2023–Annus Mirabilis or Horribilis? How God can make a way, even through the valley of death
As we reflect on 2022 and look forward to 2023, what meaning are we teasing out of the year behind? And how does that shape our expectations for the year ahead?
2022 has been a tale of two cities for us—”the best of times and the worst of times.”
Annus mirabilis–Helping a new friend recover her trust in Jesus. One of our best-ever Women’s Bible studies (thank you Kristi McLelland). A new walk-in shower with a bench. Absolute bucket list moments—circling the DC tidal basin in cherry blossom prime time, celebrating Jack’s retirement in the shadow of Florence’s breathtaking Duomo, worshipping in wonder in Gaudi’s astonishing Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona. Celebrating my mom’s 90th birthday.
Annus horribilis–We began the year with five in our small family: Jack and me, my Mom, our son and his wife. In August, Mom died. In October, our heartbroken son told us he was getting divorced…
”…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Perhaps many of you, like me, just celebrated your first Christmas without someone dear to you. There is no loss like it—those daily conversations that break off suddenly leaving you feeling more and more distant as the months go by. The plans already made for Christmas fall apart. In some ways divorce is even harder—I can fondly enjoy Mom’s pictures around the house. Taking down wedding portraits of my son and dil gutted me.
And yet, I experienced perhaps the greatest joy, not in the midst of the best of times, but as I watched God transform the horribilis into the mirabilis. If we watch carefully, we can see what God is doing for us as he shepherds us through heartbreaks and disruptions, and, as in our story, even in the Valley of the Shadow of my Mom’s death. Whatever he is up to, he is keeping two promises:
First promise: God is always way out ahead of us “making a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:18-19
Making a way usually requires great time and effort
To build a way through difficult terrain requires extensive prep work—cutting down trees, diverting water to build a bridge, even dynamiting rocks and earth. Big earth moving machinery pushes the rocks and dirt around to shape a smooth roadbed. Digging and installing drainage systems, smoothing, grating, pouring asphalt or concrete takes months. Years.
Even when God made miraculous ways of deliverance for his people in Scripture, it usually was the result of his movement way ahead. For example, when it was time for his people to enter the Promised Land, the priests were commanded to take up the ark and walk into the Jordan River at flood tide. God promised that “…when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing….” (Joshua 3:13).
But, in order for that to happen, we’re told that, “…the waters coming down from above [the priests’ entry point] stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off” (Joshua 3:16). How many hours did it take the waters that had been cut off “very far away” to come down so that the waters cleared the priests’ entry point at the exact moment they stepped in the edge of the water? We don’t know.
We only know that God was working way ahead to provide a way to cross right when the priests’ feet got wet. It was a step of faith to move forward and an act of God to make the way. In the same way, God’s opening of surprising new ways through the wilderness of our lives may be long times in the making.
If 2023 looks like a wilderness to you, be assured that God is working hard to make a way through it. In fact, he has probably been hard at work in 2022 and before doing the prep work.
Facing the wilderness of end-of-life struggle and the Valley of the Shadow of Death
My Mom’s decline was gradual—her vascular dementia came on in step changes over three years of cardiac events. These events didn’t seem terribly disruptive at the time. Mom continued to live in an independent living facility (until her final three months), but she began to need increasing help with remembering to take her meds, doing her laundry, and handling her finances. We were glad to step in and provide that help through daily phone calls and occasional visits, since she refused to leave her familiar Texas surroundings to move near us.
She seemed like herself. Until, in increasing episodes of anger and accusations, she didn’t.
The more my husband and I stepped in to help, the more resentment and suspicion we faced. I was bewildered and hurt more than in any other relationship in my life. My mom had always been so sharp and quick, immensely talented, creative and generous. Usually so fun to be with. I am subsequently coming to understand that even though she was also fairly suspicious and critical by nature, how she acted in her final three years was not who she really was.
So much of what was happening was the result of the small strokes and large clots that were diminishing her ability to reason, remember, and even perceive reality. In the final three months when the hallucinations began, her impairment was easier to discern. But well before that she became convinced I was stealing from her and betraying her. She threatened to remove me as her medical power of attorney, remove Jack as her financial power of attorney, and write me out of her will. “You are not my daughter!” Words you can never unhear that lodge in your soul like arrows. The complete breakdown of trust broke my heart. Even so, as hard as it was, God was way out ahead of us, making a way through each new bewildering development.
