I first tasted the bitter sting of death in a most personal way at a very tender age, and for decades to come, the deep impact of that first encounter echoed inside my heart like the wailing ghost of a terrified, angry child.
There were seven children in my family back then; the oldest being 10, the youngest being only 18 months and I, myself, had just turned five not two weeks before. At that time, my mother was eight and a half months pregnant with her eighth child. She was only 28. Out of the blue, she got sick in just one day, went to the hospital and never came home again. In an instant, my mother was gone.
My father told me years later that the doctors had tried to save both her life and the life of her baby, but then the baby died, and she quickly followed. My sisters, brother and I had always been told that she had died of pneumonia, but the truth is, while in labor she suddenly became paralyzed throughout her entire body. Back in the day, there was not much the doctors could do for her. Many years later, the doctors theorized she may have died from a disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, but only the Lord knows exactly what killed her.
In our family, no one had ever talked about death before, so I was entirely unprepared. I had no idea what the word even meant. When leaving for the viewing the night before the funeral, I balked and started to cry. Though I didn’t know what was wrong, I did know, I wanted no part of it! I can still, today, see myself standing in the hallway, crying hard and refusing to leave the house. But ultimately, I had no choice.
At the funeral home, I was carried over to the casket to say goodbye. (To this day I have no memory of who is was that carried me. Later, when I was much older, my father told me that it was he who had held me.) At the casket, I looked down and saw what looked like my mother, but she seemed to be painted-up like a clown. Her skin was as white as new fallen snow, and when I leaned over to touch her, it was cold as ice and hard as a rock. THAT was NOT my mother!
When the person holding me leaned in so I could kiss her goodbye, I began to scream and kick. Then, someone else came running, grabbed me up and rushed me out the back door into an alley. I can still see that clear, dark, night sky filled with stars. How could it be so clear, and peaceful? I began throwing up.
From that day on, I had nightmares for years. I would also see her dead face flash in my mind repeatedly, even 20 times a day, every day, there in that coffin, till I was 22.
My mother loved Jesus. This I knew without a doubt. Yet, whenever I asked a grownup why she had died, I was always told, “God took her.” Well, to my young mind that translated as, “God killed her.” I thought that was the most awful, meanest, selfish, hideous thing I’d ever heard! What did GOD need her for??? WE needed her! From then on, I had this fierce, white-hot hatred of Him, yet I was also filled with fear. I knew my mother loved Him. If He would kill someone who loved Him, what would He do to someone who hated Him? So began my long-time battle with fear, anger and hatred for God. This was an internal struggle I never shared with anyone.
For some reason, I was also convinced that I was going to hell when I died. I don’t know why I believed that, and I never told any grownup. I simply lived with it internally. Going to hell has always been my greatest fear. About a year after my mom died, I awoke to high flames of fire and people running around in the night, screaming. We were the last house in town, and the closest building to us was a bar which was right then burning to the ground. I remember standing on my tiptoes, barely able to see over the windowsill, and thinking, “It’s happened. I’ve done it. I’ve died and gone to hell!” With the night so black, the flames so high and all the running around screaming, it was for me the very picture of hell, itself. There were no words to describe the terror I felt! It was torture to me, but again, I told no one about this.
My mother’s parents’ house lay just across the pasture from ours. Whenever we walked to my grandparent’s home, which was nearly every day, we could choose to go through the pasture or walk along the highway. On the shoulder of the road, midway between houses, was a black and white, diagonal-striped sign, and at the bottom of the ditch directly under that sign was a puddle of water. For some reason, I thought that puddle was the entrance to hell itself. If I should ever fall into it, I was convinced I would fall straight into hell, so I would do just about anything to avoid that puddle! One afternoon, when I was about seven years old, I was nearly hit head-on by a semi-truck because I had veered into the middle of the highway just to avoid that puddle. This also I kept inside, never telling a single soul. Back then, no grown adult talked to children about their feelings or their struggles—at least none I ever knew, anyway.
My memory of the first few years following my mom’s death is almost a complete blank, with the exception of a few significant events, that bar fire being one of them. Another was when I was in first grade reading for my teacher. “You are SUCH a good reader!” she had said to me in a sing-song, happy voice like she was really proud of me. I was not told very often that I did something well, so what she said to me that day has always stuck with me as a very happy memory. Her words filled me with pleasure and still do today, and they brought forth the desire to read even better. This was about the only positive experience I can remember from my early childhood.
The last memory I have of those years is when I was eight. I had just gotten a new mom. My dad, after having been a widower for three years, had remarried the day before.
I was in Sunday school that day. My teacher stood herself and all the children in a circle, holding hands, as she prayed for me, our family, and my new mother. When she thanked the Lord for sending us a wonderful mother, I burst into sobs and couldn’t stop crying for the next hour. All I kept thinking to myself was, “Jesus didn’t forget me!! He didn’t forGET me!”
