Always with You

We gathered at my parents’ condo like we were setting up camp back in the days of our family travels—spending days and nights together. Joanie and I shared the pullout couch in Mom’s office until our emotions grew too large for us both to fit there and I moved to the couch in the living room. We never knew that we would have the chance to care for Mom like she had always cared for us. Her children, nursed in her arms, giving us life and all she had to give. Now she was depending on us to supply her fundamental needs. Does it sound strange to say this was a gift?

The week had started out with Mom’s inspiration—Morning Buns. Her sudden burst of energy provided a morning walk to the store that Sunday with Dad. She had always enjoyed shopping and no less on this day. After breakfast she settled into the chair in the corner of their bedroom. This was where she was most comfortable. “The chair suits my back,” she would say. It was soft and deep but very difficult to get out of. That she could, spoke of her determination to stay strong. The chair was surrounded by the books she loved—the Bible Dad had rebound for her with the two pages from Proverbs missing. She had put the worn thin pages in a safe place—so safe in fact, that they missed the rebinding. She could never bear to part with her beloved book again so they remained loose inside. Behind the chair, was a grocery bag packed full of letters and cards from the many people whose lives she had touched, counseled and loved over the years.

No one knew at the time that the day’s devotion Mom read that morning contained the first scripture she had ever memorized. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (John 10:14).  It was the scripture Reverend Bernwirth had read to her the Sunday she was baptized—a brave ten-year-old recovered from pneumonia and destined to be used by her Shepherd to love others throughout her life and work.

Samsung 062713a 116It also included verses 27 and 28 from that chapter. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. I’m sure these words along with the devotion’s text (I am with you, I am with you, I am with you. Heaven’s bells continually peal with that promise), must have deeply comforted Mom that morning.

“You go on to church,” she told Dad. “I thought I could go with you today but I’m not feeling quite up to it now. It must have been the walk. You go. I’ll be fine.”  I can imagine her smiling up at him, inhaling a whiff of his Old Spice aftershave as he would give her a kiss.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Go and pray.” She may have added.

“Okay, darling,” that he could do for her. “I love you. I’ll hurry home.”

I think of her reflecting on their past 12 hours together—the chili and football game the night before, the fresh air of their morning walk, the pleasure of a little shopping and the stunning colors of the produce so beautifully displayed around them. I wonder if the unexpected energy she experienced had given her any hope that she might be getting better. Many things we take for granted had been taken from her. Her fingers hurt when she played the Chopin Etudes, Debussey, hymns and improvisations we loved to hear but she didn’t stop. Music had been such a big part of her life—she wasn’t willing to let that go too. Hospice had told her she wouldn’t be able to leave the house alone once she signed the papers confirming their care, not even for a walk. There would be no more driving, her independence was coming to an end. She had flinched at that, I had seen it.

I know she would have preferred to go to church with Dad that morning. Instead, she reflected on how God’s magnificence surrounded her. Quietness is the classroom where you learn to hear My voice,* she continued to read from her little orange-covered book. That was the place she was most comfortable now. She had told me that.

In earlier days, Mom and I loved to shop together. She was shopping when she was getting ready to give birth to me. Among the racks of a department store, her knees had buckled and people gathered around her wondering what was wrong. A baby—she was getting ready to have a baby. And so this is where I prepared to make my entrance into the world, amongst the whiff of new fabrics and the sense of excitement a new purchase can bring. I wasn’t born in the store but it wasn’t too long after that. So it was my mom, as well as her mother before her, who are partially responsible that I love to shop.

When Grandma would come to visit, we would help her unload her suitcases and boxes of baked treats containing tins layered carefully with cookies and fudge placed between sheets of wax paper. Then she would head straight to the nearest mall—Mayfair when we lived on the farm and Capital Court when we were in town. I still have dreams about girls’ dress departments and being surrounded by circular rods filled with ruffled satin and lace, or heading up and down escalators that lead to shoe departments. Mom would always stop at the candy counter for caramels and cashews before we began. I was too excited to eat, my eyes darting and head jerking from one thing to the next, dazed by all the new possibilities. My husband says that one of these days I’ll sprain my neck.

In the last months of Mom’s life, I began going overboard buying new clothes for her to wear. She had lost so much weight, nothing fit and this had bothered her. Anyone who knew Mom remembers her impeccable style. I went to the shop we had most recently been to together. It was a fun trip where everything she tried on looked perfect. We left with several bags and it had perked us both up. That’s what it was always about. We cheered ourselves up shopping. It’s a superficial thing, I know that—a false promise of hope for a new beginning by looking differently. It only a short time before you want something else but its an escape. I learned how to hide a new purchase on a shelf out of sight until the right time presented itself. “Is that something new……?” Todd would ask me. “I don’t remember seeing that before…….?”

“Why no—I’ve had this for a while….,” I’d respond.

So during Mom’s last months I bought her more than she needed. I later found the things in her drawers with their price tags still on. It was upsetting to be reminded of so I quickly gave them away. I know the things she did wear lifted her spirits a little and that was something small I could do. I also know I was trying to hold on to her.

“Please don’t get me any more, Debbie,” I didn’t want to hear those words. “I’m not like that now. I’m different. I’ve changed. I don’t care about clothes.”

Mom had let that go. There was no place for anything superficial in her life now. For me, more than the awareness that I should let the empty endeavors go myself, it was the beginning of my acceptance that I would have to let Mom go. God had given us this precious woman as our mother and as Dad’s wife on this earth but this great gift wasn’t ours to keep. Ultimately, she belonged to Him.

