JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Nearly dropping the earpiece to the cell phone my husband held out to me, I gasped in pain at an image too awful to bear. My mother, 66, had perished in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. A blood clot in her lung had cut off her air and her life.
The picture of mother, with pain-filled piercing black eyes, her beautiful ebony hair spread haphazardly across a sterile white gurney, shocked and overwhelmed me. My own heart skipped several beats as I stood in the cafeteria at a Florida conference center being comforted by several pastoral types and new friends.
But then, in an incredible way — through the intense fog of my pain — the words of a very kind man began to seep in. He first asked me to sit. He acknowledged my pain and the little that words could do, but then he proceeded to quote some of my favorites: C.S. Lewis, Romans 8:28 and others. He said to try and remember happy things and referred to my mother, a choir member, as being in the heavenly chorus.
It was that thought that brought me a measure of comfort and of peace. And it was in that moment that I began to see mother as she certainly is.
I imagine my mother in a flowing silky white robe singing in the heavenly chorus, saucily flapping her massive feathered wings, tinged with just a touch of purple, her favorite color. She is singing one of her favorite songs in a choir better even than that of North Phoenix Baptist Church where she grew her voice for nearly 20 years and was inspired to share her gift every week.
And instead of closing her eyes on the words, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…. There’s just something about that name,” she may now gaze upon the countenance of her loving Savior.
It’s been a few weeks only since my mother’s passing. In that time I have been to another world and back, flying to the high desert in Prescott, Ariz., to celebrate her life with the rest of the family.
There I was reminded again of my mother’s strong witness and testimony to the love of Christ. Mother accepted Jesus when she was 38 years old. Prompted by a little old lady who read “The Four Spiritual Laws” to her in a laundromat in Southern California, my mother never lost the excitement of that day.
Persistent in making sure that same opportunity was afforded her three oldest children, my mother invited a pastor and deacon from a nearby church to visit with us in our home. Though we were all raised Catholic, in spite of our mother’s excommunication from the church because of her divorce from my father, we listened that day, and the Holy Spirit convicted each of us to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. A few years later our youngest brother also accepted the Lord.
A passionate and sometimes eccentric woman, Mother had a way of sharing her faith that sometimes became a cause of embarrassment to us when we were young. Given to extremes fueled by a great love and concern for her own brother and sisters, nieces and nephews, she earned the reputation of a zealot. Tracts fell from her purse as she entreated people to trust God and believe in Jesus.
It was only in recent days and after her passing that I began to realize the magnitude of her love for Jesus and for others and how she was a special part of the Kingdom of God — made in his image, going about his purpose — an individual right up until her final breath.
My mother never looked a day over 40. Though she was beset by a leg ulcer caused by venous insufficiency for 40-plus years of her life and lived with the pain and inconvenience of it, she was an adventuress. She snagged my dad, Wayne, about 25 years ago. Together they have shared a storybook love life bonded by the struggles of raising my two younger brothers and magical in its intensity and depth.
Standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon just days after her funeral service, I marveled at how God, who created all this beauty, let us have such a unique mother. I cried tears for her pain and for the knowledge that though she felt the Savior’s love, Mother never felt at home in this world. Branded early by unfortunate emotional upheaval and distress over tragic events in her life, mother continued right up until the end to feel lonely and unloved, the “black sheep” of her family of origin.
Looking at the Colorado River snaking its way through the canyon, I knew of its majesty only because I had seen it up close before, on a backpacking trip when I was young. From the South Rim it seemed far away and unattainable — like Mother often felt to us.
Dropping lavender daisies into the canyon Mother often gazed upon, I thanked God for the love of my mother, and asked him to help me to be as faithful as she was in serving Jesus.
Days later, on another side of the United States, in Jacksonville, Fla., our new home, I took a mixed hue of flowers to a rock jetty at Mayport Naval Station. This too was a place mother loved. And so on what would have been her 67th birthday on Oct. 19, I threw flowers into the water in her remembrance.
In those moments, with great birds flying overhead, a bell tolling on a nearby buoy, and a sea turtle barely visible beneath the sea-green water, I chose various flowers representative of mother’s children, her sons-in-law, her husband, her grandchildren, her siblings and her friends.
Floating away, two American beauty colored daisies caught my attention longer than the others. They represented my daughter, Belinda June, 20, named after my mother, June Ramona, and my sister Ramona’s daughter, Katherine Steckmann, 21.
The daisies and the grandchildren’s other flowers made me think: Mother left this world more ready than most people. No, she didn’t have time to plan a funeral, clean out closets or leave a will. She didn’t think she needed to divide up pictures, simplify her lifestyle or write notes to those whom she loved.
Instead, mother left with the most important of tasks finished. Her legacy of love for Christ lives on through her children and her grandchildren, a legacy that has been witnessed by people from all walks of life across the United States and the world.
Stubbing my toe in the earth beside the hole where Mother’s casket would be buried in the desert, I grew close to my sister and two brothers as we stood gazing on dirt-encrusted flowers. “Ashes to ashes….” I began to think sadly. But then the still small voice of Jesus said, “Look up Joni. Your mother is not in that casket in the dirt: she is with me!”
So, in a final moment of realization, the four of us clasped hands and looked up into the heavens, finding comfort while wresting with the pain of our loss in knowing that Mother, in all her heavenly splendor, is reflecting the shining light of her beloved Savior.
Hannigan is the managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.