by John Ellis
Years before the most recent financial crisis turned “staycation” into a buzzword, my mom was planning our family’s staycations. As a Christian schoolteacher married to an independent, fundamentalist Baptist pastor, she turned resourcefulness into a finely honed character trait. Although we lived below the poverty line, it rarely felt like it in our house. Our lives were packed full of curiosity and creativity.
Summer programs at libraries, participation in art contests and costume contests, and the seemingly endless supply of books on our family’s many bookshelves were a few of the ways that our mom stoked me and my sibling’s understanding that the world was much bigger than our circumstances. Towards that end, one summer, she planned and organized a series of staycations around the Pensacola area. Taking into account everyone’s preferences and desires, she did her best to create a fun-filled and interesting summer for all.
Included on the list of staycation activities was a trip to St. Michael’s Cemetery. And it made the list because my mom wanted to see it. Established by the King of Spain in 1807, St. Michael’s Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in the state of Florida, and is a snapshot of the city’s history. Or so says the cemetery’s website. I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t pay attention while I was at St. Michael’s Cemetery.
On the day set aside by my mom to visit the cemetery, I threw a fit. And not just me. In between whining about how boring the cemetery would be, my siblings and I bickered with each other and nagged our mom. That brattiness continued during the thirty-minute car ride to the cemetery and throughout our time there. Instead of enjoying the cemetery, my mom spent the day corralling and disciplining a stable of selfish children more concerned about themselves than they were about their mother. At the time, as an eleven-year-old boy, I could see the disappointment in my Mom’s eyes as we ruined the day’s trip to the place she was looking forward to visiting, but as a selfish eleven-year-old boy, I didn’t care.
If she were still alive, my mom would laugh at my recollection, shake her head, and tell me that I’m being overly dramatic. On one hand, she would be wrong, I think, but, on the other hand, her perspective would reveal the character of someone dominated by selflessness who chose to see and remember all moments as blessings from God. Just two months before she died, during one of the most painful moments of my life, I watched her joyful and thankful spirit on display in a Pizza Hut.
In the late spring and early summer of 2006, my mom’s cancer had responded to chemo and had shrunk, and she had begun to regain her strength. So much so that she was able to travel with my dad in his ministry again. In early August, most of my family, if I remember correctly, made it to Florida to spend time with our parents and with each other.
I don’t remember who had the initial idea to go to Pizza Hut for lunch, but I do vividly remember my mom being in full agreement with the decision. She loved pineapple and cottage cheese mixed together, and Pizza Hut’s buffet had pineapple and cottage cheese.
While my mom was at the buffet, my dad broken-heartedly told us about a call that he had received from the doctor earlier that day. New tests revealed that my mom’s liver cancer was not only growing but had metastasized to her brain. The prognosis was that nothing else could be done outside of relieving her symptoms. Wanting to wait until later to tell her, my dad asked us not to say anything.
In that moment, I was angry. I couldn’t understand why God was doing that to an individual who had dedicated her life to telling children about Jesus. To make matters worse, my mom returned to the table and ruefully announced that the restaurant was out of cottage cheese.
It took every ounce of self-restraint I possessed to not jump out of my chair, find the manager of that Pizza Hut, and throttle him within an inch of his life. That moment, for me, was a microcosm of all the unfairness of my mom’s situation. Throughout that entire lunch, I silently roared at God, cancer, and the manager who failed to properly order stock for the restaurant.
My mom, on the other hand, the person who had been facing her own inevitable mortality for months, took it in stride. She was simply happy to be able to spend time with her family, and that was apparent in the moment. In fact, and once again, if my mom were able to read any of this, she’d smilingly roll her eyes at me, laugh, and gently scold, “It was just cottage cheese, John.”
It’s been ten years since she passed away, and a day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about my mom and missed her. I miss her for two main reasons – 1. I miss my mom because it was only after she died that I truly understood how much she loved me and put me and my siblings above herself, and I want to give her a hug and tell her that I love her. 2. I miss my mom for my kids’ sake.
Like many, while growing up, I failed to fully appreciate my mom, much less express appreciation. It wasn’t that I ever doubted her love for me, it’s just that I often resented the ways in which her love for me was manifest. Unfortunately, as a child (and as a young adult) I didn’t realize that she was laying some of the seeds that the Holy Spirit would later use to grow faith in God the Father in my rebellious heart.
You see, more important than her resourcefulness and even more important than her curiosity and love of learning that she instilled in her children, her continual example of love and selflessness pointed me to Jesus. I didn’t appreciate it at the time; and, often, I was embarrassed by my mom. Her strict fundamentalist clothes, the fact that she would ask servers in restaurants to turn the speakers down so that her family wouldn’t have listen to rock music, and her constant need to talk about Jesus were among the things that humiliated me about my mother.
Besides teaching, my mom also drove a school van to and from school for several years. She did so to save on transportation costs. That meant that her work days started earlier than most teachers and ended much later than normal. Like most school vehicles filled with children, my mom’s van was filled with a wide variety of kids who didn’t always get along or play nicely with each other. On the occasions that my mom’s stern gaze could be seen in the rearview mirror as she began her lecture, I would shrink into my seat.