20131207_163432I needed to hear the words in my heart, I am with you, I am with you, I am with you, and I read them and reread them from that little book on the page dated October 30. It was time to return the great gift to the One we had received it from and not try to hold on to it. To be able to return a gift of love to the giver is the greatest gift of all.

Mom’s devotion: Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

I Ate All the Chicken Salad

“We ate the chicken salad for lunch, we need more, and we need to have jello around all the time,” Mom said as she laid on her bed recovering from the adjustment to her pills the caseworker had convinced her to try in order to “simplify” things. It had not gone according to plan.

“Okay Mom, I’ll make some.” I had stopped by during lunch.

“You can make some ham salad so we use up that ham.”

“Okay. How do you make it?

“Just onions and mayonnaise. Debbie, we need to have big jars of mayonnaise and salad dressing around all the time. I don’t like those squeeze bottles.”

“You have a big mayo, Mom. Joanie got it.”

“We do?”

“Yes. Are you sure you don’t add pickle relish to your ham salad?”

“No, only onions.”

“Okay. Got it. Mom?”


“You’re dehydrated.” Her mouth was dry as she spoke. “You need some water.”

“I’ll get some” Dad said. He had been sitting quietly at his desk. He was frustrated that the nurse had put Mom through undo suffering. “Honey, do you want ice?”

“Yes.” Dad left to get the water.

“Dad needs to swiffer mop the kitchen each day.” Mom continued. “Joanie says it gets dirty fast.” Joanie, my sister, came from Arizona to be with Mom and Dad through the months of Mom’s chemo. “He can do that. He needs some things to do or he’s just wandering around here.”  Dad had recently retired so he could be with Mom to watch over her.

“Here’s your water, sweetheart.” Dad handed it to her.

“Where’s the ice?  I said I wanted ice.”

“Right, I’ll get it.” Dad wore his concern on his face.

Oh marriage, I thought, if it’s a good one, it’s the place we feel safe to say what we really feel.


“Never mind.”  Mom took a sip.


I looked at Dad and then at Mom. That’s when I could feel the flu setting in—confusion and weariness—there was too much information stirring in the air, in my head. I had brought a stew along with me which I had made the night before and had put it in the oven to warm for dinner. My cure all. Make a stew—it comforts and soothes as it transforms everyday air into a whiff of heaven. We were waiting for the hospice nurse to return for her second visit. We needed to have a stew in the oven.

StewI got up and went into the kitchen to make the jello and ham salad. When I pulled the two pieces of the old metal meat grinder and the heavy blade out of the drawer to be assembled, I remembered all the Saturdays Mom and Dad had made Spam salad together for our lunch when we were kids. I started chopping onions and Dad took over the ham grinding. I thought of the song Grandma Wenzler used to sing to us when we were little–there was a little butcher man his name was Dunderbeck. He’s very fond of poodle dogs, sauerkraut and speck  For pussy cats and long tail rats are no more to be seennever mind, I’ll stop there.

Mom had come from her bedroom and was sitting at the dining room table ready for the nurse’s second visit. Dad laid a newspaper on the floor, hooked up the grinder to the side of the kitchen table and started grinding the meat.

“Are you sure you don’t want any pickle relish in this, Mom?” I was certain we always put pickle relish in ham salad.

“Okay, maybe a little.” Mom agreed, so I mixed some in along with the onions and mayo.

“Lots of mayo Debbie–I like it moist.”

I presented the concoction to her for inspection as Dad cleaned up the ham that had fallen onto the newspaper on the floor.

“It needs a little more mayonnaise.”  I returned to the kitchen. “And more pickle relish or I won’t be able to taste it.”

That’s the spirit Mom!

It took Mom three days to determine what it had been that hit her so hard that first meeting we had with our hospice nurse. She called me before breakfast on the third day and her voice was strong.

“Oh Debs, I figured it out. I told your Dad that it was the first time I felt as though I was being treated like I was dying–that my body was giving up. The nurse said there was no need to worry about my blood or liver tests. No need to take vitamins anymore. It was a change in approach as to how I was to live my life in the days ahead.  I have always lived each day of my life with hope. People need hope, even if it’s just for a day.”

I thought every new nurse should be required to memorize that statement. ‘Everybody needs hope, even if it’s just for a day.’ As soon as Mom could articulate what it was exactly she had experienced, she regained her dignity and spunk. She went to bed that night and slept soundly. Meanwhile, I knew we needed a new nurse. Dad agreed but gave me some instructions, “Whenever your brother Ed would have to deal with an ornery client that was giving the firm a hard time I would tell him, ‘Be sure to take the fruits with you.’ So I’m reminding you to take the fruits when you make the call. Do you know what they are Debbie?”

He made me smile, “I do Dad–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self- control.”  (Galatians 5:22,23)

“Very good. Don’t forget them when you make the call. We want to help her be a better nurse not beat her down.”

And that little story summarizes my parents approach to life—live with hope, have compassion and don’t forget the fruits. I made the call to Hospice and we were assigned a new nurse. Nurse Lucy. She was everything we needed in the days ahead.

I went to bed that night grateful for Mom’s strong spirit, Dad’s wisdom and our new, gentle nurse. I tried to come to terms with the fact we had no idea what Mom would be facing. She looked me in the eyes and told me she barely cried when her own mother died, “And you know how much I loved Mother. I just knew it was her time and that she was ready. I don’t want anyone crying over me. Okay?”

“Okay, Mom.” I lied.