My mom died on Leap Day four years ago.
It was a blessed end to what had been a horribly long journey through the ravages of Alzheimer’s. I did not mourn her death but rather rejoiced in the New Life she began.
My mom was an amazing person. I know everyone says that about their moms, but she really truly was. She was smart, kind, gracious and good. She personified the description of the faithful from James 1:27:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
She devoted her life as a speech therapist to helping people find their voice, and she devoted her life as a person of faith to championing the cause of the developmentally disabled, refugees and those who are so often forgotten.
Mom was a superb cook, a gracious hostess and an amazing reader. Her favorite Bible passage was 2 Timothy 2:15, “approved workers are not ashamed.” No one has ever had a better work ethic.
But she wasn’t a prude. She had a wicked sense of humor and a bawdy side. She LOVED Benny Hill, and I remember laughing with her as we watched “Saturday Night Live” back in the 1970s. Gilda Radner was her favorite.
And she was open and accepting of others. The photo I posted with this blog is of my mother, celebrating her 21st birthday at the University of Michigan on Dec. 2, 1948, with her closest friends. What you can see in the photo is the racial diversity of her friends. What you can’t see is that her best friend and roommate was Jewish. For a woman raised in a conservative Baptist home and who spent her first year of college at Bob Jones University, this still astounds me.
If I could draw a picture of the perfect mother, it would be my mom. She was always encouraging and supportive, even when I did crazy things like 500-mile canoe trips in the Northwest Territories or take yearlong trips around the world. She disciplined by expectation not shouting — I honestly never remember her yelling at me. And trust me, I wasn’t perfect. She was my biggest fan and my greatest supporter.
Which is why the last years of her life were so awful to watch.
I remember driving to my parents in June 2006 with one purpose. To finally confront what we all knew was happening. My mom was in cognitive decline, and we needed to deal with it. It had been the elephant in the room for far too long.
Mom and I had a tough conversation — lots of tears, lots of questions and fears, including her deepest fear: of becoming `worthless,” even though I assured her she would always be a woman of great worth.
It ended in prayer, which was appropriate. Mom was truly a woman of prayer. She told me at the time, and later wrote in her journal, that she was glad I had come and that we were finally talking about it., that we were laying the cards on the table.
During the next months, she began the process of diagnosis, and it was determined she had Alzheimer’s, so at least we had a name for it. Sadly, though, a name didn’t change the realities of what it was doing to her.
As someone who has been a pastor for 30 years and having served as a nursing home chaplain for three of those years, I have seen a lot of cases of dementia. And I have never seen a case as awful as my mother’s.
Mom died nearly 10 years after our conversation — which was several years after her decline became obvious — and most of those 10 years were a living hell for her. And for those who loved her. This classy, open-hearted and open-minded woman became a shadow of the kind-hearted soul within her.
Hers was not the quiet, go gently into the night dementia, where the person loses memories but retains their dignity. My mother’s personality became the polar opposite of who she was, yet she was aware enough of it to be tormented by it night and day, literally begging to die.
It took its toll on her. But as people know, Alzheimer’s is a family disease, and it took its toll on all of us, too.
My dad died three years before Mom, largely because of the price of being her caregiver. He never ceased to love her — I will forever admire his faithfulness to his vows “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health.” Dad loved Mom so fiercely and faithfully and never waivered. He literally gave his life for her.
My sisters and I were also divided in a way I never imagined would ever happen because we were not on the same page about how to care for Mom. The good news is that we were divided because of love, not stuff, so when Dad died, we all came together, forgetting the animus and moving forward with grace. That is all water under the bridge now, and my sisters and I are closer than ever.
And during those 10 years, I admit to being VERY angry with God on more than a few occasions. I would be with people dying of cancer who were fighting for their very life and then I would see Mom, for whom death would be a welcome relief, continue on, year after year.
I struggled to understand how someone who had lived her life with such grace and dignity had to be reduced to such ignominious behavior, and I let God know my displeasure, which is why her death on Leap Day was such a gift to me.
Leap Day occurs every four years because we can’t order the way the Earth revolves around the sun into a nice 365-day package. Every four years, we have to add a day to keep our calendar on track with the seasons of the year.
For me, my Mom’s death on Leap Day served as a profound reminder that God’s time is not our time and God’s ways are not our ways. We can’t even order the circle of the Earth around the sun without adding a day, so much so are we out of control of the timing of the universe.
Now I am not saying that my mother’s disease, or any suffering, is the will of God. I know that not to be true. God’s will is life and life alone, so disease and suffering of any kind are counter to God’s will, which is accomplished in Life Eternal with God.
However, in this life, we do, as 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us, “see through the glass dimly,” and Mom’s death on Leap Day was for a profound reminder of God’s abiding presence in our limited world. We don’t control the rotation of the Earth around the sun, nor do we control or even remotely understand timing as seen by God.
As Mom was dying those last days after her stroke, I kept reading 2 Cor. 4:17 to her: “Do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.”
And her death on Leap Day reminded me that — in the scheme of the eternal life that God offers — her affliction was momentary. And even as her outer nature declined, God was at work within her in ways we could not see. For as hard a worker as Mom was, God worked even harder. And for as loving as Mom was, God’s love was greater — for Mom’s love was temporal and God’s love is eternal and God’s work provides life and salvation beyond the grave.
My mom lost just about everything to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Her memories or awareness of her family, her dignified, kind and gracious bearing and almost any experience of happiness. But she never lost the ability to read.
It shocked people, but Mom could read right up until she had her stroke — a testimony to her keen intellect that fought this disease with every fiber of her being.
The word was never taken from my mother, nor was the Word of Life that sustained her each day and led her to her Eternal Life —as she finally took that final leap into years and eons and ultimately, eternal glory with God.