My mom, Carol Louise Stephens, went to heaven on July 2nd. She had been in the hospital for several days, her health deteriorating, and there was this moment when she understood and accepted the reality that she was dying. Then she did all she could to help me and my siblings come to terms with it too. Impossible, but her incomprehensible joy and contagious peace helped us as we walked her to heaven’s door.
Now I’m on an unfamiliar road. I didn't plan this turn. I've never traveled on this path before. And sometimes I feel lost. These are the times people are referring to when they say, “Your faith will see you through.”
My mom’s faith was real. And it definitely saw her through the last seven months of her life. When she was diagnosed with cancer the week of Thanksgiving, 2012, our family was devastated. We didn't know which way things would go, but in the months that followed, as my mom went through chemo and radiation, tests and scans, her faith shone more brilliantly than ever. Early on she told me, “I am going to be OK. I am going to be around for a long time. But no matter what happens, either way, I’m in a win-win situation. If I live through this, I win more time with my family. If I die, I win eternity with my Savior.”
She fought hard to beat cancer, and she did. She fought hard to get well. But she did not fight death when it came because she believed that God is in control. She trusted His timing. She was in tune with her body and in tune with her Maker, and when she realized that He was bringing her home, she did not resist. She declared, a few hours before she passed, “What a beautiful day that the Lord has made!” It was the day of her homecoming. She surrendered, telling us, “I've taught you how to live, now I want to teach you how to die. I want you to see that you don’t have to be afraid.”
I expected that it would be incredibly hard, and it was. But I didn't expect it to be beautiful in a way I can’t even describe. It reminded me, in some mysterious way, of childbirth. The progression, the anxious waiting, asking the doctors, “How long?”, the passing from one home to another; my siblings and I witnessed my mom being born into heaven.
“Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them all and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.”
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)
Those last days with my mom were lived in another realm, somewhere between this life and the next. Moments like these have a way of reshaping your perspective and strengthening your faith – bringing to the forefront the mysterious and the eternal. I believe in God and in heaven. I believe that because of His amazing love for me – because He sent His son, Jesus, to take my punishment and to die in my place – that I am forgiven. Because Jesus lives again, I will live again, too. What an indescribable gift! Someday I too will be with Him, and I will see my mom again. I believe in After Life.
But now I am living in the “Life After”. Life after the sickness and the trial. Life after losing my mother. I brought home some of her things: some beautiful pieces from her china cabinet, her desk, and her chair. And for the first several days I moved the items around in my house, from room to room, trying to find a place for them, to make them fit. Trying to make it feel right. It mimicked the movement in my heart. Life doesn't feel right after you lose someone so precious to you. You work to accept the change. You try on the new reality, but it doesn't fit.
People keep telling me to take care of myself, and it’s good advice. I am figuring out what that looks like for me. I am taking more walks. I'm trying to remember to drink lots of water. I registered for a grief support workshop at my church. I am cleaning out my house and re-decorating my bedroom. I like the distraction and I like being able to call the shots, to have control over an outcome. I like creating something fresh, new, and beautiful.
I wake up each morning and for a couple seconds I struggle to accept the truth that my mom is no longer here. I can’t call her today – I can’t hear her voice. I can’t ask her advice or hear her laugh. And it hurts every time. But then I think about the way my mom lived and died – with absolute trust in her Lord. I remember her words, “You don’t have to be afraid.” And I want to live this way. I want to walk with Jesus and love Him more. Because He will see me through whatever comes my way. He will hold me steady when life takes some hard turns. And at the end, though I may be surrounded by beloved family and friends, the person that will carry me from this life to the next is my Creator.
“No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”
(lyrics, In Christ Alone) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENtL_li4GbE)
My mom had a way with people. She was bold but not pushy. She cared enough to pry, but was not intrusive. She introduced many people to Christ, and just a few hours before she passed I saw her grab a nurses hand, look her in the eye, and ask, “Do you know Jesus?” She just didn't want anyone to be without Him.
How about you? Do you know Jesus? Have you experienced what it is like to be fully known and completely loved? Have you found a joy that doesn't depend on your circumstances, and a peace that is impossible to understand or explain? Can you imagine no guilt in life, and no fear in death? Do you know Him? The One who gave everything for you and loves you more than you could ever imagine? 1 Timothy 2:4-6, "God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people."
Thank you, Mom, for showing me how to live and how to die.
Thank you friends, for praying for my mom and our family during this journey.
Thank you, Lisa, for encouraging me to write again.
Thank you, Jesus, for your abiding presence, comfort, and strength, and for giving me everlasting life.