When we knew my mom was dying — really dying and soon — family began to pour in to see her at the hospital as we waited for hospice to be set up so she could come home. We still thought that perhaps we had a few weeks with her but there was a certain urgency in my heart to say something to her. To say…what? I thought a lot about the things that people say in deathbed scenes in books and movies and on TV. So many people feel the need to plead for forgiveness for that last wrong they thought of, that last hurt that had gone buried all those years, to confess, to clear the air, to leave no potential stone of regret unturned at the end. I felt no need for any of that with my mom at her deathbed.
Throughout the Old Testament you read about the people of Israel raising monuments as reminders to themselves and all who observed them of the glorious things God had done for them and through them. In the beginning of the book of Joshua, after 40 years in the wilderness, the people of Israel finally were able to cross the Jordan and enter into their promised land. The first thing they did after crossing over the Jordan was take 12 stones, one for each tribe of the people, and build a monument with them. Joshua instructed them to do this so that when their children asked what the stones meant, the people would be reminded to tell the children of God’s mighty work of stopping up the waters of the over-filled Jordan so that his people might pass safely on dry ground.
On the one hand, it’s sort of funny to think that a people would need a monument to remember a story like that. You know? HOW could you forget seeing the water piled up on itself as Scripture said it was, waiting for you to cross into the new home you’d been waiting your whole life to reach? It’s preposterous! Well, it’s funny and preposterous until you stop and take a good look at the frailty of your own memories and how they can be changed so easily and quickly sometimes.
We’re told later on that the people fell into sin and disarray almost immediately and that it was because they did not teach their children to remember the mighty ways of what God had done to deliver them. They did not remember themselves.
And can’t you hear it? Imagine, say, even fifteen years later, how the story might have been twisted at first. “Daddy, really did God stop up the water? Did it really pile up so high while you crossed over that it was taller than your head??” “Oh son, I was so young then and so small! Why, I was shorter than you are now. So perhaps the water seemed very high but…” “Oh son, it was so long ago. But the water was very shallow. Perhaps it had been a dry season that year and we were so releaved to cross over that it seemed as if the very hand of God stopped the water and dried out the sand…”
But no. No that was not how the story went at all. And the people all together that first day lay those stones and all acknowedged the supernatural greatness of what had been done by their mighty God. They acknowledged it together so that later together they could help each other remember how it really happened and so that they could continue to praise their mighty God and teach their children to praise him as well.
And so this is the monument I want to raise — a monument to the joy I was allowed while losing my mother, because of the God she loved and served and who I love and serve as well. I nearly lost this memory, it very nearly got changed in the telling, and so I want to preserve it here now.
This was the last real conversation I had with my mom:
Sitting and holding her hand while my dear husband looked on, I was able to tell her thank you for her love and for the fact that I did not feel the need to beg forgiveness for anything. It was not my own perfection that allowed me to feel this. Rather, I felt no need to beg because I knew that forgiveness had been freely and openly given already and I rested in the peace of that — thankful, so very thankful that because of that forgiveness I could simply bask in her love and my own love for her.
I hurt my mother deeply through the 29 years of my life with her. Sometimes I hurt her unintentionally and sometimes I did it very intentionally. Sometimes I did not mean to be ugly and sometimes I was ugly just to feel the power of the effect it had on her. I was, indeed, sometimes that kind of daughter. And we did have wonderful, sweet times together — they far outnumbered the bad times. But they did not make up for the bad times at all. There was real and deep hurt there. But Christ went deeper still.
And so sitting there wanting badly to say the right last things, the most important last things, I found that all there was in my heart was love and thanks and more love and more thanks and a whole lot of expectation for the time when, after I spend the whole rest of my earthly life missing her, I would get to see her again as we worshipped at Jesus’ throne. And so that’s what I told her and she understood me perfectly.
You see, my mom knew herself before a perfectly righteous and just God. She knew herself to be a sinner. She didn’t think that, on her own merit, she would someday stand before His throne and hear “You did good, kid. We’ll call it even.” In fact she had a sense of her own sin that was so sincere that it seemed sometimes ridiculously out of proportion to the sweetness and the love we all knew from her. But because she wasn’t comparing herself to the rest of the world but rather to her perfect Savior, she knew keenly that she fell short. And that made the love and forgiveness she found at the foot of His cross so precious to her. It was so precious, so powerful, so all-encompassing in its enormity that it changed her utterly and it made her like Him. And because she was learning to be like Him I found in my mother love and forgiveness and tenderness and self-sacrifice all wrapped in real joy that taught me about Him, too.
And so, at the end of that confession of all that was in my heart to her, do you know what my mom said? She didn’t deny that there were things that had had to be forgiven. She acknowledged that all of what I’d said and known of her heart was true. And then she told me that she was proud of me because she could see the fruit of Jesus’ love for me in my life and that other people had shared with her that they could see His work in me, too. And she told me that she loved me. And we cried — a lot.
It was the best deathbed confession I could have possibly come up with, only it wasn’t contrived. It was what was in our hearts and it was real.
You might wonder why I’m writing about this now, almost a year and a half later.
Over the course of a few months this last year my memory of this time with my mom began to change a bit. What I remembered were the parts of what I’d said to her about having no regrets to come to her with. Somehow my memory changed and left out the parts that had to do with our mutual knowledge of God’s forgiveness in our lives. I didn’t remember at all her response to me. Rather, what remained in my mind became a picture of me blithely and somewhat insensitively refusing to acknowledge the full picture of our relationship together and insisting that it had been good enough for me to have no regrets. I started to cringe at myself. I no longer thought of that time with her at the end with peace in my heart and it started to color all of the other memories of that sweet and painful time of loss over the next few days before she went home. Suddenly, where there had been none before, I had regret.
God is faithful where our memories are not and one day in my kitchen I paused over a counter I was scrubbing and was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to remember what she’d said to me. WHAT had she said to me when I’d so calously informed her that I had nothing at all to be sorry for? I paused and closed my eyes and forced myself to think through the hot shame that this partial memory brought and remember what she’d said in response to me…she said…that in me she could see the work of Jesus.
And the rest of it came flooding back.
Oh what relief to see that whole picture again! Jesus! He is mighty to save. He is faithful to forgive. He lives and pleads for me! HE was the reason we had no regret. HE was the reason losing her was suffused with joy. HE was the reason, He was the topic, He is our mighty God.
When I read the story of Isreal and their monument at the Jordan I though to myself, “I must raise one of my own.”
Here it is.
God brought me over the trecherous river of my faulty memory safely and reminded me of the joy and peace only He could give.
Truly, He is my Rock and He is my salvation.