My Mother, Becky Clayton Smyth, went home to glory on
July 20th, 2016.
One and a half years ago today.
What happened that day, and what happened in the many days that followed, was intensely painful and intensely private. The last piece of public writing I penned was my speech at my Mother’s memorial service. I would share other splinters here and there, when the process of drawing that days’ thorn of grief from my heart didn’t consume every last bit of my energy. Most days it was easier to be silent.
I can now say that season “was” instead of “is.” Enough time and space have passed (crossing an ocean helps) that I am able to write these words as someone who has walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Grief is a permanent alteration of the soul, yes, but eventually, you get to a place where the wounds have turned to scar tissue and you can move again.
Writing here about my Mom’s death and the excruciating process of grief has not, as you may imagine, been something I’ve been looking forward to. For me, however, it is an essential element of healing, an Ebenezer, an offering to mark the point in the road where a new journey began.
July 18, 2016
My phone buzzed; a call from my Mom.
I remember exactly where I was sitting. She was calling just to check in, see how we were doing, ask how the tiny house was coming along. It had been a while since we’d all seen each other, so she asked if she and my Dad could come up to Topeka that weekend to help us paint the tiny house. Our calendar was miraculously clear; she said she’d talk with my Dad that night and get back to me.
How thankful I was in that moment to have a Mom who wanted to spend time with me, wanted to be a part of this thing Hans and I were building together. My Mother and I hadn’t exactly had an “easy” relationship…she and I were exceptionally different women with exceptionally different personalities. Most of my teen years saw her and I navigating logjams with each other. The years since Hans and I’s wedding day hadn’t been total smooth sailing, either.
My Mom and I had been talking on the phone a few months earlier, and she’d said that she was realizing that Hans was very different than my Dad, and our marriage was going to look different than theirs, and that was okay. I was learning to be my own person, to not be dependent on her approval. She was learning to let me. I’d put brief boundaries in place, needing the space to sort out my marriage and myself. We were, I hope, beginning the process of building a genuine friendship.
I hung up, went on about my day.
That night I slept fitfully, unable to rest, something within my spirit winding tight. My Dad told me later that my Mom’s pain had started late in the afternoon on the 18th, and it had grown steadily worse until around midnight, when she’d stood in the downstairs living room and told my Dad she was pretty sure she needed to go to the ER.
I remember walking into the downstairs guest room after we got back from the hospital…the room where my Mom had been trying to sleep. She’d gone downstairs so that she wouldn’t disturb my Dad if she’d needed to get up in the night. The bunched up blanket tossed aside, the heating pad lying limp on the sheets, her socks like two crumpled white fists on the floor. Small proofs of her last night in her home, things she thought she’d be able to straighten out, the ripples of her life as she left this world.
July 19, 2016
I was sitting at my desk in our home in Topeka that morning. I’d just started a new online job and I was in a video chat with two of my co-workers, training.
My phone buzzed; a text from my Dad.
“I’m with your Mom in the ER.”
Mat Kearney is right, we’re all one phone call from our knees.
“She’s having pain in her abdomen.”
I stumble through an apology to my brand new co-workers, tell them I have to go, swat the laptop shut, throw some things in a bag. I’m on the road to Wichita 15 minutes later.
I called my father in the car, called Hans, frantically texted a few friends. I looked up the hospital and called the nurses’ desk, asked if someone could make sure my Dad ate something. My Mom is his whole world, and this has not been expected, and I know he is starting to spiral. “I’m scared,” he told me on the phone. My father, who worked in law enforcement for nearly 30 years and served a tour in Afghanistan, he is never scared, but I can hear the thinness in his voice, a smallness, a trembling fragility that frightens me. “They’re asking me to sign all these papers,” he says. “They don’t know for sure what’s going on.”
I drive faster.
The day is a blur. I arrive at the hospital a bit after noon. My Mom is groggy with pain medicine. She asks me to make sure I do something with the ham in the fridge at home before it goes bad. There are friends from my parent’s small group that sit in the waiting room with us. My father frets, paces. I text my Mother’s four older sisters, parroting what the doctors are telling us, trying to distill the complicated language into something I can tap out on a keyboard.
I remember when the doctor turned to my father and I and told us that she had about a 50/50 shot. The sound of the swear word eked out of me like a deflating balloon. I stumbled to a chair, felt the violent seismic wave of shock slam into my body, ricocheting from my head to my heart, bile rising in my throat, my hands shaking uncontrollably. I watched my father crumple.
