The phone is ringing in my Sweet Mama’s sunny kitchen. She is in her chair, and I am sitting at her table, working on her weekly med planner. It is an ordinary Tuesday and the day is sweet with quiet conversation and peaceful camaraderie. I pick up the call for Mama.
“Hello, Yutzys – I mean, Yoders.”
“Oh, Mary Ann! You’re there at Mom’s?”
The voice at the other end is lilting and familiar.
“Yep, it’s Tuesday, and I’m here!” I puzzle a bit over the voice, but suddenly realize that it belongs to my sister in law, Frieda. She was hospitalized over the weekend with symptoms that were troubling. She has been fighting an increasingly challenging battle with an especially insidious form of breast cancer that has metastasized.
“Is Mom there?” The voice is joyous, strong. Maybe there is good news here.
I hand the receiver over to Mama, and note with satisfaction that it is on speaker phone. I watch as she cradles the phone to her ear, her face a glad light, and she greets her daughter in law with a note of anticipation in her voice. And then.
“Mom,” says this voice, carrying across the kitchen, every word hanging in the air, held by an incredible thread of joy, “I’m calling to tell you that the tests are all back and I’m going to get to go to Heaven and it looks like it’s going to be really soon.”
My Sweet Mama’s face crumbles into a mask of sorrow. Across the room, I sit frozen as the import of the words settle into my soul with a bleak sorrow that begs to be repudiated. How can this be? My sister in law, part of our family’s fabric for almost fifty years, a beloved wife, dedicated mother and wonderful Mimi to her grandchildren, cannot be leaving us. What will they do? What will we do? The tears begin to slide down my face.
But Frieda isn’t about to let the news lie with one or two sentences. She speaks comfort and peace and hope and joy into the room while Mama and I weep. “Just think of it,” she carols. “I’m going to be in HEAVEN. With Jesus! I’ve lived my life for this! I’m going to this beautiful place and it’s going to be so good! And think of all the people I will get to see! I will meet a grandmother that I never knew here. I’ll see my grandmother that was one of the Godliest, most wonderful woman that I have ever known. I loved her so much! I’ll see Dad and all those Yoder boys that have gone on before! It’s going to be wonderful! And Janice Root! She’s going to be there!”
That gave me pause to consider a bit as I thought of Frieda walking into Heaven. I thought about Janice, there in the presence of the Lord for these long years (for us earth people) and I thought about her great laugh, ringing down the corridors of Heaven and could almost hear her saying, “Frieda! You here already??? Well, welcome home!!!” There could be some joy in that thought . . .
The conversation took many turns, but there was never anything but eager anticipation on Frieda’s part. She discussed the medical issues with the same detachment she might have used for book review. “They found cancer cells in my spinal fluid,” she said nonchalantly. “The cancer has spread to the lining between my brain and my skull. The doctor says that there is nothing more they can do. They say that I will just sleep more and more (and I’m already just sleeping and sleeping) and that I will slip into a coma and then I will go to Heaven! She says that I don’t have months, just weeks. Isn’t it so exciting?” I try to catch her enthusiasm but it just. Isn’t. there.
Oh, Frieda! Wake me up and tell me this is all a bad dream. Tell me that you beat the terrible odds and are going to get better. Tell me that Daniel and I will have a chance to bring Mama to South Carolina and visit you and Clint in your lovely home beside the lake, that we will pick up pecans and watch the season play its changing tunes in the woods and fields. Tell me that you will be back to caring for your patients in your home health care job and that you will rake the leaves and pull the weeds and run off frequently to see those grandbabies of yours. Tell me that you will keep on loving Clint and praying for your children and their spouses and grandkids. Tell me that your inimitable honesty in counsel to them and to us all will go on for years until you are old and gray and you do it from an old hickory rocking chair. Tell me that this is all a big mistake and we really do have another twenty or thirty years. Tell me!!! I beg of you. Tell me!!!
But these are not the words that she has for us. She knows whom she has believed. She knows where she is going. She doesn’t want to prolong it or inconvenience her family. The plans are in place. She is unafraid. She is at peace. She is unfaltering.
