In the aftermath of my mother’s death last week, I came across this tender thought:
“Remember, you’re the only person who knows what her heart sounds like from the inside.”
In the case of my mother, I’m not “the only person.” There are four of us. And while it is true that there are many different routes to motherhood, I love the thought that, before I saw the light of day, the first sound I was hearing was the steady beat of my mother’s heart.
This past Monday, her 95-year-old loving heart stopped beating. Mama’s passing—like the slowly setting sun—took place over time with a gradual litany of losses. First she lost her mobility, then her hearing, sight, and memory until, on January 7, that steady heartbeat went silent.
Grief stretches out over years of decline. She felt those losses too. But death drives grief home with a finality that cannot be denied. Memories of conversations with my mother are treasures that live on.
She got off to a tenuous start, weighing only three pounds when she was born on July 16, 1923 in Lafayette, Louisiana. My grandmother journaled, “I had eclampsia and lost consciousness before we reached the hospital. She was three days old before I was aware, and she was in the incubator.”
When she was seven, her mother decided it was time to have “the talk” and asked a couple of close friends to pray. When she explained the gospel, my mother responded by asking, “Is there any other way?” Grandmother told her, “You can be perfect.” My mother replied, “I think I’ll try that way.”
She spent the next morning in her bedroom putting a mosaic together, then skipped off happily to a birthday party. When she returned, mosaic tiles were scattered all over her bedroom floor. The culprit was her younger brother. She wanted to murder him! She went straight to her mother and said, “I need Jesus!”
When she was ten, the family moved from Louisiana to Harrisburg, Arkansas when my grandfather purchased part-ownership of what would eventually become the Mouton Rice Mill
At sixteen she displayed an uncharacteristic level of fearlessness and a willingness to press the limits of what her heart could stand (or her parents would permit). She said “Yes!” to a young friend/military pilot’s invitation to take a spin in his plane. He flew loops! She didn’t tell her parents about it until afterwards.
My grandmother nurtured my mother’s love of Jesus and her hunger to study the Bible by investing countless hours teaching Mama and her best friend Elizabeth from Bible study material drawn from the Moody Bible Institute correspondence course. Both girls were also deeply involved in the Southern Baptist Church Women’s Missionary Union program for young girls. Together at thirteen both achieved the program’s highest award in the state of Arkansas.
She became an accomplished young pianist, giving numerous recitals and a performance on Memphis radio. Her love of music inspired her determination to insure music lessons for all four of her children.
Her call to ministry came early. Her childhood friend Elizabeth raised the bar for a rich spiritual depth of friendship that she didn’t encounter in the young men she knew, so she didn’t expect to marry. Instead, she planned to be a missionary and dreamed of studying at House Beautiful (part of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky until 1998). Southern Baptist Convention leadership created House Beautiful to remedy the fact that they were sending women missionaries without providing biblical and theological training.
College came first. Her parents shipped her off to Baylor University, where her freshman year she met my father. That changed everything. His calling was the pastorate, and her story took a different direction. Looking back, they often said they “fell in love over the Scriptures.” Both had a hunger to learn and grow that never diminished over 69 years of marriage.
Her heart always belonged to my dad. At nineteen, she dropped out of college to marry him. She would follow him anywhere and did. Their years of ministry together took them to California, Texas, Vancouver, British Columbia, and mostly Portland, Oregon. In his later years he told me, “She’s my ezer.”
Her college education may have been cut short, but she more than made up for it as an avid reader. The writings of Amy Carmichael, Irish missionary to South India, had an especially profound influence on her.
Along with supporting my father’s ministry and managing the home front, she also had ministries of her own: an after school Bible club with neighborhood children, years teaching Sunday School for high school girls, women’s ministries, and hours privately mentoring young women. Beyond the members of her family, she has left an indelible spiritual impression on the lives of countless women who consider her their spiritual mother. Even in assisted living, God opened doors of ministry to her.
Who knew that fragile little heart would beat so strong and steady for 95 years? Who knew so many others would come to depend on her or that her influence would radiate well beyond the inner circle of her family?
Grief at the loss of my mother has, like her decline, come in stages. I’ve already had moments—plenty of them—when I feel the urge to tell her something or ask a question and I can’t. Now, as I contemplate that last goodbye, solace and hope mingle with heartache when I read the psalmist’s prayer:
“My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.For you will not abandon me to the grave.” (Psalm 16:9-10)
The story isn’t over. My mother’s heart will beat again.
Rest in hope, dear Mama.