My mother passed on early in the morning of January 15, 2018. Her loss will be felt far beyond our family and into our small town where she served as a nurse for thirty-three years. Her service was held this past Friday at a little mountain church not far from home. By the time my daughter sat at the piano and began the first notes of It Is Well, the pews and vestibule were filled to capacity.
She was a good woman and a better mother, the sort of person you could not be around without feeling a little better about yourself and your world. I’ve been asked to publish here the words I spoke that night. Feel free to read as much or as little as you like.
It’s strange, the things that come to mind in a time such as this. Mom wouldn’t want this to be a sad occasion, wouldn’t want us all to sit here long in the face and short in hope. She would rather us leave here smiling out from full hearts, knowing it is well. All is well.
That was my only aim in deciding what to talk about this evening. So when I sat down to decide what I wanted to share with you, I did so reverently. Seriously. I dug through scripture and studied the wisdom of church fathers and philosophers and writers, but the only thing that crept its way into my mind and refused to budge wasn’t a psalm or a proverb or a saying of some great person of faith, it was the beginning of a nursery rhyme:
Row, row, row your boat…
And I thought, Really? That’s all I can come up with?
So I prayed. I said, “God, give me some wisdom here. Give me some direction.”
And I waited. And He answered, “Gently down the stream…”
So I gave up on finding something profound and comforting to tell you, because a nursery rhyme is a ridiculous thing to talk about in a situation like this. I went downstairs and tried again later, and this time I decided to go straight to the source. “Mom,” I said, “I have to do this, now. There’s going to be a lot of people there, Mom, and I want to tell them what you need them to know.
And Mom said, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”
And with that some old dusty drawer long untouched in my mind slid open and out fell a memory, one so clear and sharp that it could have happened mere hours ago instead of forty years—Mom and me riding down the road in her old yellow Camaro, singing that nursery rhyme.
Then other drawers flew open, other memories of other times we would sing that rhyme together: when she tucked me into bed and as we sat on the porch snapping beans, while I sat at the kitchen counter watching her make supper.
Mom taught me that song when I was five, maybe six, and I remembered that I became obsessed with it. Sang it all the time, and Mom would always sing it with me. We’d do it as a round, me starting off alone and Mom starting when I reached the word “stream,” the two of us trying to keep our parts right but never quite making it, leaving us both laughing by the end. I was so young that I thought that was the point of it all—to laugh. Now, I don’t think so. Now I think even those many years ago, Mom was getting us all ready for this night.
I’ve found myself these last days wanting to grab everyone I meet by the shoulders and give them a good shake, tell them “Don’t you know that none of this will last?” We all know that, don’t we? Nothing in this world lasts. But death is something we do our best to cast aside and try to forget. We run from it, ignore it, do all we can to stave it off.
But that doesn’t change the fact that life is a stream we all are set upon, and we begin every day in one spot along that stream and end it a little further along. Those two things are absolute and unchanging. There’s no going back against that current, no floating in place. We can only move forward bit by bit and little by little, on and on and on.
We are each given a boat to move along those waters. Some are large and fancy, others tattered and plain. Mom’s was tiny in some ways, having to hold only a small woman and a small town. She would tell you her boat was somewhat defective—to the day she passed on, she would laugh and blame all of her troubles on Amish inbreeding—but her boat was strong nonetheless, with a good rudder to keep her far from the shallows and the rocky places where so many become stranded. No, Mom lived in the deep part of the stream where the waters are calm and where she could look out and see the beauty and joy in all things. She rowed her boat straight down the middle all her life.
That is an important point to make. Mom rowed. You would perhaps take such a thing as that for granted—if you’re in a boat out in the middle of the stream, of course you have to row. But not all do. Some will stow their oars and sit back and let the current take them wherever, not caring where they go.
My mother was never like that. She was as driven a person as I have ever known, and she believed in work.
I’m not sure at what point nursing became her calling, but I’ve never known anyone more suited for her job. She spent long hours at the doctor’s office in Stuarts Draft, leaving early in the morning and often not returning until past dark, coming in tired and worn not merely from her labor but from shouldering the burdens of her patients. And she did that no matter who you were. When she called your name and led you back to an examining room she did so with a loving firmness—Mom was going to make you step on that scale whether you wanted to or not.
And when she asked you what was wrong, she felt your pains and worries as her own. She was the only person I’ve ever known who would ask, “How are you doing?” not out of social convention or politeness but of genuine concern. Mom wanted to know because that was the only way she could do her part in having you feel better, whether that was taking your temperature or drawing your blood. A smile and a dose of laughter. Or a prayer she would say for you at night that you never knew.
Her job was hard on us, on Dad and my sister and me. Amy and I grew up believing that to go to the store with Mom was some form of punishment. A simple trip for milk and bread to the IGA or the Food Lion would often stretch into hours because everyone knew her and she knew everyone.
There would be someone to greet her in the parking lot and another just inside the door, and then still more as we made our way down the aisles, patients and people from church and longtime friends, and she would make it a point to talk to them all no matter how busy she might have been, asking them how they were getting along and if there was anything she could do to help, because that’s who Mom was and who she remains.
She knew people, you see. Knew the human heart and mind and soul as well as any preacher. Her job taught her that. It didn’t matter how rich you were or how poor, what color you were or what your address happened to be, at some point you were going to get sick and need to see Dr. Hatter, and you’d have to go through my mother first.
She saw people who went down life’s stream bitter and those who went with anger. Some had lost the will to row at all. Still others had come to believe the stream we’re on was meaningless, and that there was only darkness at the end.
