Smart, fun, generous…and difficult—my mom died one year ago

How God is way ahead of us and with us in the Valley of the Shadow

It’s been a year since I’ve regularly posted here. After Mom’s death I needed time to process. Grieve. Reflect. Rest. I didn’t intend to pull back this long. One thing that has drawn me back: I’ve wanted to tell the story of how amazingly God provided for us during her final three years fraught with vascular dementia.

I’ve also wanted to encourage others on an all-too-common yet nearly impossible journey. Nothing really prepares you for the unimaginable twists and turns of caring for someone who has always been so sharp and fiercely independent, who begins to need help doing her laundry, and even taking her medicines. Especially when they insist on remaining a thousand miles away.

Just when you’ve figured out how to respond to hallucinations or accusations of stealing, another unthinkable challenge comes up. But let me tell you how God shepherded us through the Valley of the Shadow…

The last 20 months have been a tale of two cities for us—”the best of times and the worst of times.”

Annus mirabilis: leading a Women’s Bible and book study, writing projects, and, from finances to publishing advice, to driving friends who can’t drive–helping friends in need.  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 2022 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, have 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 last Christmas fell 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. He was always way out ahead of us…

“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.

Way-making 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. 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 finally 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,…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…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 into a flooding river 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 or’24 looks like a wilderness, we can know that God is working powerfully to make a way through it. In fact, he has probably been at work in 2022 and before doing the prep work.

Mom’s decline was gradual: Her vascular dementia came on in step changes over three years of cardiac events. She seemed like herself. Until, in increasing episodes of anger and accusations, she didn’t.

We had planned to celebrate her 90th birthday with a special dinner together. But when our son and dil caught Covid, we had to postpone. So I sent her a Texas-sized bouquet of yellow roses. She received them at her front door and only walked a few steps to set them on the counter, but it was enough to start her nose bleeding. It couldn’t be stopped, so they had to take her to the hospital, where she remained for a week while they tried to adjust her blood thinner meds.

She couldn’t remember why she was there and became increasingly upset that they wouldn’t let her go home and terribly angry at me because I had “put her in the hospital” by sending the flowers.

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 generous, talented and creative. Usually so fun to be with. I am 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. But it was so hard to realize at the time.

I could understand the loss of memory. (Hey, I’m walking down that road myself!) But the loss of reason was harder to grasp. And the way those losses plus the anger even changed her perception of reality was harder still.

She threatened to remove me as her medical power of attorney, remove Jack as her financial power of attorney. “You are not my daughter!” Words you can never unhear 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 the Valley of the Shadow of Death…

Elder care counsel: One of God’s greatest provisions began years earlier when our son married a graduate student in social work who went on to work in hospice and elder care.

They married 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 years we needed it, our dil was a constant source of long-distance wisdom, like the night when Mom demanded that I appear immediately in Texas and take her before a judge or she would write me out of her will. “Just let her sit and wait for you tonight,” our dil counseled, “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 texted, “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. Those final hours together were a great gift to me, and I hope to Mom.

Legal counsel: Years earlier I had put a notice in our local paper about starting a reading group. One woman who responded started coming to our church and brought her husband, a lawyer. We all became friends, and they deeply appreciated Jack as their pastor.

After we moved to South Carolina this Texas estate law attorney counseled us to try and navigate Mom’s memory loss without resorting to legal means, telling us that any steps in that direction almost always blows up relationships. If we wanted to preserve our relationship, we had to entrust the outcome to God. 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.

Memory care: Miraculously, God worked through Mom’s facility directors to convince her to leave independent living for assisted living, and eight weeks later to leave assisted living for memory care. We’d been staying with friends about 45 minutes away from her, and God provided a new facility closer to our friends where she could get better care. Four days after we had filled her new room with her furniture, paintings, and grandfather clock, trying our best to make it feel like home, Jack tested positive for Covid. I tested positive soon after.

Covid care: 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, packed up our things from our friend’s home, and found a hotel to stay in. Mom’s facility rules would not allow us to return for two weeks. She was eating and drinking very little, and I wondered if we would see her again. We prayed desperate prayers that day.

As it turned out, we only needed to stay in a hotel four days because God had been making a way through our Covid crisis for about a year ahead. The previous summer, 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 to stay as long as we needed. (Over three weeks, as it turned out.)

Because we’d been able to move Mom to a facility near 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 the day Mom became unresponsive. Listening to Mom fade away over the phone was beyond painful. Even when she 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.

