The day before she died, my 90 year-old mother confronted me with a question that startled me.
She asked, “Have you become the person in life you wanted to become?”
We had been carrying on lighthearted conversation in the lobby of her assisted living center and exchanging good-natured barbs. Then, out of the blue, she fired at point blank range this probing question at me.
As I now reflect back on that moment, her question seems to relate more to her life than to mine, as if she was asking the question of herself. It is evident she was thinking back over her life in sweet reflection. She was pondering her own long journey, how fulfilling it had been. And how fortunate she had been to reach so many goals in life which, to her, were sure evidence of how good and faithful God had been through the changing seasons of her life.
There were the stressful college years in the late 1930s when she worked as a café waitress, scrimping and saving every penny, hoping to eke out enough to go just one more semester. Then she married my father, and together they shared three decades of teaching in public schools, side by side. My dad’s early death placed my mother in a 32-year widowhood in which she served as an elected county school official, a community volunteer and church worker, and many years as a first-rate grandmother.
She had a huge inventory of cherished memories spanning 45 years that impacted thousands of Oklahoma youngsters going to school. She could recall those special kids she taught and helped along the way to become in life what they wanted to become.
Now my mother was asking herself the question: “Have I become the person in life I wanted to become?” “Am I there?”
The roots of that question can be traced back more than 60 years to a vow she made to God in a very dark hour.
I contracted a life-threatening case of pneumonia in the fall of 1940 when I was less than a month old. I had great difficulty breathing and the doctors told my mother is was “touch and go” whether I would survive. Three weeks passed before the crisis subsided and I was finally allowed to go home.
My mother told me several times—always in carefully-guarded, calculated language so as not to put any expectation on me—about her spiritual struggle with God during those desperate hours. How she pleaded with God to intervene, to spare my life which had barely begun. How she promised God that, if she could keep me, she would faithfully raise me for His glory.
Through all my growing-up years she was cautious never to communicate any sense of my being obligated to God, or implying any sense of debt I had to pay for my life being spared. But she did about everything else to raise me in the best possible spiritual environment. As an irresponsible teenager, there were countless times I was escorted to church under protest. But, despite all my growling, my mother did her job, and kept that commitment as well as anyone could.
All through college and doctoral studies. . .into marriage. . .through the years of raising my children who now have their own families. . .and finally as I engage the senior years. . .I have felt her gentle hand of influence. She never stopped encouraging and exhorting me toward faithfulness in prayer, excellence in Christian service (which was my choice), and trying to raise her grandchildren in the fear of the Lord. In a soft, relentless, positive kind of way, she set through her personal influence the bar very high to live right and do right.
I think her question to me about whether I had “become the person I wanted to become” was really her way of asking if I thought I could now make it on my own without her help. This is a 90 year-old asking a 60+ year-old if he still needs help! She seemed to ask: “Is my vow fulfilled? Do I have permission to lay the burden down? Can I put you down now?”
I paused a moment to think, then answered with confidence, “I have. I’m not completely there yet, but I’m close. Just need a little more time.” And then I had the presence of mind to turn the question on her: “What about you?” With no hesitation she replied, “Oh, yes.”
I pursued: “What does that mean?”
She replied simply, “Well, I wanted to marry Hull (my dad), and I got to do that. I wanted to have a child, and I got to do that.” I waited for more. There was no more.
All the troubles of this life. . .45 years of teaching countless kids. . .loss of friends and independent living and her own vitality. . .all dropped away as effortlessly as a tree sheds its leaves. She distilled a storied lifetime spanning nine decades down to two people, my father and me.
I kissed her and left. Our conversation had come to an end.
The next day her life came to an end.
She just slipped away, as quietly and gently as a snowflake falls. She died in her sleep, with no evidence of struggle, and with the slightest smile left on her lips. In sublime peace.
Mission accomplished. Vow fulfilled. Promise kept.
I think she found in my answer the release and freedom she sought to her question. Though I had no way of knowing it at the moment, my answer represented closure on a vow she had made a lifetime earlier. In surpassing beauty, I now see a picture of a tired, worn-out, but victorious old saint gently laying down the task she had carried more than six decades.
When God steps in to lift the weight of the last care and the last burden off the human spirit, what is left for it to do but stretch its wings and fly?
In some mysterious and precious way I wonder if my mother did not have some premonition about how eminent was her spiritual graduation day. There had been no hint of foreboding, no dread, no melancholy. She seemed to sense the final sentences of her storied life were being written.
There were no “loose ends” to tie up. No fractured relationships to repair. No longings of any kind to be fulfilled. No last-minute moralizing, teaching, or exhortation. No final rush to do or say anything at all. When it came time to die, all she had to do was die.
The pull of heaven overcame the pull of earth and her spirit took its flight.
My mother’s question now seems like a benediction on her life: “Have you become the person in life you wanted to become?” And without actually saying the words, her life message was like a prayer of blessing that concluded with, “I have.”
All we need to do now is say, “Amen.”
Don M. Hull © 2016