We pastor-types are probably among those most willing to talk about dying and death in a culture which would prefer NOT to discuss the subject. In the first two weeks after my ordination, I officiated at three funerals. That’s unusual; they usually come spaced further apart. But I knew at the time God was telling me something: being with people during the dying and death process would always be an important part of my ministry. And surely it has been. Truthfully, it is among the aspects of ministry I cherish the most. It is always a privilege to be with those who are dying and with those who love them.
But when the dying person is your own mother, well … what you’ve learned in the pastoral trenches is good, but you are still in uncharted territory. That’s where I find myself today. My mom is dying. Donna Lee Spickerman Pengra is 85-years old and she is making her way through her final days on this earth to reach the finish line and be embraced by her Savior Jesus who loves her with an unimaginable love. My dad Bill, her husband of 63 years is by her side as is my sis Joanie and my brothers Bob and Steve. I am the only Californian among a sea of Oregonians and it could be that I may not see my mom again this side of heaven. So my role in the family is to pray (lots), to support those who are on the front lines of this death vigil, and to quietly ponder the implications of dying and death.
My mom will die at home, praise God. She is happy about that. We as a family opted not to take her for yet another protracted stay at a psych hospital three hours away, but instead to bring her home and call in Hospice. When my sis told her, “Momma, you can stay right here at home until Jesus comes to take you to heaven”, my mom smiled for perhaps the first time in weeks. And she spoke and said, “I love you, Joanie.”
Why is that so significant? Well, she hasn’t spoken much at all for some time. You see, my mom has suffered from a lifelong illness that happens to come from the way her brain works. For all her life, especially her adult life, she has traveled a road that takes her from being an energetic, outgoing, Jesus-loving woman to the dark places of depression, psychosis, and even catatonia. As hard as this has been on our family – and it has been very hard – it’s been hardest on her. And Donna Lee Spickerman Pengra is ready to finish her long, hard race.
So after 85 years, my mom will get what she desires — not unlike a cancer patient who has gone through too many years of sickness and treatment and says, “no more”, she will finally be able to escape her darkness and come into the light of God’s presence. She is refusing food and most water now, a sign experts tell us, that she is closing out her life with intention and purpose. Even though her cognitive ability to choose this path may not be reliable, I know the Spirit of God who lives in her frail, now 79-pound body can be trusted. God is leading her home.
Three passages comfort me this morning as I pray for my mother in her final days:
- Psalm 6:3 “My soul is in anguish, O LORD, how long?”
I am glad for the Psalms, where all pretty pretense is abandoned and God’s people can talk “real talk” and say what arises from the depths of their soul. I am glad that soon, my mother’s soul will no longer be in anguish. That her “how long?” will be answered by seeing Jesus face-to-face. And she will sigh a sigh of relief that will last for eternity.
- Colossians 1:13 “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves.”
My mom, and other believers who suffer from dark depression know this passage all too well, even if they’ve never read it in the Bible. When they speak of the “dominion of darkness” it is all too familiar — all too personal. They know darkness well. But God has rescued my mom and although spiritually already a member of that Kingdom of Light, she will soon taste the sweetness of a place where there is no more darkness, only the Light that emanates from the Son of God and fills the expanse of heaven!
- Luke 23:43 “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I know that my mom’s last breath on this earth will be followed by her first in heaven. I know that when she closes her eyes for the last time here, she will open them THERE. I know that will be immediate and that paradise awaits her. That thrills my heart. I like to picture her in her first moments in paradise — pain free, shame free, confusion free. Free. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom truly free. So, though my picture isn’t full or complete, it still helps me to see her in that way. And each time the picture comes, Jesus is right next to her. “Today you will BE WITH ME …” She will love being with Jesus.
Thank you, Momma, for sticking it out so long. Thank you for living life as best you knew how to do. Thank you for choosing to live, even though it was so hard. And thank you for living long enough to pray me through my cancer. When you get to heaven, I know that you will be rewarded for your months and months of faithful, unstoppable prayers that God save my life! I know I owe my life to those prayers. Walk with confidence through this last dark Shadow, Mommy — Jesus and heaven await you!
To her honor and to God’s glory,
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.