My unabated sobbing caused the teacher to call our housekeeper who then took me outside to the car for a talk. I just kept sobbing, unable to speak. She was an older woman, quite strict, and one who took no nonsense from a child. She was extremely upset with me, and told me I was a very selfish little girl, that my dad was finally happy once again, and that he was NOT going to come back home just for me, so I had just better stop all that crying! All I kept thinking was how Jesus hadn’t forgotten me. Despite how the sobbing appeared, I was full of great relief and joy. It took me years to realize that the housekeeper was just scared and didn’t know how to comfort me, and that the Lord had touched my heart through that prayer and was ministering Himself to me in the sobs.
I grew up having hateful feelings toward God, yet wondering about Him continually too. The usual thoughts I had before falling to sleep at night were about Him. What was He like? Could He love me in spite of how I felt? How could He love someone as bad as I was? My family were faithful church goers; we were there whenever the doors were open, yet no one ever talked about Jesus as if He was an actual, real Person. When I was a teenager, at lunch one day, a beautiful cheerleader talked to me with great joy about Jesus. I remember being so puzzled. She was gorgeous, so popular, and her family was rich and well thought of, yet here she was, talking about Jesus as if she really knew Him. How was that even possible, I wondered.
I married a year after I graduated high school and had a beautiful son when I was just twenty years old. I used to lay there staring at him, so perfect, with his huge, beautiful blue eyes and curly hair, and I was so grateful to this unknown God for giving me such a wonder of a gift. When he was only a month old, I remember walking around an entire day in a stunned awareness that he was his own person; he had his own mind, and he didn’t ‘belong’ to me, but he belonged to God! What a gift of revelation He gave me that day! My father, having fathered eleven children and having raised nine of them on his own, still has been unable to see each of us as our own person, separate from himself.
One night when my son was two years old, I was reading a book I’d borrowed from my parent’s library, by Peter Marshall. It was a book filled with the sermons he’d preached when he was the chaplain of the U.S. Senate. What a book that was! In it, I was reading about Jesus, the real One, the way He really IS. My husband, sister and I were all reading that night, and after reading about five chapters, I got up and went into the bathroom where I collapsed on the floor, sobbing. All I could do was cry in great anguish and sorrow of heart for how I had hated such a beautiful Person all my life. I just kept saying over and over, “Jesus, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me!”
The moment I touched the floor, the bathroom was FILLED with Himself and His great love. It surrounded me, engulfed me, enveloped me and consumed me. Even as I sobbed, I felt Him smile with great love and understanding. How He did it I’ve no idea, but I suddenly knew that He had NOT killed my mother as I’d thought. Once I knew THAT, loving Him was easy, joyous, wondrous. I was stunned that He not only could, but DID, love someone such as I, someone who had hated Him with such a passion. It makes me cry even now, as I type these words. He, Himself, His beautiful Self, changed my life and heart that day completely and forever. I will never be able to thank Him enough for His great gift of HIMSELF to me. I don’t deserve Him, but, oh, how thankful I am that I HAVE Him! From that day until now, Jesus has just always been so R.E.A.L to me, His love so constant and His acceptance of me so total. I said to Him once, “Jesus, You just keep getting better and better!” But then, I just sat there in a stunned silence as the realization took hold. “No. That’s not right. YOU’VE never changed! But, You’re changing ME!” He burst out laughing with joy, and said, “Bingo! Exactly! You’ve got that right!”
About a week after meeting Him, I suddenly realized that those repeating flashes in my mind of my mother’s dead face had STOPPED. Those flashes had become such a constant occurrence that I’d ceased to be aware of them. It was when the Lord suddenly made me aware that I’d been freed from them that I even remembered they’d existed in the first place. He’s so beautiful.
After knowing Him for about six years, I asked the Lord to please show me my mother’s death from His viewpoint. Two weeks went by, and one day, as I was laying on my bed talking with Him about nothing in particular, I had a vividly colorful vision. I was suddenly back at that funeral home. I looked to my left and saw my mother’s shiny, brown casket. It was open but empty. I then turned to my right, and there in the doorway stood Jesus holding my little five-year-old self in His arms. Her legs dangled down. I looked back at Him puzzled, and He said, “I don’t want you to worry. Your Mommy is all right. She is safe with Me. I AM going to take her with Me for a while, but I will also be staying here with you, and you will be all right too.” Instantly, ALL the pain I’d carried for her in my heart was completely GONE, melted away.
From then on, my thoughts of my Mom have been ones of great joy knowing I’ll see her again one day. I felt joy for her as well, knowing she went to Heaven with her unborn child and was also reunited with my little brother, David, who had died when he was only six weeks old. She was helping to raise them both in Heaven. An added comfort to me has also been knowing that she was praying for us all there in Heaven, perfect prayers, and in that way, she was watching out for us still.
At 35, I was finally told what she had prayed to Jesus just before she died. “Jesus, we gave these children to You. They are Yours. I am trusting You to watch over each one of them. Keep them safe. Bring them to Yourself. Bring them home to Heaven where we will all be together again one day.” And though she has not been physically here with us for many years, looking now upon that family she left behind, I can see how He has done that very thing. “Thank You, Jesus!”
Jesus once asked me, “You’ve always regretted hating Me, haven’t you?” When I sorrowfully answered yes, He smiled and said, “Don’t. — I knew, that when you met Me, and came to know the real Me, that fierce anger would be turned into a fierce love. And, it has.”