Oh, Lord Jesus! How very much we need you now. Shine your Glory into our hearts though her example. We are so sad.
Frieda says to Mama, “Is there anything you want me to tell anyone up there? I can take messages to Heaven for you.” Oh, my! What a precious thought!
Mama is startled, then a torrent of words for the love of her life that she misses every single day. “Tell Daddy that I love him, that we miss him. Tell him I’ll see him soon!”
“I’ll do that,” says this brave lady. “And I know that you would have preferred to hear this from Clint, but he just felt like he couldn’t talk. Maybe he could talk now.” Mama is crying so hard she can barely talk and when Clint comes on the line, his voice chokes and there are no words. It is so hard to talk to a loving parent when our worlds are upside down and bleeding out. I take the phone from Mama and speak what seems to me to be some babbling nonsense to my oldest brother. He regains his composure and is able to talk, and there is much there that is rich and comforting.
“I feel like the Lord has impressed several things on my heart,” he says quietly. “One is, ‘what kind of husband is the best kind of husband for Frieda right now?’ And I intend to be that kind of husband. This is going to be hard. And I’m going to have some really hard times. I’ve already had some really bad times. But, you know, there were times when we lived in Delaware and Frieda would go off alone to visit Shana or Chip and she’d be gone for quite a long time, but I was okay. She would always come back eventually and we’d go back to our usual routines. And now Frieda is going on another journey alone. And she won’t be coming back, but I’ll be going to her. I really don’t know how soon I will see her again, but it may not be all that long. It’s going to be hard. But I know that God will be with me and I know it’s not forever.” His voice is calm, trusting. My tears won’t stop.
“God has been so good to us,” he says. “We’ve enjoyed a tranquil life. Even with Dad going, and that was hard, but even with that, we’ve been so blessed and the lines have fallen to us in such pleasant places. We’ve not seen a lot of tragedy and hard times.”
There was so much more said – and so much left unsaid because there are no words for much of this. The conversations ended with promises to pray, affirmations of love and missions to accomplish.
How can we begin to go back to ordinary after such a brush with the eternal? I couldn’t think, could scarcely remember what the usual tasks were. But I kept thinking about the things that Frieda had said, and how important it was to get on with the living and believing and even being glad for her as she looks forward to Heaven without a flinch, without fear, without regret. She wants us to rejoice. She does not want anything to distract from The Glory of her Homegoing.
I am in awe of her, in awe of my brother, whose responses are nothing but illustrations of God’s incredible Grace. In an almost unbelievable demonstration of God’s intentional love for us individually, something happened several days before this diagnosis was given that reminded me of how up close and personal our God is. A song was requested at our annual church retreat on Sunday morning. Aunt Dottie had asked Dave and Ilva to sing, “Day by day, and with each passing moment . . .” as their special music. Dave had prefaced their singing by dedicating the song to Clint and Frieda, requesting prayer and testifying to the grace that they have found. The words of the song floated through the Crowder Center at the old Denton Wesleyan Camp moving many of us to tears. At about the very same time that Dave and Ilva were singing that song, Clint was leaving church after having taught Sunday School. He was weighed down by the sadness and he turned on the Back to the Bible broadcast on the radio. Immediately across the airwaves, came the very same song.
“That song is for me! It’s right where I am right now,” he thought and went home, looked it up and got a link ready to send to our family google group – not knowing what had happened in the gathering at Denton, MD, that morning.
I listen to the words of this old hymn and am comforted and encouraged and even hopeful. We wish that she wouldn’t need to go. Wish for more time, wish for opportunities to say “I surely do love you!” a whole lot more than we’ve said it in the past. But it isn’t a time for wishing. She doesn’t want us to wallow. She wants us to think about going to Heaven as the wonderful adventure we all have before us, looking to Jesus as the Author and Finisher! of our faith.
I pray that we can follow this shining example. There is so much to look forward to. There is JOY set before us. We will remember.