How God worked way ahead to provide extraordinary care-giving advice just when we needed it
God’s greatest provision through the valley of the shadow of Mom’s death began years earlier when our son fell in love with a lovely graduate student in social work. Upon graduation she went to work in hospice. After a few years, she made a move to work in elder care with a case load of homebound elderly patients.
Our son married this expert in elder care and hospice in 2018, one year before we needed to rely increasingly on her wisdom. And sadly, they decided to divorce about six weeks after Mom’s death. But for the crazy difficult three and a half years in between, our daughter-in-law was a constant source of long-distance wisdom and encouragement on nights like when Mom demanded that I appear suddenly in Texas and take her before a judge. “Just let her sit and wait for you tonight and see if she remembers it in the morning. Don’t mention it, let her bring it up.” Great advice and relief on the night of our 45th anniversary in Asheville, NC. Mom did not bring it up again.
On the night before Mom died, I sent my dil a video showing how she was unresponsive and her breathing was shallow and labored. As we were driving away, she responded by text, “You will want to stay and be with her tonight. It won’t be long.” We literally turned the car around and drove back to her facility. Our final hours together were a tremendous blessing to me, and I hope to Mom.
…and extraordinary legal advice
Years earlier I had put a notice in our local paper about starting a reading group. One of the women who joined the group later started coming to our church and brought her husband, a lawyer. Jack and I became friends with them as a couple and they really appreciated the spiritual encouragement they received from us, especially Jack as their pastor. We have remained friends, even after our move to South Carolina.
Once we began to have legal questions about how to care for my Mom, this friend, who still lived near Mom and specialized in estate law, urged us to try and navigate Mom’s memory loss without resorting to legal means, telling us that any steps in that direction would be sure to blow up our strained relationship. In that and many other issues he gave us wise counsel, kept documentation of her decline in his office, and after her death helped us step by step through the probate process. God used that picture in our paper and my desire to reach out to people in our community with gospel-friendly book discussions to prepare our way years later through the legal complexities of mom’s journey.
How God worked way ahead to provide for our physical care
My mom flat did not want to leave Texas. Or her independent living facility. But God worked through her facility directors to convince her to leave independent living for assisted living and then eight weeks later, to leave assisted living for memory care. At that point we were staying with friends about 45 minutes away from her, and we were able to convince her to move to a smaller memory care facility near us where she could get better care. Four days after she arrived by ambulance and we had filled her room with her furniture and paintings and grandfather clock, trying our best to make it feel like home, Jack tested positive for Covid. I tested positive soon after.
This had been one of my greatest fears since 2020—one of us would catch Covid and we would not be able to be able to care for Mom if she needed us. I was an only child, and she had no close friends or family nearby.
We immediately left her facility, then packed up and left our friend’s home, and found a hotel to stay in. Mom’s facility rules would not allow us to return for two weeks. And we would not want to return home to South Carolina as Mom was eating and drinking very little.
We were deeply concerned for Mom’s care. She had been on hospice for over a month, but the nurse we loved changed jobs, then we changed hospice providers when we moved Mom four days before we caught Covid. While we didn’t feel close to any of her caregivers, through all the changes God provided our daughter-in-law who remained our steady counselor and guide.
As it turned out, we only needed to stay in a hotel four days because God had been making a way through our hospice/Covid crisis for about a year ahead. That is when our friends we’d been staying with had reserved a home in Colorado for an extended stay. They would leave in four days and welcomed us to come back to their home from the hotel and stay as long as we needed.
Because we had just moved Mom to a facility in the community where we had lived for eighteen years, some of our friends could visit Mom when we could not. We were able to hire a friend to visit for hours most days. She would not have been able to help if Mom had been 45 minutes away. She would hold the phone to Mom’s ear and enable us to talk almost every day until Mom became unresponsive. Listening to Mom fade away over the phone was beyond painful. Even when Mom could no longer talk, only listen, our dear friend held that phone so Mom could hear the sound of my voice loving her and praying for her over the phone.
