad is gone, she has a lot of memories to celebrate. And he would be so proud of her and how gracefully she’s navigated through these first lonely months of missing him. The hole he left in my life, is nothing compared to the canyon he left in hers. Yet, like the ezer she is, she has pressed forward into the headwinds of grief and loss and widowhood with a stubborn faith and a determination to walk with God in this stretch of her journey too.
It is a marvel—a sacred privilege—to watch.
When I visited her in November, shortly after she moved to her new retirement community, I walked straight into a silent but devastating epidemic that passes quietly under the radar, but is wildly out of control in retirement homes.
According to statistics 9 out of 10 wives will spend some portion of their lives in widowhood. That’s not an abstract statistic in a retirement home. These places are swimming with widows. When I visited my mother in November, for a whole week I was surrounded by widows. These women belong to the Greatest Generation. Many had triangular glass cases in their rooms containing American flags from the funerals of their WWII veteran husbands.
I heard their stories all week long.
- Marti, a gifted artist and former college art professor, and her husband had been good friends with the late Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield and his wife, Antoinette. Visiting Marti’s apartment to see her paintings was like entering a private art gallery.
- Bea was once a dance instructor and owned her own studio. Even thought she walks with a cane, there’s plenty of dance left in Bea who to this day has trouble sitting still for very long and is bent on starting a dance class for fellow-residents—so far without much luck.
- Margaret, whose memory is failing but her sense of humor is not, belongs to a multi-generation Chinese family that raises and sells hops in Central Oregon to brew for beer. I think she explained that process to me at least three times.
- And Eva’s eyes sparkled as she told how WWII ignited a love affair with a soldier that turned quickly into a lasting marriage.
Watching my mother enter a different season of her life and meeting her new friends, reminded me of a major demographic we habitually overlook in our discussions about women today. Debates that center on women’s ordination, submission and headship in marriage, juggling career and family don’t touch down in these women’s lives anymore. But the questions we are asking—about God’s purposes for women—remain as relevant for women when they enter their eighties and nineties, perhaps even more. After all, there is the unspoken assumption that nags at their hearts—especially for elderly widows—that the story for them is over. It can leave them feeling worthless and believing their lives no longer count.
Yet, some of the most remarkable women I meet in my ministry are in their eighties and nineties, some even pushing 100. These women are alive with purpose and they aren’t slowing down. I keep saying, God’s purposes cover all the days of a woman’s life—from her first breath to her last. The Greatest Generation puts that thesis to the test and they’re proving it is true. God is in the business of mobilizing his daughters, and he doesn’t have an age limit when it comes to who can serve. It just may surprise some to see what is he is doing.
Consider just a few ezer stories:
- Dr. Pamela Reeve entered her nineties asking God what he wanted her to do next. Inevitably she’d receive a new assignment—none of them quiet or behind the scenes either. I’m one of many women she has blessed with her wise mentoring.
- At a conference a great-grandmother had one of those firsts. She discovered for the first time in her life that she is an ezer-warrior. It was plain to see that this discovery had energized her. She could hardly contain her excitement when she told me, “I thought I was finished. I was planning just to sit back and enjoy my grandkids and great-grands. But God has more work for me to do.”
- Delma—a single missionary to Cuba whose passion for ministry never diminished—thought her life was over when, in her nineties, she was admitted to an extended care facility. In an email she confided, “When I came here, I thought my life was over. But I’m an ezer. I started looking around here and discovered a mission field no one is doing anything about.” Delma spent her last years focused on kingdom work as she visited and ministered to her fellow-residents.
- Even my own characteristically outgoing grandmother entered assisted living with the dismal belief that she was too old to make new friends. Then she met Hilda, and a deep friendship blossomed. Unbeknownst to my grandmother, God had a mission for her. Hilda invited my grandmother to watch Lawrence Welk on her television. Grandmother invited Hilda to hear my dad preach. God worked through that friendship to reel Hilda into the kingdom.
My mother may be traveling through that difficult year of firsts, but her story is far from over. She knows that. She’s starting a different chapter. And although that chapter contains challenges—hard ones she never expected to face and an unbearable loneliness because of the partnership she once enjoyed—God’s purposes don’t come stamped with an expiration date. He has more for her to do.
Once an ezer, always an ezer!
For more on the ezer, read The Return of the Ezer