Mom always pitied the ones who believed such a thing. She came to understand early that the best way to row down that stream was gently. Gently down the stream. That is how Mom lived. That’s how she treated everyone, friend and stranger and family most of all. That’s how she taught her children, and her grandchildren. “You got to be nice to people,” she would say, “because you never know what they’re going through, and you might be the only bit of Jesus they’ll ever meet.”
That is what people know of Mom—her gentleness. But that certainly isn’t all. So many have called and written and spoke with me these last days about how she always seemed so happy. And she was. I stand here right now and say none of that was an act. But she wasn’t merely happy. She was joyful. Always quick to laugh with a unique ability to find humor in almost anything, and to me that will always be the one quality of hers that I will remember most.
You couldn’t be in a bad mood around her. There were so many times, especially as a teenager, when I would look at her and think, “What is wrong with you? How can you be so happy? Don’t you know how messed up everything is? Here I am barely managing to hang on, and you’re acting like things are great. I’m sulking, but here you are hopping merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily on your way.”
I’ll be honest. There was a time in my life when I was foolish enough to believe my mother lived in a tiny bubble and didn’t know much about the world. I was wrong about that. My mother knew more about living than I ever will. She hurt and endured and yet she remained joyful, and I believe that joy was present not in spite of those trials, but because of them. Mom came to know what so many of us never truly understand, and that is the power and grace and mercy of suffering. It is our nature to avoid hardships yet still they come, and because of our avoiding we don’t know how to deal with them. Mom did, and she did not flinch. She never once lost her joy.
And do you know why? How?
Listen to me, because this is important. This is what she wants you to hear.
Hard times, illnesses, trials, pain, grief. These things come to us all sooner or later. They come upon us like a storm that won’t pass, stripping away one layer of our lives after another until nothing is left but the soul, but those storms can go no further.
That’s what Mom found. That’s what she knew. The world can leave us bruised and maimed, but it cannot touch our souls. Our souls are God’s alone. They are always in His tender care.
And that brings me to my last point. I look out over this room in wonder that a single woman can touch so many lives. I’m not sure how, but I know why. Not long back I ran into a friend who wanted to know how Mom was doing. He said something that I’m sure was meant well. “What Sylvia needs,” he said, “is just a little more faith.”
That was all the proof I needed that he didn’t know my mother at all. You ask me how it was that Mom rowed her boat so well for so long, how she kept to the deep places in the stream so gently, so merrily, I’ll tell you it’s because her faith never wavered. Not once. We are gathered here in this place tonight, we sing her favorite songs, we pray and worship because that was the center of her life.
God never let her down. That is what Mom wants you to know. And she wants you to know that God will never let us down either. He is the one that made this stream we are on. His Son is the water and his Spirit is the current that leads us ever forward and all of it, every single bit of it, is for one purpose.
It would be easy to dismiss that right now. What I feel, what you feel, very likely doesn’t resemble love at all. And that’s okay.
I am reminded of the story of John the Baptist. At the end of his life he was imprisoned because Herod didn’t like the things John was preaching. John held on as best he could, wasting away a little every lonely day and dark night. Waiting. Praying. And when he couldn’t take anymore, he sent a few of his disciples to Jesus with a simple question.
“Are you the one, or should I wait for another?”
What John the Baptist was asking is this: Are you really the Son of God? Because I’ve spent all this time telling everyone you are, and I could really use you help here. Because I’m in trouble, and I won’t last much longer. Come and save me.”
So his disciples found Jesus, and do you know what Jesus told John’s disciples to go back and say?
Tell John that the blind can now see, the lame can walk, the lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, and the poor have the good news preached to them.
You can imagine what John’s disciples were thinking. “Well, Jesus, that’s all just great. Really. But we’re just not too sure it’ll make John feel any better about things.”
So they turned to go away, and as they did Jesus said one more thing, saving it for the last because it’s so important: Tell John, he said, that “blessed is the one who does not fall away because of me.”
I’ve probably read that story a hundred times in my life, but the meaning of it never really clicked until this week. John had faith enough when his life was chugging along just fine, but there’s something about a prison cell and impending death that can bring doubts to the most faithful soul.
And that’s what this time feels like to so many of us right now. A cell. Four close walls and no window to see the light. Faith is easy when life is good and things are moving along exactly the way we think they should. But when they don’t? When our days become a prison like John’s, the world shrinks around us, and we are tempted to doubt the very things that are meant to give us strength, and hope, and faith.
Like John, we say, “You sure you’re up there, God? Because I really need you right now, and it feels like you’re not paying attention, and You’re not making much sense at all.”
And God says, “Of course I’m here, and I’m doing things so wonderful that you can’t even imagine them.” Then God says the same thing to us that Jesus said to John’s disciples. “Blessed is the one who does not fall away because of me.”
What does that mean? “Don’t lose faith just because you don’t understand it all. Don’t stumble because you don’t know why things have to be like this for now.”
Because I am working toward something incredible. Because this, all of this, this stream and this current, this life, isn’t all there is. Those we love and lose are never lost at all. They’re not gone, they’re just a little ways farther down the stream. They’re home, waiting for us, ready to celebrate our arrival.
All of that from a nursery rhyme Mom taught me as a boy. All of it true. And the great thing is the last part of that song is the best part, the most comforting. David said in Psalm 17, “when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.”
Did you get that? It isn’t passing on, its waking up.
David knew too, you see. He knew what Mom knew, and that is what Mom wants us all to know as well.
Life truly is but a dream. So row your boat. Go gently and merrily. Hold dear to Christ, and when you wake you will find what Mom has found: the face of God.