Two days short of the end of our quarantine, Mom’s hospice nurse called and said they didn’t think she would make it too much longer.  Could we come? We had been Covid free for more than five days. We went. And that was when our dil told us we would want to stay.

We both kept vigil. Jack would read Scripture. I would sing hymns and choruses and talk about the words. 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?”

She did.

God’s continued care

It is hard to plan a funeral a thousand miles from home. Mom had pre-paid her funeral, but only a graveside service. In mid-August 100+ degree heat God provided friends at a large church with a small, beautiful lakeside chapel who facilitated holding a small service there for Mom. Our friend, 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 enjoyed sharing life (and stock tips) over the phone in recent 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–awful bruises from a face-plant fall, 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. So much so at the cemetery that the wind had blown over a tree, blocking the entrance. We prayed that God would make a way for her committal, and by the time we arrived they had cleared the road. Even so, the committal had to be relocated at a distance from her gravesite. 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 four rooms chock full of Mom’s furniture and fifty boxes of stuff. With the help of our son and dil, cousins and friends we were able to move and distribute everything before our 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. Another great protection from God.

In our final week Mom and I had been together, 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. So many painful heart cries to God were answered! Deep down, she had loved me and believed I truly was her daughter after all. She had not disinherited me.

God will make a way through our wilderness when there seems to be no way. He will make rivers in our deserts.  And in the process, he will pile on the joy. 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 feel telling our story because I’ve experienced the love and power of the Lord Jesus on our journey. I’ve watched him turn the horribilis of 2022 into the mirabilis of way-making in the wilderness. I pray that no matter the valley you are in, no matter the heartache you feel, you would seek the Lord’s strong help and watch for how he goes before you.

Do you find yourself in a difficult caregiving situation? I’m praying for any who read this. May God give you his wisdom and strength. You are welcome to leave a comment about your journey below. And if you know someone in that situation, thank you for passing this along.

Obituary for my Mom

My mom was born in Brownwood, Texas, spent her childhood in Dallas and moved to the Houston area when her father found a job here in the printing supply business. He later went on to found his own company. She graduated from Reagan High School where she won awards in Speech/Radio competitions and participated in the Reagan Redcoats. She loved living in Texas and never wanted to move. She attended Baylor University where she was named a Baylor Beauty.

God gifted my mom with a beautiful voice, and she took great delight in singing. In her younger years she travelled with a trio singing for Christian youth rallies and camps. Her beautiful voice filled meeting rooms and her own home with hymns, choruses and popular tunes. She learned to play the violin, organ and, around the campfires on her many travels, her accordion.

In my parents’ succession of travel trailers and RVs through the years, they enjoyed looping up the east and west coasts into Canada and back to Texas. Colorado was their favorite destination. Once, as their rig struggled to attain the summit of Tin Cup pass out of Aspen, my mom slid out of their slowly moving Suburban, dropped back, and in her famously strong-willed way, helped push their trailer up over the summit.

God also blessed my mom with a gift of great creativity. She was a master gardener, creating lovely landscapes outside her homes. She designed drapes for her living room and dresses for her daughter, as well as tablescapes for many showers and parties. In the best Mad Hatter tradition, she knew how to throw a terrific Happy Un-Birthday party!

Together with her husband, she enjoyed home improvement projects of their own design and labor, even finishing out the second story of their Spring Branch home according to her design.

My mom had a heart for serving in her church and community–leading a Brownie troop, teaching in Vacation Bible School and junior church, as well as the Junior High youth group. She served on the board of her family’s company and on the missions committee of her church. For many years she was active in the Women’s Auxiliary supporting the ministry of Camp Peniel Christian Youth Camp in Marble Falls, Texas.

My parents were generous givers, supporting missionaries and evangelists around the world to bring the good news of forgiveness and blessing in Jesus to many, especially through Christian radio station TGNA in Guatemala.

Mom loved and supported our family—cheerleading at countless recitals, performances, and company dinners. She was a tender caregiver when we were sick. A designer of puppets and costumes when spirits needed lifting. From her family inheritance she blessed our family with tuition to Christian schools and conferences, as well as many memory-making trips.

My mom lived at Carriage Inn Senior Living in Conroe, TX for almost fifteen happy years. She lost her husband of sixty-four years in 2015. Recently she moved to assisted living at Heritage Oaks in Conroe and finally Memory Lane memory care near Tomball, TX.

Mom loved Jesus, had trusted him as her Savior, and was eager to join him and her departed family in his presence. Her love, laughter and creativity will be deeply missed by those who remain behind.

Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.

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