My mother-in-law, Colleen, was born two months premature 90 years ago, before we had all the technology for preemies that we do today. She weighed around two pounds. Her parents made her a bed in a shoebox and kept it by the stove for warmth.
It’s a miracle that she survived. She did end up with a number of physical issues. One was severe scoliosis. I was told that she was also diagnosed with cerebral palsy: although that’s not exactly what she had, it was the closest diagnosis they could make.
She told me once that she could not take P.E. because of physical issues, so she spent that class being the girl who checked people in and out of the gym locker room.
She didn’t let physical problems stop her from living life to the fullest. She went to college for a couple of years, married, bore and raised four healthy children, canned produce from her husband’s garden. The family made regular expeditions to the hills to gather wood for the wood-burning stove that was their primary source of heat. Colleen split wood well in to her seventies, long after her husband no longer could due to his own health issues. Until the day she died, the nurse commented on how strong her heart was.
She also had a good mind and loved to use it. She was the editor of her high school newspaper. Reading was her favorite hobby, and she regularly walked to the library for a new armful of books. Reader’s Digest was her favorite magazine. Once she saw an article that seemed to fit her husband’s symptoms and convinced the doctor to investigate. Sure enough, he found that her husband had an abdominal aneurysm. The one time she didn’t want anyone to talk to her was when the news was on. A few years ago my husband was using Google Earth on his laptop to show her some of the various houses where she used to live. Fascinated, she said, “If I had one of these things, I’d never get anything done!” When she was in assisted living, often when I visited, she would ask, “What’s new?” Not much had happened since I saw her the day before, so I usually did not have a good answer. “Well…I got the laundry done…” She’d say, “Come on, you’re out there in the world. Surely you have some news.” I’m not into watching the news, but it’s one of my regrets that I didn’t look up some interesting fact or news item to share with her in those visits.
Her life was marked by quiet industriousness until her limbs no longer worked for her. She rarely did anything on a small scale. Why make one lasagna when you could make two or more and freeze the excess? One Thanksgiving when almost all of the family was there, she had almost one pie per person.
She was a child of the Depression, and so she was marked by frugality almost to a fault. Many family stories revolved around her thriftiness. Empty margarine and Cool Whip tubs were her Tupperware, causing one sister-in-law to ask, while holding open the refrigerator door, “Which one of these really has butter in it?” I remember her pulling some corn out of the refrigerator, commenting that it didn’t look very good, and, instead of throwing it out, adding more corn to the leftovers. Her husband worked in a grocery store and often brought home cans that had lost their labels, prompting many a mystery meal determined by what was in a given can. He also brought home out-of-date dairy products, prompting someone to remark once on “milk with pulp.” In her book, it was a sin to throw food away. She also tucked money away in odd places, like pockets of unused clothes hanging in the closet.
She could be feisty. One day, for some reason, she asked me if Jim and I had had any fights lately. As she asked, she had her fists doubled up like an 80 year old boxer. I explained that, no, we didn’t usually fight: we’re both more the type to get quiet when we’re angry or upset. She said, “Really? You never fight?” while swirling those fists around. She and her husband did sometimes, but they just took it as a matter of course and made back up after the argument was over.
She loved the outdoors. The family camped frequently. When she came to help with my oldest son, then nine months old, after my gall bladder surgery, she took him and the playpen outside every day for fresh air.
She did not grow up in a stable, loving home environment. Without going into all of the specifics, suffice it to say that after her mother died, Colleen said, “All my life I tried to get my mother to love me, and I never succeeded.” Colleen’s mother did not have the easiest life, either, but she chose to be bitter, and that bitterness spread to everyone her life touched. Colleen experienced her mother’s bitterness and saw how it affected all her life and relationships, and Colleen chose a different way.
I’ve heard different versions of which person in the family first became a Christian and how it all happened. Unfortunately, by the time I thought to ask about the specifics, Colleen was past the point of being able to articulate them. One story was that her parents started attending church and made a profession of faith which led to Colleen’s attending the same church. Another story had Colleen’s children invited to VBS or something at a church, which led to Colleen’s visiting. Perhaps both of those scenarios are true and involved the same church. At any rate, the pastor there remembers leading Colleen to the Lord when she was a young wife and mother.
Colleen was so enthused about her new relationship with God that she wanted her best friend, Margie, to understand and experience it, too. There were no concordances or Bible programs in that day, but Colleen spent much time poring over her Bible, noting and jotting down verses to share with her friend. Eventually Margie and her husband, Ken, became believers as well. Ken later became a Sunday School teacher and had my husband, Jim, in his class and led him to the Lord. Marge and Ken’s son-n-law led the singing at Colleen’s funeral.
Colleen’s husband made a profession around the same time, but he was not as into fully living the Christian life as she was. He lived by Christian morals, but he rarely attended church with her, and he sometimes got angry at her desire to give offerings to the church. She worried that perhaps he was not actually a Christian, that perhaps he had just followed Colleen and their friends without experiencing a real heart change himself. Late in his life, as he began experiencing health issues, she told him she had to know where he was spiritually. He assured her that he was saved, and their last few years together they had the spiritual fellowship that they’d lacked for so long. Neither of them came from good homes, and it’s amazing to me that they were married 54 years.
