Saying goodbye

February 13, 2012

Mom and Townshend on her birthday one year ago.

I said goodbye to Mom for what might be the last time on Saturday. She’s dying. She could live days or weeks—no one knows. But I’m about 10 hours away from her now, so when that moment comes, I will likely miss it.

It’s different from when Dad died. He had terminal cancer, but at least he died at home. As the end was approaching I didn’t have to leave his bedside—at least not for long.

So Saturday was the most difficult day of my life. As if someone were scripting an old-fashioned Hollywood tear-jerker, it was also Mom’s 81st birthday. We brought flowers, cake, and balloons. We sang “Happy Birthday.” Or I should say the rest of my family sang. I couldn’t get the words out. In fact, I could hardly speak at all without the waterworks. I had to leave her hospital room a few times to cry in the restroom across the hall.

Mom was mostly lucid on Saturday—at times, painfully so. She asked Lisa, my wife, and me when she was going to die. “No one knows. Only God knows,” we told her. She suspected we were hiding the bad news from her. We weren’t. I was only hiding my grief. Or trying to.

After I said goodbye—and Mom said, “Y’all come back and see me, you hear?”—I didn’t make it to the hallway before breaking down. God bless the nurse who walked by to hand me a box of Kleenex. How many times has she done that?

Damn these tears!

Believe it or not, I went to the hospital on Saturday morning intending to be a pastor to Mom. Her church family and pastor are in northeast Atlanta. So I thought I could fill that role. I brought my Bible. I was going to read some scripture. Maybe gather the family for prayer at her bedside. Yeah, right! I was a wreck.

At least I understand the meaning of that scripture in John 11 when Jesus is overwhelmed with tears. Verse 33 says, “When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.” And again in verse 38, he was “greatly disturbed.” Bible scholars puzzle over the meaning of these words—”What does it mean that Jesus was so bothered?”

If I didn’t know before, I know now. It’s hard to do ministry when tears get in the way. Pastors need pastors when their moms are dying.

But I did sense the love, support, and prayers of friends, especially among my church family. You know who you are. So, thank you. On Friday night, I texted one of my best friends, Andy, who grew up with me and knew Mom well. I wanted him to know. He shared a deeply personal reminiscence of Mom and said, “I will say a prayer for you and your family tonight.”

For some reason, that meant a lot. As Stephy Drury points out, we Christians say the words “I’m praying for you” so often that they can sometimes feel glib. But Andy made an appointment to pray one specific prayer for me that night. And I’m sure he did.

Praying is not nothing. And I was so grief-stricken I couldn’t pray for myself. Not really. We need others to pray for us. Again, thank you.

I saw a World War II movie many years ago called U-571. There’s a scene in which our heroes have to find out if their rusty old submarine is seaworthy. As they go deeper underwater and the pressure builds, rivets start popping off and the sub springs leaks everywhere. It looks bad to me. Submarines aren’t supposed to do that, right? Finally, the captain declares, “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.” And they proceed with their mission.

My Christian faith is like that. “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not happy. I’m probably angry at God that Mom is dying 600 miles away, and I can’t be with her. I can’t find any consolation right now that takes the sting out of death. But I do have a gut-level belief or intuition or feeling that I’ll see Mom in resurrection, even if I don’t see her again in this life. And this belief doesn’t quite feel like wishful thinking or escapism.

I also believe that even now, as Mom makes this transition, Jesus is comforting her, encouraging her, and giving her grace upon grace at every moment. Inasmuch as I am praying, that is my prayer.

When I got home late Saturday night, my two boys were sleeping. I climbed in their bunk bed, hugged them, and told them that I loved them. What else could I do?

The truth is that whenever we say goodbye to anyone, it might be for the last time. We should live our lives like we know that.

26 Responses to “Saying goodbye”

  1. Shellie Says:

    Oh Brent… my heart just aches for you and your family. Please know that you guys are in my prayers. If there is anything we can do, please don’t hesitate to call! Hugs and love to you and yours.

  2. Jack McManus Says:

    Hello Brent – Your tender heart and words describe one of the hardest things in life to deal with. I found a poem below that I thought might help a little…Know some prayers are being said by Kristina and myself.
    Jack “recent Vinebranch mug recipient” McManus

    As I stand by beside her watching her struggling for her life.
    My heart is in my throat and blocking all the tears to my eyes,
    Choking every breath of life from me, watching, as my mother dies.

    Hear my cry my Lord, hear my cry, please take this pain from me.
    Give me strength to get through this, let me cling tightly to thee.
    For I alone can’t let Mom go, she brought life to my very soul.
    Mom’s the one I leaned on, as my young spirit began to grow.

    She was everything to me, and she led me to you on high.
    She’s your loving child sick and in pain, I just can’t stand by.
    Please God don’t let Mom suffer, I pray in your only son’s name.
    Life with her not in it will be unbearable and never be the same.

    But as Mom’s fighting hard to live, I know she’s doing it for me.
    For she knows how much I need her and I just can’t set her free.
    But you’ve shown me my selfishness by watching her in pain.
    So I’m asking you now my Lord, take Mom home with you again.