It’s not the getting in trouble part that bothered me, I was pretty much always in trouble. What bothered me was the fact that she would inevitably turn her lecture into a min-sermon about Jesus. Even at a Christian school, I felt that my mom talked about Jesus way too much.
All of that Jesus talk from her, however, didn’t spare her the disproval of her Christian school bosses. Not long before she passed away, she confessed to me that one of her biggest regrets was pressuring children into making salvation decisions when she was a young teacher. She told me that early in her teaching career, she reached a point where she realized that her desire to have lots of decision cards filled out by her class was hindering her students from hearing about Jesus. “But,” she explained, “that’s what we were taught to do. Teachers were expected to have their classes make lots of decisions for Christ.”
From that point on, she purposed in her heart that by the power of the Holy Spirit she would concentrate on telling children about Jesus and leave the job of pressuring kids to “fill out decision cards” to the Holy Spirit. She smiled her wry smile and laughingly concluded, “I was questioned multiple times about my classroom’s lack of decisions, but I knew that I was doing the right thing.”
However much her students had to hear about Jesus from my mom, her own children had it even worse. Or better, depending on your perspective. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with all of her rules, far more important than quibbling over externals, I am thankful for all of her “fundy” rules because her heart’s desire was to communicate Jesus to everyone around her, including, and more importantly, to her children. Now, for me, I am proud and thankful for having a heritage left by a mother who surely heard her precious Savior say, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
Two weeks before she died, I wrote my mom a letter thanking her for some of the ways that the Holy Spirit had used her in my salvation. During the last conversation I had with her, she told me how much that letter meant to her. As thankful as I am that I had the opportunity to thank her one last time and tell her how much I loved her, I am constantly wishing that I could put my arm around her and tell her that I love her. The next best thing, or, the even better thing, is making sure that I put my arms around my children, her grandchildren, and tell them about my mom’s Savior and King. But, I won’t lie, I wish to the deepest recesses of my soul that my two kids could hear their grandmother tell them about Jesus.
My mom was made to be a grandmother. Except, apparently she wasn’t made to be a grandmother for very long. And that I don’t understand, because my mom was made to be a grandmother.
One of my favorite stories about my mom comes from the last couple of months of her life. A kind-hearted friend sent my mom some money with the instructions to spoil herself – to do something that she had always wanted to do. Well, my mom took that money and bought beautiful books for all of her grandchildren (and even grandchildren yet to be born) and then hand wrote notes in all of them. The two books that my mom bought for my kids are the two most valuable possessions that we own.
My children will occasionally mention their grandmother who is with Jesus. My daughter, who only remembers my mom through the pictures of her being held by my mom, will say that she misses her grandmother. At this point in his life, my son has even less categories to remember my mom by than does his sister. And that’s what causes me to struggle with anger when I think about my mom’s death. At times, I feel like my kids have been cheated. When my son was born, while a sweet memory, it was still painful to think about the time my mom met her first grandbaby in 1996.
The drive to Cleveland from Pensacola was long, but my parents’ new conversion van had cassette decks with individual earphone jacks. I passed the time listening to my new Rage Against the Machine album. I was so involved in my music, that I don’t remember my mom’s demeanor on the way north. However, I do remember my mom’s demeanor upon our arrival at my oldest sister’s house outside of Cleveland.
Seemingly before my dad had put the van in park, my mom jumped out. With the single-minded desire to see her days old granddaughter, she rushed past my sister who was waiting in the doorway. As a self-centered twenty-one-year-old, I was underwhelmed by that entire trip. Be that as it may, my mom’s excitement was unforgettable. And her excitement never diminished with the birth of each successive grandchild all the way up to the last grandchild that she met on this earth, my daughter.
It was obvious from the first moment that she loved my daughter and that my daughter loved her grandmother. During the first nine months of her life, my daughter was frequently with her grandmother. My mom’s initial cancer diagnosis occurred just a few weeks before the birth of my daughter. At the time, I didn’t really understand the gravity of her diagnosis, but I knew that my mom really wanted us to travel to Pensacola for Christmas. My wonderful wife, who reminds me so much of my mom, graciously endured an eight-hour car ride a mere week after giving birth. That Christmas is the sweetest Christmas in my memory.
My daughter is notoriously independent, which was evident from the moment she left her mother’s womb. She was not a fan of being held, and hated being constrained in any way. Snuggling with her was almost always out of the question. But during those nine months, she loved being held by her grandmother.
My mom, weakened by chemo, would sit in her chair, holding her beloved infant granddaughter. Her soft smile would never leave her face, betraying that she had some sort of secret communion with her granddaughter. My wife and I would marvel at how my mom was able to tame our fiercely independent daughter. But that was my mom. She loved kids and kids loved her. Even though she was known as a strict teacher, I have heard from many of my mom’s past students about how much they loved my mom, enjoyed being in her class, and miss her. The memories of my infant daughter snuggling with her grandmother is all the proof that I need.
