My mother has terminal cancer. I was able to spend twenty-four hours with her recently. They were great moments. I will cherish them the rest of my life, because we don’t know how fast the cancer is spreading and how effective the treatment will be. I am praying for many more moments, but we just don’t know.
After giving me the rundown on the cancer in her body, she and my brother told us about the four tumors in her brain. I asked her how it is impacting her cognition, and while my brother was telling us that she gets confused sometimes and repeats herself, my mother was looking at the floor and then started drumming her fingers across her lips and blowing raspberries. (The universal and pejorative sign when I was growing up for someone who had completely lost their marbles)
My brother said, “If it’s not one thing, its your mother.”
We all laughed.
Lessons I Learned from Visiting My Mother
There is no tomorrow, only today.
If you think there is always tomorrow, you are fooling yourself. You can’t guarantee your own next breath, much less anyone else’s. You have today. That is all you have. You have something to say? Say it. You have something to do? Do it. You have someplace to go? Go. You have a song to sing? Sing it. You have a nail to hammer? Nail it. Don’t wait.
The person sitting in front of you at any given moment deserves your undivided attention.
It’s about them, not you. I’ve sat with countless people whose frame of reference was all about them. What they were doing. What God was doing through them and what was happening in their world. But when you are with another image bearer, you are sitting with someone of immense value to the God who created them. To not be interested in the person sitting in front of you is an afront to the God who impressed them with his image.
Being able to look someone who is dying in the eye and talk about death is part of what it means to be fully alive.
I was compelled to tell my mother exactly what I thought of her spiritual life. It was a firm and affirming conversation. I didn’t lie to her. I didn’t tell her things to cheer her up. I told her the truth as I saw it. She has lived a spiritual life. And from the chair I am sitting in, she has lived a wonderful Jesus-dependent life. Her faith isn’t moralistic, even though it is moral. Her faith isn’t driven by church attendance, even though she rarely missed church. Her faith isn’t about theology and the Bible, even though she is well-versed in both. Her faith is strong because she knows down deep in her soul the Man from Galilee. And I was able to tell her that. I was able to ask her about her soul and tell her that her faith is very evident as she approaches death. While it was an unusual conversation, it was not a painful conversation.
All of this brings me to a few quotes that came to mind as I have reflected on my time with my mother:
One from the theologian Tim McGraw: Live like you were dying.
I am learning that as someone I love goes through the process of coming to terms with their death, I must live my life as if everyone were dying. Because in a very real sense they are. The difference between them, me, and my mom is that my mom knows her death is near. The rest of us think ours is somewhere else on the calendar. So, say what you are going to say; do what you are going to do. Do it like someone is dying—because they and you are. Last time I checked the death rate is still hovering around 100%.
Another from author Annie Dillard: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Every moment is holy. Every moment counts. Every moment is part of eternity. Living in the present moment is so important to someone who can see the finish line of this life. You can’t change the past no matter the regrets. You have no assurance of the future, so stop piddling your life away playing solitaire or binge-watching Seinfeld.
And finally, Jesus reminds us: Give us this day our daily bread.
Jesus didn’t say, “Give us this week our weekly bread” or “Give us this month our monthly bread.” He said sustenance for our body and soul comes to us daily—just like mana from the Old Testament. When the children of Israel would try to hoard that “wonder bread” that fell out of the sky every morning like dew on the ground, it would spoil. The same is true when we try to hoard the seconds, minutes, and hours of our life as if we could spend them tomorrow on something valuable. No. We have today. That’s it. Can’t hoard time.
It’s not morbid to talk about death to a believer in Jesus who is dying. When you talk about death, it makes the moment burst forth with life. As I said, my mom sometimes repeated herself because of the cancer in her brain. One of the things she said several times in our visit was, “Going through this is hard, but I am going to be alright because I am not alone. I have Jesus.”
I hope you have my Mom’s Jesus.