    You’ve also made it clear to me that I will see her again once more.
    And we’ll have a joyous reunion, when Mom & I meet on heaven’s shore.
    No, don’t say goodbye to her, just say, “I’ll see you once again.”
    For this is what God said to me, to help my shattered heart mend.

    Written by,
    Bonnie May

  3. Victoria Potts Says:

    Dear Brent,

    Thank you for your heartfelt transparancy as you go along this painful journey.You have articulated so beautifully what many have or will experience.You have truly touched my heart and no doubt many others. You and your family are in our prayers. Love and hugs, Victoria Potts

  4. Curtis Says:

    Brent, This is a tough assignment for us. Loosing our parents …

    I do my best to avoid intellectualizing grief. If ” Jesus wept ” I figure I’m good to go when I loose a love. My parents were that and I’ve lost them both.

    There are many bromides handed out to those of us who grieve . The one that infuriates me the most, ” time heals.” Well, I’m still waiting.

    Tears got me through then. They get me through now. Who knows, tears may be the touch of an angel. I take heart in Jesus’ tears.

    Hug your bride, your boys and weep. Those are sacred moments.

    Our house will pray for your house. May the Lord bless you and keep you.

  5. revdrtaylor Says:

    Brent,

    Standing with you and all the saints here and in heaven–praying with you and for you and your family. It is never easy to say good-bye even when we know that we all return home to God who will reunite us all in eternity. Loving you with the love of the Lord.

    Susan

  6. Bett Moses Says:

    Brent,
    Your words are so touching. It is the hardest thing to do to tell a parent goodbye. The same situation happened to me with my father. No words can express your sorrow and even tho we know we will see each other again, the present pain wrenches you. I pray that the Lord will continue to hold you and your family in the palms of His righteous hands!
    Bett

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thank you, Bett. Mom moved into a hospice facility last night. My prayer is that they keep her comfortable and at peace.

  7. Rogenia Troup Says:

    Brent, I know how you feel. My mother was 900 miles away from me, and when I visited her for the last time, I knew it was the last time on this earth. She left us a rich legacy of trust and belief in Christ. Her last night she informed her night nurse that she was going home in the morning. The nurse mistook that statement to mean her house, and she said” I am sorry Mrs…the doctor has not signed the papers, and you still have a fever” . My mother informed her that she was going home on two good legs. You see my mother had both legs removed several years earlier. She welcomed her transition. So you see there is a comfort in her knowing who she is and to whom she belong. Take comfort God is still in the plan, and He will work His plan.

  8. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I can’t say, “I know how you feel,” but I am “in the area”–my mother-in-law died a few months back, my father-in-law is now staying with my family and in failing health, my Mom is nearly 80 and having memory problems, and my Dad is nearly 81 and has had a heart-attack. Tough when those who brought you up are now depending on you and ready to pass on. But you are right. The greatest comfort is that this is all temporary, that they and we will be healed and perfected some day (for some not to far away), and spend eternity with each other. Doesn’t stop the tears, but helps to wipe them away.

  9. Laverne Hilder Says:

    Brent, I pray for God’s amazing grace, love and comfort to be with you and your family during this time.

    Laverne Hilder

  10. Elizabeth Gasparri Says:

    Brent,

    Thank you so much for your vulnerability in these words expressed so well. I have always known the strength of your love for your family. Your ministry is a gift to so many people, especially in your willingness to be seen as human. I am inspired by your ability to see that you are a fragile being like all of us and that times like these call for gaining strength from others. Every time you hug your sweet children is a hug to your mom and her legacy.
    I love you and your family. Your wife has been an extraordinary gift to me from the day we met. Please know that I am praying the Hail Mary for your mom and the Our Father for you, Lisa, Elisa, Townsend and Ian. I lift you all up to the greatest of power and strength for I know that I am weak in comparison.
    Love, hugs, and tears,
    Elizabeth

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thank you so much, friend! I do feel strengthened by your prayers. And I know, in ways that go beyond understanding, that Mom is finding strength and comfort for her hour of death, whenever that comes.

  11. Carolyn Says:

    Tom for sure can relate to how you are feeling. My heart hurts for you and your family. I think you know you are loved. Please know I am making time to pray for you and your family.

  12. Katie Z. Says:

    It is so hard for us pastors to let someone else pastor us. When you said: “If I didn’t know before, I know now. It’s hard to do ministry when tears get in the way. Pastors need pastors when their moms are dying,” my heart ached for you. I’m so glad there are people who are your support in such a difficult time. And while it is hard to do ministry when tears get in the way… sometimes the only ministry we can share with people IS to cry with them and hold their hands.

    There have been few times when I have had the tears well up while I have been officiating a funeral… but I notice now when I attend a funeral, the tears won’t always stop. We need to let ourselves grieve and say goodbye. It is absolutely okay to let someone else pastor you and your family!!!

    May God gracefully carry your mom home, and may the spirit give you comfort in the midst of your grief.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thank you for your sweet blessing, Katie. (You share my mom’s name!) I like your blog, btw. Please keep me informed about the “Call to Action.” Those sorts of things make my eyes glaze over, but I’m sure they’re important.

      blw

  13. Linda Williams Says:

    Very beautifully written! Exactly what we have talked about. He gave His permission. I love you more than you can imagine.


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