I started my journey through the valley of the shadow of death in 1995 when my 55-year-old mom got very sick. We first realized that something was wrong with her brain when she stopped tolerating the routine meds she took for her bipolar disorder. She lapsed into a coma for over a week and I remember begging God to let her live. If I'd known how dark the valley and how long the road ahead of her, I probably would have been begging Him to go ahead and take her home. We ended up traveling that road for eighteen years.
For the first five years or so of her illness, I was so incoherent with grief and pain I couldn't express the simple fact that a terrible thing had happened to my mother. There were times when I was so enraged that all I wanted to do was grab God by the lapels, slam Him against the wall and demand that he help her. And there were times when I could do nothing more than writhe on the floor and plead over and over again, "Son of David, have mercy on her."
Because of her worsening dementia and the fact that we could no longer give her the meds she needed to manage her bipolar disorder, she required long-term commitment and at one point, she was probably the sickest patient at the mental hospital. She would literally run around and around the room, beating against the walls like a trapped bird. I couldn't visit her for more than five minutes at a time because this woman—this sweet, generous, kind-natured woman who had always looked at me as if I hung the stars—had turned into a raging stranger who would scream unspeakable obscenities at me and my dad.
I remember walking out of the hospital one day and sinking to my knees in the grass, so battered by grief I couldn't even make it to my car. For almost eight years of our journey, I prayed daily that God would let her die. Then I had to live with the guilt of wondering if I wanted Him to end her suffering...or mine.
Things did improve. The doctors found the right combination of meds. She stabilized and we were able to move her to a nursing home where we fixed up a cozy room for her. She quickly won the hearts of the nurses with her unflagging sense of humor and unquenchable spirit. She spent a lot of time watching her favorite videos. Between me and my dad, we visited her five times a week and we slept well at night, knowing she was warm and dry and even a little bit spoiled. So the valley got a little bit brighter.
At the nursing home's annual picnic one year, a lovely Christian lady named Wilda Harrison came up and put her arm around me and said, “You are so lucky to still have both your mom and your dad.” I have to confess that my first response was, “Huh?” But then I went home and thought about it. I could still visit my mom whenever I wanted. I could still put my arms around her and hold her tight and tell her I loved her.
I finally came to an even more startling conclusion. I never really wanted my mother to die. I just wanted for her to be healed. The situation didn't change, but my attitude did and that made all the difference.
My mom’s earthly journey ended on June 23rd of this year at the age of 73 when God made good on his every promise and took her Home. I still can't bring myself to thank Him for my mother's suffering, nor do I think he would expect me to, but I have come to the fork in the road where I can thank him for mine. Where I can see the blessings that came from it. My mom lived until we had learned all of the lessons she had to teach us. I like to think I'm a more compassionate person than I was before she got sick. I've learned how rewarding loving something wounded and imperfect can be. I've learned how kind and caring others can be when you're hurting. I watched the staff at the nursing home stand in awe of my father's unconditional love for his wife. I stood in awe myself of my mother's spirit, her sense of humor, her sheer determination to survive and find some joy whenever she could and I've decided that there's no one in the world I would rather be like.
But most importantly, I learned to trust God and his promise that no matter how dark the valley or how long the journey, he will NEVER leave us or forsake us. And as I journeyed through that valley, He gave me this song to sing from Habakkuk 3: 17-18: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”