I flew to Toronto on Christmas Eve to stand vigil at my mom's deathbed. She died the morning of December 31, with my dad and brother by her side. We buried her on January 4, three years to the day after she was first admitted to the hospital. There is an obituary here. This is the tribute I gave at her funeral:
Outside each room in the Long Term Care facility where Mom spent her final year is a memory box. The box usually contains mementos and an old picture, like the one at the right. It lets people know that the resident is not just another elderly patient who requires constant care, but a person of value and dignity. In spite of these efforts I sometimes wondered how much the nursing staff glimpsed of the “real” Helen Miller—the Mom I remembered as a child in Africa and during her early years in Toronto.
Everyone noticed the loving care my dad lavished on Mom. He was there every day, often for 6 to 8 hours.When she could no longer walk, Dad wheeled Mom around in her chair. When she could no longer feed herself, he fed her. When she could no longer speak, he told her about the events of the day, just as he always had. When she could no longer mouth the words to familiar songs, he kept on singing to her.
Did those who only encountered Mom in a nursing home realize she was as devoted a wife as Dad was a husband? Did they know that she would have done the same thing for Dad if their situations were reversed?
It was obvious to everyone that Mom was determined, persistent and courageous. As one of the nurses at Shepherd Lodge put it, she was “a very strong woman.” But those who did not know her story had no way of knowing how these qualities came to expression before she got sick:
For example, I asked Dad how many times they moved during their married life. He said they stopped counting after 25:
Mom went back to college in her 50's and completed a Bachelor's degree:
When she was 72 she published a book about one of the early missionaries to Somalia:
But this quiet determination, this tenaciousness—whatever other character traits come to mind when you think of Helen Miller—is only part of the picture. The center that held her life together, that gave it meaning, was this: Mom was a disciple of Jesus. Jesus said:
- Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33).
- “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).
- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Mom took these words at face value—as we all should: They are not, after all, mere suggestions for a spiritual elite. Denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus defines what it means to be a Christian, a follower of the Christ.
For Mom, following Jesus meant leaving her family and sailing off as a single missionary to Somalia. Prospects of marriage must have seemed slim. But God had other plans. When a young man by the name of John Miller arrived in Mogadishu a couple years later, Miss Helen Baker was the director of the mission language school. Helen appointed John as an English teacher...and the rest is history.
Their 48th wedding anniversary would have been on January 15.
That we share our mother's faith, and can get together without bitterness as a unified family is a testament to Mom's determination to follow Jesus and to build a vibrant marriage and a healthy family in the midst of difficult circumstances.
Suffering is only to be expected for those who take up their cross to follow the crucified Lord. But Jesus also said:
“No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)I'd like to think that those who have been affected by my mom's life are part of the 100-fold reward in this age.
When viewed as a whole and not just through the prism of her final suffering, Mom’s life shows that the good life is lived with open hands, in total surrender to Jesus. But the good life—the eternal life of the age to come—is only fully realized beyond death in the presence of the living God.
So as we mourn the loss of our mother, we also celebrate because we are confident that she is now present with the Lord, where there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain.