HE AWFUL FEAR OF DREAD HAD COME to pay a visit. The atmosphere hung heavy with sadness as we glanced around the small dollhouse-size home Mother and Dad rented in Henderson, Texas. In their late 60s now, it was their last go-round in putting down roots.
Struggling to raise five children on little more than a $100 weekly salary, Dad had sweat from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for 50 years, cleaning and pressing clothes for the public under a tin roof dry-cleaning shop. He often came home wincing because of the pain of bloody steam burns on his arms, from getting too close to the large, hot pressing machines. In the summer his shirts would be so wet with perspiration that they had to be wrung out. Despite his vigilant work ethic, he would often hear his customers echo their rehearsed excuses to him on Friday. ?Mr. Dickey, I?ll pay you next Friday. Is that OK?? Times were hard for everyone in these small east Texas towns.
Our eyes were swollen from tears of grief, but I managed to clear my throat and ask Mother, ?What did Daddy say when he became so ill, before the ambulance came?? She replied nervously, ?As he walked out of the bathroom, Gloria, he said, ?Well, Ethel, God has been faithful. I asked Him to give me 70 years, and today is my birthday.?? With a forced, crooked grin so as not to upset my mother, he had asked calmly, ?Please call an ambulance, Ethel. I?m so sick.?
Memories of Yesteryear
Being the youngest of five siblings made for a competitive race in what would be a lifetime contest through my young eyes. My hopeless efforts faded into one of my many goals to gain an equal measure of respect with my older brothers and sisters.
Memories of us gathered around our mother?s skirt for prayer time became indelibly etched in the mind of a 4-year-old. Mother prayed toward heaven, ?Dear Lord, bless and keep our family from harm, and give us strength. Help us to know Your ways, and to walk in them.? I liked to squint, pretending to obey her request for all eyes to remain closed during prayer. In amazement, I stared upward at her very serious face as I watched her every word and motion. Somehow I knew the One she was addressing was very real. Prayer, along with the paddle, had a very effective influence on us, and worked much like a rudder on a boat. Every Friday evening Mother?s commanding voice took on a higher pitch. We knew she meant business when she called us away from our playtime. ?Patty and Gloria, get your shoes polished and baths taken. It?s almost the Sabbath. I?m not going to tell you twice!?
I remember the sunshine of her smile, and her occasional grand outbursts of humor as she joyfully struggled those years, standing alone with God in raising her five little ?stairsteps.? I still smell the wildflowers, purple hull peas, and freshly cut grass in the wind outside our bathroom window. My father came home in the evening, angry and upset at the end of a trying day, expecting mother?s listening skills to soothe over his battered emotions. Her steadfast example of loyalty to God centered our home with a stabilizing influence and courage.
However, today was different from yesteryear. I heard one of my brothers scoff at Mother, referring to the cigarette puff rings she was exhaling from a horizontal position on her recliner, where she had been grieving for days. Smoke rings ascending into the already heavily contaminated atmosphere of gloom from Dad?s sudden illness, and death. ?Look at her!? he sneered in my direction. ?Can you believe what you?re seeing? The years I?ve witnessed her wave the holy flag of religion in our faces, and now you wouldn?t recognize her, would you?? Anger welled up in me as I glared at my brother. The fires of loyalty stirred within my soul for Mother, and a judgmental thought in my mind raced at my brother. He suddenly took on an appearance much like one of the Roman soldiers in hill garb standing at the foot of the cross, jeering at the Anointed One to come down! Hatred! Raw hatred toward the only One who had never done him wrong.
I grew pensive and silent, alone with my thoughts. Yes, Mother?s behavior was odd and foreign to us, screaming of hypocrisy. Mother had begun smoking recently after a lifetime of living a persistent faith and trust in the loving God she raised us to believe in. But her life record spoke a testimony in witness of Christ?s love and righteousness. As I observed her, my heart overflowed with compassion. I knew her state of mind required a special softness, with careful attention, guarded with love and understanding. After all, I was her greatest fan.
The evening hastened on as we all went our separate ways to retire. An unapologetic sun fell slowly down beneath the horizon, bringing in yet more darkness. We knew we were in for another unsettling night. At the same time, we held out hope that somehow sleep would take us captive.
