We didn’t have cardinals in our yard until Mama moved in. She brought them with her, I guess. Mama always said that when she saw a cardinal it was her mother visiting her from Heaven, a reminder that all shall be well and God is faithful. When she moved in with us after Pop died, cardinal sightings became regular occurrences, but only in the backyard outside her window. Sometimes there would be a female and a male cardinal sitting at the base of the Chinese Fringe tree, and Mama would say, “That’s Mama and Daddy.” Both of her parents, reassuring her that all truly shall be well.
When Mama passed away this month, I immediately began to ask for reassurance that all shall be well. I felt shattered, gutted, and broken. In the first days after her passing, I felt a desperation I’ve never experienced before. It was heartache on a level entirely other than what I felt when Pop died. With Pop, there was closure -- two months of “I love you’s” and “thank you’s” for everything he did for me. But Mama died in her sleep without any warning, and I was left with broken pieces of my heart. I had never made right everything I knew I had done wrong.
Before Mama lived with me, my conscience was clean. I wasn’t a difficult daughter. I was a doting daughter, invested in and encouraged by the warmth that comes from loving and being loved by an incredible woman. But then Mama moved in with us after Pop died, and my world was rocked. Suddenly, I was balancing the needs of my children, my husband, and my aging mother, who was confined to a walker, battling anxiety in the wake of her husband’s death. I was keenly aware that in order to keep the peace I needed to guard my husband's and my children’s privacy. I needed to put them first, many, many times, in order to maintain some semblance of normalcy. There were times when I did this well, but there were many times when I didn’t balance the act with grace.
Sometimes Mama would come out from her suite in the back and enter our living room, and I would just go about my business and not really engage with her, determined to not relinquish the control I had had over my time for the last twenty years when I didn’t live with a parent. I kept much of my little family’s activities private because I didn’t want every routine to change for them. We needed private dinners and private traditions. But I wasn’t always attentive to her loneliness, and I never explained why I had such difficulty balancing her needs and my household’s needs because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I prayed to God almost nightly these past two years, begging for the patience I needed to be a better caregiver. And yet, here I am in agony because I didn’t clear my conscience. I failed to get to it right in time to send her off with peace in my heart.
Yes, there were plenty of times when I did it right and welcomed her with open arms. Over the last two years, we shared many moments that I wouldn’t have had unless she lived with me. She prayed with me and counseled me throughout my grief over Pop, and I told her how grateful I was to have her with me during that time. She was my rock during my cancer diagnosis, praying over me daily and sending me scripture. Sometimes we watched movies together or got into juicy conversations about life, and we’d laugh and laugh. She sat on the porch as I gardened and gave me advice every step of the way as I rebuilt my yard this spring. She did the same the spring before too. She was a gifted green thumb and loved seeing me embrace her pastime. And throughout these two years, I often surprised her with scones, desserts, and special dinners that she wasn’t expecting. I loved making her smile. It delighted me to lift her day with a stuffed mirliton or her favorite cheeseburger. And I always, always ended our moments together with, “I love you, Mama.” In fact, those were the last words I said to her.
Still, my mind doesn’t wander to the good I gave her. It immediately settles on what I didn’t give her enough of, and where I failed. I could have been more generous, more understanding of her needs. I often lacked compassion -- the compassion she taught me. It’s as if in order to give her shelter after Pop died, I sacrificed my relationship with her. That guilt is an awful dark feeling, and one that choked me after she passed away. How could I mourn her, grieve her, and celebrate her with such guilt?
I think it was the Friday after Mama died when my sister called me. She had experienced similar guilt before. We’d talked about it before, and as many times as I tried, nothing I said erased her feelings. Now on the other side, she knew exactly what to say.
“Ask Jesus to deliver your message to Mama. She will definitely receive it if He brings it to her.” That’s what she said. It was so simple. Sure, I could pour my heart out to Mama, but it never occurred to me what would happen if I went straight to the top.
I have lived forty-two years knowing Jesus died on the cross so that my sins would be forgiven. I have called Him Savior, Lord, and King of Kings, but I never called Him my friend. As I sat in church praising Him, as I led my children in prayer, as I received Eucharist, and as I prayed each morning in my yellow chair by the French doors, I exalted Him but I never considered that Jesus was once human and that His humanity included friendship, lots and lots of friendship, and everything that comes with it. He was the friend of friends! If I know that my siblings and my girlfriends would do anything to help me in my time of need, why wouldn’t Jesus? I mean, He died for me. Why wouldn’t He have compassion for the cries of my heart and be there as a best friend would when I am at my lowest? I needed forgiveness and reassurance that Mama knew how much I loved her and treasured her. If I had confided in Jesus before, the way I do my girlfriends, maybe I’d have been able to make things right sooner, but it’s never too late with Jesus. So I started talking to Him like a friend….
I send my messages to Mama through Jesus every day -- sometimes three times a day. I am specific with my words and let it all out. I ask Jesus to hug her the way I can’t. I ask Him to make her listen and really hear my message. And I know she receives it. (I also know she’s probably like, “Oh Annie. That message again?! You gotta let it go.”) Still, I will keep sending her messages until finally one day I can breathe again and mourn her the way I want to with a peaceful heart. And I know my best friend will help me get there.
Like any friendship, I’m also questioning Him. Why did Mama have to die in the middle of my cancer battle? Why did I have to find her body and experience the trauma in the minutes after? Why did my relationship with Mama have to become so complicated when for forty years it was so easy? Why did Mama have to die so soon after Pop? Why am I forty-two-years old and already orphaned? Why? Why? Why?
I don’t know...yet.
I believe God is almighty, but I don’t think he rules with a magic wand. I don’t think he pointed at me and said, “Thou shalt have cancer and lose thy mother at the same time.” I think we live in a world struggling to find redemption since the beginning of original sin. I think it is a broken world that led to Mama’s anxiety in the final years of her life, which subsequently led to her wanting to be in paradise as soon as possible. I think it is the choices of all of us that led to whatever contaminated my body and gave me cancer. And I believe that it is in these weaknesses of the world that God’s perfect will takes over, as in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “ But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.”
One day, whether it is in this kingdom I’m striving to build or whether it is in the kingdom where Mom and Pop now reside, I will see the other side of the tapestry. It will be revealed to me how this trial was made beautiful and how His power in my weakness was perfect after all.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Mama was a Romans 8 fanatic in the same way I can sing every Foo Fighters song. She clung to the promises in Romans so much that when I was diagnosed with cancer, Mama told me to stop asking, “Why?” and to start asking, “What now?” What could I do now to find purpose and prosper instead of giving into sorrow? I pointed my heart to Jesus. And here I am again, deep in sorrow. And as painful as this all is, I know that Mama was right. If losing Mama brings me even closer to Jesus, my path will be made straight and my purpose here will unfold before my eyes. And from there, all things -- the heartache, the guttural grief, and the disappointments of today -- will be made good.
The day after Mama died, I was sitting on my porch with a close friend. She listened as I, through tears, shared the guilt that consumed me.
I told my friend, “I know that Mama would say, ‘Oh, Annie. I understand the position you were in. I know you were overwhelmed. And of course, I forgive you. I forgave you before you even opened your mouth. And I know you loved me.”
As I was saying what Mama would say, a big, beautiful cardinal appeared in the middle of my street. It zoomed up my walkway, flew over my head, and turned toward Mama’s suite and the backyard. I held my breath and then collapsed into the most grateful tears. That was Mama, assuring me that all shall be well and that God is indeed faithful. I’m leaning on that and, of course, my best friend.