Freedom 85: My Mom's life and legacy


When Phil's mother passed away, his childhood friends came to say goodbye to the lady whose fridge they raided. Here is Phil's stirring tribute to her...


Are you tellin’ me you’ve never seen an angel? 

Never felt the presence of one standin’ by? 

No robe of white, no halo in sight; 

Well, you’ve missed the most obvious thing; 

Aw, man, are you blind? Just look in your Mother’s eyes. 

-Randy Travis (written by Robert Williams, Guy Chambers and Yan Kin Keung)


Some find it not entirely coincidental that my mother went up to Glory at the exact time a power plant in our town went up in flames. Given my reputation for mischief, several have asked exactly where I was at 6 a.m. Monday. I was asleep in bed. I have a witness. My daughter has an alibi too. She was with her cousin Lena a few feet from the grandest graduation ceremony a soul could wish for: the passing of her grandmother into the presence of Jesus.

Mom had been tired of this earth for awhile, and along about two weeks ago she’d had enough. I tried to feed her; she refused to open her mouth. I tried all the things she tried on me to trick me into eating mashed veggies when I was a toddler. “Open up the hangar, here comes the plane.” But she clenched her lips and scowled at me. You don’t stay happily married to my father for 62 years without being a little stubborn, and stubborn she was. Or maybe she was dreaming of a grander feast in another land.

One week ago she quit drinking entirely. Many didn’t know my mother had a drinking problem, but she quit cold turkey at 85. Monday morning in her sleep she slipped into heaven to see what Jesus was building for her. I think she was astounded at the glory and the grandeur. Overwhelmed to hear his “Well done.” I’ll bet the second person to greet her there was Dad. He probably said, “Pucker up, Bernice. Welcome Home!”

          So how do you say goodbye to the first woman who ever kissed you? The one who brought you into the world? The one who read to you and showed you how to scrub behind your ears and where to find Jesus? How do you say goodbye to your biggest fan, to the greatest apologetic for Christianity you ever met? Someone who impacted you more than the Billy Grahams and Josh McDowells? Someone who showed you how to follow after God, how to care for others?

First you cry a lot. And then you pinch yourself, because you can’t believe you’re an orphan. Next you smile, because you remember how imperfect she was.

          Mom was shy on fashion sense, and hated cooking. I think her second favorite kitchen activity was preparing dinner. Her first favorite was banging her head against the fridge. And she experimented as a parent. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not. She once informed me that if I ran away from home again without telling her first, she was going to—and this part she made up as she went—tie me to the clothesline with our dog Inky’s collar. And she did. Someone would have reported her nowadays, but mothers weren’t perfect back then, but they weren’t absent either. I sat on the back step tied to the clothesline and thought, This is cool, I’ve never had a dog’s eye view of the world before. Mom felt dreadful after about 2 minutes of this, and I was freed and she patted my behind and said, “Tell me where you’re going before you go.” And I’ve never run away again, ask my wife if you doubt me. 

I can’t keep up with the emails and letters from neighbor kids of my childhood. Our backyard was the gathering place—the Oahu of our neighborhood. Boys knew they could play football, baseball, and ball hockey without being threatened with live ammunition. I suppose at some point Mom had to decide between children and grass. I don’t know if the decision was easy, but I’m glad she chose us kids. Our house was a haven. Bob Kirk used to fall asleep on our sofa. He may still be there for all I know.

          I’ve heard from many who were dirty rotten scoundrels but were never treated that way by Mom. She just loved them. I’ve seen her hug teenagers who have more tattoos than brain cells. Maybe it was her bad eyesight, but I think not. I think she had very good eyesight, so good that she could only see the stuff that mattered. Many said, “Your mom was the mother I never had.” One note from a friend who has wandered far from God said, “She was about the only Christian I could stand to be around.”

You were safe at our house. I never once heard her speak an unkind word about my papa, a preacher, or even a politician. She would defend complete idiots sometimes. Referees, for instance. I guess she figured that God had shown so much grace to her, she’d better show some to others. I’d like to be more like that. I’ve sinned so often and I need boatloads of grace. I found that grace in Mom. She’s the one who caught me smoking and said, “Smoking won’t send you to hell it’ll just make you smell like you’ve been there.” When I was looking for a bride I think I was looking for some shadow of my mom, someone who wanted nothing more out of life than to follow Jesus with all her heart.

          Mom loved my dad too. I think she chose my dad the same way she shopped for a bathing suit. She looked for something she’d feel comfortable wearing. Something that would allow her room to grow.

Mom suffered through the Great Depression, and she suffered through depression herself. In my earliest memories she is sick. I performed my first comedic acts trying to cheer her up, hoping she’d get up off the bed and walk and sing and dance like she did sometimes.

She was an odd mixture of ironies and oxymorons too. On summer vacations in Banff, Alberta, I watched her hand gospel tracts to leather-clad bikers, telling them the best news she knew. I was sure they would murder her—and me—but they didn’t. They probably rolled up the tracts and smoked them, I don’t know, but her charm was irresistible, even to the Hell’s Angels. Mom was fearless, yet she was the first person I ever saw have a panic attack. From her I learned that God’s choicest saints have real skin and real questions that go unanswered, that they hurt and struggle, that sometimes life stinks, and so they hang onto Jesus with everything they’ve got, cause without him, we’re all toast.

With the onset of dementia, Mom’s tact filter went bye-bye. “Your nose is crooked,” she told me once, before slugging me in the arm. Into her eighties she still packed a wallop. “I have the FAT nurse today,” she hollered, causing me to duck and wince and heads to turn.

Things weren’t easier for her the last five years. When your husband can’t remember his name and thinks you’ve left him, well, they don’t have courses on this in high school.

One day she whispered. “This growing old ain’t for kids.”

She could have despaired, instead she turned her eyes upwards. Our town lost a power generator and a great generator of power all at once. Mom prayed almost non-stop as her years increased. Three bestselling authors said they wouldn’t have written a book without her encouragement. The same is true for me. I watched her sit at a typewriter and stare at a wall then peck away. I thought, Wow, you can make a living at this? Cool! Mom was content to stay at home while her books traveled the world. She could have secretaried, administrated, or managed a staff, but she showed me that money is a lousy substitute for the adoration of your kids and 13 grandchildren. And it was those children who stood around her bedside singing hymns past tears, thanking God for her life.

I think it’s time I learned from it too. I think it’s time I started walking in her size sevens. I’d like to love just a little deeper. Be a little kinder to those I don’t always like. I’d like to drink more tea. Have dessert more often. Show a little more grace to those who don’t deserve it, a little more compassion to those who are hurting. I’d like to be a little less concerned about world events, and a little more excited about things I can actually do something about. I’d like to never gossip again as long as God gives me breath.

How do you say goodbye to such a girl? Maybe you don’t. You say thank you. Thanks for the inspiration and the memories and for being my number one fan. And thank you, Lord that I’ll see her again one day soon. Heaven is looking sweeter all the time.

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