Hans arrives a few hours later, holding a vase of flowers from our garden. My Mom never sees them. They sit in the waiting room because doctors and nurses are coming and going from my Mom’s room and there’s no good place to set them in there. We call my sister; she talks on the phone to my Mom for a few moments. My Dad doesn’t want her making the drive from Topeka (in a wry twist of irony, she and Hans and I all come from Topeka in three separate cars) but I tell her she needs to, and she promises to call every half hour to check in.
Friends surround us. They come in shifts, bringing food we barely touch, praying, pacing with us. My former youth pastor, now an associate pastor at the church my parents go to, stays with us all night. I stutter out a few posts on social media, field a volley of text messages and phone calls. This is one of the few times I am deeply appreciative of Facebook. There are people from every circle of our lives, people I’ve never met, people from my online community, people from every corner of the world that are praying praying praying for my mother, for us.
Even though it feels like God Himself is silent, His people’s words buoy us in this black sea of uncertainty.
I tuck my Dad into a reclining chair to try and get some sleep, and he keeps asking for blankets. “I can’t warm up,” he tells me. This is the man who happily wears shorts in December. A running joke in our household is that my Mom tries to warm up her freezing feet by playing footsy with him under the covers at night. The shock is shivering, physically bone-chilling, all-encompassing. Every minute, each passing of 60 seconds, feels like army-crawling uphill through a foot of mud in the freezing rain.
Each time I go to the bathroom, it feels like a lifetime has passed since I last saw myself in the mirror.
July 20, 2016
They do an emergency surgery in the middle of the night to try and relieve the pressure in her abdomen. She doesn’t crash, but her blood pressure won’t stay where it needs to. We wait; they start filtering her blood because her kidneys aren’t working properly. She’s unconscious. The doctors tell us there could be a chance of brain damage.
I wander out to a different waiting room as the sun is coming up, needing a moment to try and breathe, to try and comprehend. A dear friend of my Mother’s is there, needing to get away from everyone else too. We stare out the window as the sun rises and watch tiny pairs of headlights putter along on the streets below. “How could the sun be rising?” we ask each other. “How can the rest of the world be going on as if nothing is wrong, when our world has come to such a thundering halt?”
The medical team gathers my family into a meeting room. A few friends come as well, to hold us together because Lord have mercy…we are fracturing, brittle with anguish. The doctors gently tell us they’ve done all they can. We are asked to decide whether or not to take her off the machines that are keeping her body alive.
I clutch the arms of the chair I’ve folded myself onto, needing something to hold onto as the furious pitch and yaw of this absurd reality crashes into me over and over again.
This feels like a roller coaster we cannot get off of. Things are moving too fast and we don’t have time to catch up, to fully fathom what is happening. Our brains have a 48-hour jetlag, stuck in an existence where my Mother is perfectly healthy and coming to help us paint the tiny house on Saturday. Her closest sister, in age and geography, is driving from Kansas City, but it doesn’t look like she will make it in time to say goodbye.
The nurses gently tell us to say our goodbyes. My Dad, who has loved my Mom with the fiercest and loveliest of devotion for 32 years, kisses her goodbye and tells her he loves her for the last time this side of heaven. I tell her that she would have made a fantastic grandmother, that I love her, that I promise to take care of our family. I tell her I wish we’d had more time. The grief wells up from the subterranean depths of my spirit, and there is nothing left to do but weep.
The technicalities of my Mother’s death are not things that I like to dwell on. But it’s necessary for the sake of telling this story. Essentially, a gallstone came loose from her gallbladder, blocked a duct to her pancreas, and set off a horrible chain reaction of events, which culminated in all of her vital organs shutting down one after another.
She went from perfectly healthy to home in glory in less than 48 hours.
Someone finds a CD player and an album of hymns; they play softly in the corner of the room as the nurses quietly start removing the machines. The small band of friends that have gathered with us in the waiting room follows us down the hall, through the heavy doors, to her room. We surround her, a cloud of witnesses. “My Mom loves hymns,” I tell these earthly saints, “and I want us to sing her Home.” A dear friend standing next to me begins, her voice clear and pure. We hold my Mother’s hands. I will never forget the sound of our singing…it is hauntingly beautiful, sorrowfully holy, filling that thin and sacred place where heaven and earth convene. One friend watches the monitor, tells me later that he saw her heart beating when we were singing, and that it would fall silent between songs. We sing Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, Come Thou Fount. My voice falters on the line, “And I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at Home.”
A little after 1 pm, she is with the angels.
The cry that rips from my body is raw, guttural.