At almost the end of our quarantine, our hospice nurse called and said they didn’t think Mom would make it too much longer. Could we come? We had been Covid free for more than five days. We couldn’t reach the facility director for permission, so two days before we were officially supposed to come back, we visited her. We didn’t have permission to stay, but that was when our daughter in law told us we would want to stay.
We both sat with her. Jack would read Scripture. I would sing hymns and choruses and talk about the words. Jack left at midnight. I remained and tried to stay awake. Every once in a while, I would drift off then awaken and panic if I couldn’t see Mom breathing. Then calm down when I saw her breathe. After a couple of hours of sleep at our friends’ home I returned to sing and sit with Mom.
At about 4pm the next day, on August 14th, I sang one of our favorite beautiful hymns:
Oh, the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unfettered, boundless, free
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fulness over me.
Underneath me, all around me is the current of thy love.
Leading onward, leading homeward to thy glorious rest above.
“Mom,” I said, leaning over her, “just let that deep love carry you home. Underneath you, all around you, just let it carry you to Jesus arms.” I straightened up, still watching her. She exhaled with quite a groan. And then…nothing. Even after months of decline, pain, agitation, and hospice, and four days of being unresponsive, it still seemed so sudden. “Mom, was that it?” I leaned back over her. “Did you let go and let Jesus take you?”
Second Promise: When it glorifies him and helps us become more like him, God will provide what we need
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature,”2 Peter 1:3-10.
What can I say about how God continued to provide for us after Mom died?
Mom had paid for her funeral, but only a graveside service. In mid-August 100+ degree heat God provided friends at a church with a small, beautiful lakeside chapel who facilitated honoring my Mom there with a small service. The former pastor of the church emceed the funeral, and his gifted wife played the grand piano.
My Mom’s favorite former pastor was able to come and speak, as well as Jack and our son, each with deep, memorable reflections on Mom’s life and God’s word. My cousin spoke about how Mom and his mother had been estranged for fifteen years, but by God’s grace had finally reconciled and deeply enjoyed sharing life (and stock tips) over the phone in their final years. The A-Team had all been able to come on short notice.
My Mom was a Baylor beauty. She suffered a terrible physical struggle during her final weeks, grieving over her appearance–the awful bruises from a face-plant fall, her hair never fixed, and the effects of not much water or nutrition. I was prepared for the worst at her viewing. Instead, I was moved to tears over her familiar up-do, healed bruises, and slimmer appearance, so pretty in pink.
Far from being the scorching day we’d anticipated for the funeral, it rained. As we prepared to leave the church, the funeral director told me that 45 minutes away at the cemetery it had stormed so much that the wind had blown over a tree, blocking the entrance. We prayed that God would make a way for her committal and headed on down. By the time we arrived they had sawed through the tree and cleared the road. Even so, the committal had to be relocated quite a distance from her grave. We drove away without closure, leaving Mom on high ground in the middle of the cemetery. But God had given me such a sweet farewell at her casket at the church.
After the funeral Jack and I had a few days to empty both Mom’s apartment in assisted living and her room in memory care–four rooms choc full of furniture and fifty boxes of stuff. With the help of our son and daughter-in-law, cousins and friends we were able to move and distribute everything right before deadline. I was not much help as I tested positive for a Covid rebound two days after the funeral, but neither Jack nor guests caught it from me. A great protection from God.
In addition to all this blessing and provision from our loving Father, we discovered after Mom died that even in her confusion and anger, she did not actually disown me or change her will. In his mercy, God had given us the heart and energy to do all we could for her, even without knowing.
In her final days she had told me that she hoped she hadn’t made it too hard for me and Jack. And that she didn’t know what she would have done without us. Such healing words. A great provision from God for my hurting heart. I realized that deep down, she had loved me and believed I truly was her daughter after all.
God will make a way through our wilderness when there is no way. He will make rivers in our deserts. He will provide everything we need for a godly life. And in the process, he will pile on the joy. In fact, he tells us, “…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
What a revelation: there is a beauty to redeeming sinners and brokenness that can bring more joy than living perfect lives. We may never know fully why he allows so much pain and brokenness in our lives, but a partial answer is…he does it for joy.
It is the great joy I have felt at Mom’s funeral and in telling our story because I have intimately known the love and power of our Savior Jesus Christ as he turned the horribilis of 2022 into the mirabilis of way-making in the wilderness.