So, yes, there’s a part of me that absolutely believes my daughter when she talks about how she misses her grandmother. This side of eternity, I can’t possibly know what happened between my mom and my infant daughter during my mom’s last nine months of her life and my daughter’s first nine months of her life. I do know that if at all possible, my mom communicated to her brand new granddaughter that Jesus loved her so much that he came to earth to atone for her sins. And she let my daughter know that she loved her. Both of those things are heritages that I want to pass onto my kids, but without my mom here, I sometime feel at a loss of how to do so.
And therein lies the rub. My mom, throughout her whole life and with her life taught me about Jesus. She taught me to place my full identity in Jesus. It may have taken thirty years for her teaching to flower in my life, but there is no doubt that she taught me that my sufficiency is found in Jesus and not in her. If she were able, she would gently tell me, “John, your kids don’t need me. They need Jesus.”
And, so, with that, I conclude with a letter to my mom:
I miss you. I want so much to tell you about how God has taught me about Himself. I’m sorry that I rejected Him for so long and that you didn’t get the chance to see how much being in Christ has changed me. When I was lost, when I was rebelling against my Creator, your words and your prayers were a continual presence in my mind. The Holy Spirit used your words and your life to pull me out of the miry pit and to give me saving faith and repentance. In large part, because of your testimony and gospel witness, I will get to see you again. But until that day arrives, I will wish that you could be a part of my family’s life.
Infinity is almost a teenager. She’s so strong-willed and independent, yet incredibly sensitive. She’s almost exactly like me. And I need your help. How did you do it? At times, I’m scared, Momma. I’m afraid that I’m going to fail her. I’m afraid that I’m going to lose her. Often, I don’t know how to talk to her. Thankfully, because of you, I find comfort in the fact that Jesus loves her more than I do. So, in those moment of loss, I tell her about Jesus. Because that’s what you would do. Is that why you constantly told me about Jesus? During my fearful moments, the Holy Spirit reminds me that Jesus is my Savior and King as much as He was/is your Savior and King. That’s part of your legacy, and I promise you that regardless of the waves that crash around my relationship with my daughter, I will do my best to teach your granddaughter about Jesus.
And Hayden, sweet Hayden, he started kindergarten this week. I can see him snuggling up to you and telling you all about it. He would talk your ear off, and your smile would only encourage him to continue. I would tell him to stop bothering Grandmother, and you would scold me in a way that would remind me of Jesus’ love for children. And then you would turn back to my sweet little boy, and listen to him in a way that no other adult is capable of. I don’t know why he doesn’t get to know you. I don’t understand why he doesn’t have his grandmother. You would love him so much, Momma. He would love to tell you about his Bible that he’s so proud of. Last week, he told our next door neighbor about his Bible and how he gets to learn about Jesus in church. I think you and Hayden would be inseparable. He would love to hear you read him Bible stories as much as you would love to read him Bible stories. But you’re not here. So I read him Bible stories. And the entire time, I’m wishing that you were reading me Bible stories. I’ve learned that no matter how old a man gets, he will always need his mom. Thankfully, Hayden has a mom who would make you proud.
Outside of God’s grace, I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I married a woman who reflects you and, more importantly, reflects Jesus, in many of the same ways that you did. During the last few weeks of your life, I don’t know all of the fears or concerns you had. As a parent, I know that you had concerns about your children. I know that you longed for us to grow in grace and to love Jesus more every day. I also know that you loved Danita and saw in her a Godly wife whom the Holy Spirit would use in my sanctification. I want you to know that despite all of my failings and my inadequacies, I am continuing to learn to love my bride the way Christ loves his church. And, because of Danita, I’ve learned and am continuing to learn to love Jesus more. I’m glad that you got to meet her; your happiness with our marriage has been rewarded. Oh, and Danita misses you, too.
Momma, one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, yet faith affirming memories I have of you is the day that I drove your sister to the airport after her final visit with you on this earth. Before Aunt Norma got into the vehicle, the two of you hugged and you were both crying as you said your final earthly goodbyes. Aunt Norma’s final words to you were, “When you get to heaven, tell momma and daddy ‘hi’ for me.” You replied, matter-of-factly, “I will.” And that was it.
At the time, as a young Christian, I was struggling with my faith as I watched you die. But your obvious faith, like in that final moment with your sister, affected me immensely. I couldn’t shake the thought that you knew something that I didn’t. I now realize that it was a “someone” that you knew and not a “something.” Not long after that day, and after you had given me one final hug on this earth, the Holy Spirit began to make real to me that “someone” that you loved so deeply and to whom you dedicated your life to serving.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, King Solomon wrote in Psalm 127 that “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” Although you didn’t get to see your oldest son bear the fruit of your love and devotion to Solomon’s Divine King until the final two years of your life, I know that you are rejoicing at my salvation in the very presence of King Jesus. And while I ache to see you again, I long even more to be in the presence of King Jesus and worship him alongside of you. And for me, that desire is your greatest legacy.
Your son and fellow servant of King Jesus,