But if you can picture her as a mother of four children, with maddening nonsense occurring with her own parents all their lives, and being out of tune with her husband spiritually, you’ll understand that her life wasn’t easy even after becoming a Christian. She found stolen moments to pray in the shower and to read her Bible. She insisted that her children go to church as long as they were under her roof, though some of them protested. I don’t know if she knew this song – another regret is that I never asked her what her favorite hymns were – but this stanza from “Jesus Is All the World to Me” by Will Lamartine Thompson seemed to characterize her:
Jesus is all the world to me:
My life, my joy, my all.
He is my strength from day to day;
Without Him I would fall.
When I am sad, to Him I go;
No other one can cheer me so.
When I am sad, He makes me glad;
He’s my Friend.
She was not an “out in front” kind of person, but she found quiet ways to serve God. She was the church treasurer for years. She served in Awanas, listening to children’s memory verses, until her hearing loss made that unfeasible. Just at her funeral, a friend told us that Colleen and her close friend, Sybil, had visited this woman’s parents in their last years. Who knows what kinds of ministries like that she participated in without any of the rest of us ever knowing.
And she prayed. As her own children grew, left home, and started their own families, prayer was her main ministry for each of them.
She was not one to complain. In fact, there were times there were underlying family issues going on that we didn’t know about until we visited. We’d ask, “Why didn’t you tell us any of this?” “Well, I didn’t want you to worry.” That’s why, when she could no longer live alone, we wanted to move her near family who could watch out for her and check on her. We knew if she stayed 2,000 miles away, we would never know if she wasn’t being treated well, because she’d never say otherwise. The only time I saw her cry after she moved here was when we told her house house in ID had sold. She knew that was coming, but the loss of that last tie with the home she had known so long was understandably sad.
Ten and a half years ago we moved her to an assisted living facility near us in SC. Two years later, my husband’s company wanted to move him to TN. Jim tried to get out of it, both because we didn’t want to uproot Jesse from the school he’d attended all his life, plus we didn’t want to move Jim’s mom again after having just had the major upheaval of moving two years before. But we ended up having to move anyway. After we were all settled in TN and Jim’s mom was in a new assisted living facility, Jim told her that he appreciated her having such a good attitude about it all. She replied, “Well, it doesn’t do any good to have the other kind.”
Our boys enjoyed finally having a Grandma close by, since we had lived away from all of our parents. For a few years we’d pick her up to attend Jesse’s basketball games and take her with us to Wendy’s or somewhere afterwards. We’d pick her up for church on Sundays and bring her home for dinner afterward. We visited almost every day and attended family dinners and special functions at her facility. We’d bring her to the house for holidays and other get-togethers.
But eventually she declined to the point of not being very mobile. She passed the level of care her assisted living facility provided, so she had to be moved to another. Neglect of the part of this facility led to a UTI going septic, which sent her to the hospital for 8 days. She was released to a nursing home, and around this time started having trouble swallowing and had to start eating pureed food. After about six months in the nursing home, she was down to 90 lbs. and not doing well. We brought her home to die among loved ones.
But instead, she thrived with one on one care and gained weight. We had not known that the doctors had her on a narcotic painkiller until we received her medication list when she was discharged. We don’t know why: they never spoke with us about what they did or why. Perhaps they thought her arthritis required painkillers, or perhaps they started them when she had a bedsore and then never stopped them. At any rate, we weaned her off of them, and she became more clear-headed. She was still bedridden, except the couple of hours a day we had her in a wheelchair. But she was aware and could talk with us.
But, of course, no one could stop the long-term decline, and many of you have followed with us as she lost the ability to speak and became less able to move over the last few years, until she passed away January 18.
On her last night, as Jim stood by her bed stroking her head and talking to her, he leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. He saw a tear streaming from her eye, which he took as her good-bye. She took her last breath at 8:18. Jim remarked that it would have been neat if it had occurred at 8:28, since Romans 8:28 speaks of all things working together for good to those who love God. The next day, I looked up Romans 8:18:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
In the providence of God, our church had been reading through 1 and 2 Corinthians together the last few weeks. 1 Corinthians 15, the great “resurrection chapter,” was our reading the morning of her passing. Other passages in the last two weeks have been:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens...For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Cor. 5:1,4)
Also the evening reading for Daily Light on the Daily Path for that night focused on what God is preparing for those who love Him, like “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9-10).
These truths were not new to us, but they blessed us by considering them again during this time, knowing that God knew beforehand what we’d be going through those days and had this reading planned for us. We witnessed Colleen’s “outer self wasting away.” But we know that, since she had long ago repented of her sins, believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and turned from her own way to His, that He has prepared for her that eternal home in heaven, and she is with Him now.
Her funeral in ID and memorial service here in TN both emphasized those facts: that Christ had made a profound difference in her life, and that difference rippled forth to turn the direction of her family and bless whose who knew her. She would not have claimed perfection. She would not have enjoyed the spotlight and would not have wanted anyone to exalt her above measure. But we commend her for her faith, for her following her Savior, for her contentment within His will, for her example of a changed life. I think the words Jesus spoke of another woman in Scripture who demonstrated her love for Him could be spoken of Colleen as well: “She has done what she could.” And just as the perfume in that situation spread, so too Colleen’s life manifested His fragrance:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Cor. 2:14-16).