A small lamp near Mother kept the living room shadowed with light. I whispered a prayer to God as I quietly approached her chair. Her eyes looked tired and empty from the cares of this life. I observed her once lovely face, now distorted from grief, showing lines from disappointments through the years. The next moments came naturally, as if from an unseen script. ?Mother dear,? I whispered, ?Jesus knows how you feel. What can I do to help you feel better??
I knew it was impossible to vanquish away another?s anguish. Only Jesus heals. But I wrapped my arms around her, asking her to pray with me. Before we prayed, I whispered respectfully, ?Mother, you?re the dearest Christian to me in the entire world. May I ask why you are smoking after all these years of being such an excellent example of faith in God??
She could barely find the words to speak, as if overcome with guilt. New, fresh tears sparkled in her eyes. Trying hard to muffle her quivering voice, she replied, ?Well, Gloria, it?s like this: I?ve worked hard to raise you children in the faith, teaching you to sing harmony, and doing my part to help make us ready for heaven. I have lived all these years, only to watch my efforts in vain. I have watched each one of you go out into the world, forgetting God. And now I?m tired. Very tired. I can?t imagine heaven without my children. Like believers are to Jesus, you all are the apple of my eye. How can I search all over heaven and not find you? I can?t bear the thought of it anymore. Now, our daddy is gone.? There was a long pause, and then she added, ?Can you understand??
Like a deafening clap of thunder ripping from heaven to earth, her words cut through my softened heart. I considered my present life--a life of recent challenges from results of wrong choices. I recalled the days of my childhood--days so happy with an effervescence and joy of knowing Jesus. So clean and fresh did those days now appear, so attractive and unspotted was my past with Christ, void of the practices of deliberate sin. As my tears mingled with mother?s, I knew Jesus was calling me back to a life with Him.
?Mother,? I began bravely, ?over the past several years my life hasn?t been that great. When you raised us with Jesus, I was so happy! That was long ago. How did it all disappear? Oh, how I miss the peace and joy of yesterday.? As we looked at each other, a new spark ignited in our hearts from the bright beams that hope sheds. ?Let?s go back to church and get ready for heaven!? I cried. ?There?s nothing in this world worth living for without Jesus. Let?s make an appointment with each other today to meet Jesus when He comes back.? We sealed our new commitment with prayer.
The transformation in her countenance was instantaneous--almost as supernatural as Lazarus?s life restored! Suddenly our sorrow flew away, giving place to a light laughter and joy, a joy that had temporarily gone underground from fear of becoming a lie. Longings in mother?s soul had grown too weary in the long wait for answers.
Surprised by Joy
The events above are a flashback in time that happened many years ago. My parents are presently sleeping in their graves--yet, for only a moment in eternity, until Jesus calls them to a life without sin. I cherish the memories in the closing scenes of Mother?s life. We rolled her wheelchair near the piano to sing hymns about the great hope that lies just ahead. Right before Mother died, my favorite words from her to me were spoken, as though she was sharing the greatest secret to happiness on earth. ?Remember this now, Glo. If you ever feel sad, just sing!?
You may wonder what happened to my brother, who scoffed at my mother?s discouragement. Prayer changes not only circumstances but, most of all, people. Today his conversation has taken on a sincerity not previously witnessed. His manner is most unusual and foreign, but in a Christlike, positive way. Last time we spoke, he referred to the Good Book more than once in an agreeable, sober manner. God is working in all our lives as we pray.
From the beginning Jesus had promised Mother He would make a way of escape for her in her hour of temptation. He had promised her that sin would not have dominion over her. Mother?s faith had been shaken by a lack of evidence in her long wait to see her prayers answered. But Jesus never forgets such precious faith--even amid the clamor of life and imaginary defeat!
When we pray, reality bears evidence that our answers may not come for years. But Jesus never forgets! Every child of God must meet with his or her own hour of agony in this life. You may know someone sitting in darkness, some weary traveler who may have temporarily lost their way on the road to ultimate victory. Or someone who is hurt and can?t find closure and forgiveness from a past disappointment. Friend, the light in your heart may be the only light needed to shine into their world of darkness, helping them find their way back to Christ.
My appointment to meet Mother on that far away glassy sea is one appointment I just can?t miss!
*A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of Women of Spirit under the title ?Smoke Rings.?
Gloria Jean Harbison is a freelance writer and Christian soloist. She and her husband, Wes, conduct Amazing Facts seminars in their home.