English: Monarch butterflies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With my husband gone, I had to think about options. I had not been able to work in about twelve years. What had started out as simple panic attacks had turned into agoraphobia and raging, suicidal depression with psychotic features, all of which had been exacerbated by grief and despair. My condition had improved somewhat over the years, but the stress of a marriage on the skids had taken its toll, and now I had a divorce to contend with.
I had never lived alone, and I was frightened. On top of it all, my mother had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and was dying. Once she was gone, I would become the professed matriarch of our tiny family. Even at thirty-four years old, I felt like an orphan. I went to a well-respected church counselor at my large church for guidance.
“Linda, you need to move out of that house (the house I had rented with my husband, and could no longer afford on my own). You need to get out, even if it’s to move into the housing projects. You need to get a job…any kind of job, right now…this week!”
My mind reeled with this information. I pictured it all…me moving into a dangerous neighborhood, raising my children around drug addicts and thieves. The best job I could get with no skills was at a fast food restaurant. I knew I could end up with a crazy ever-changing work schedule. My youngest child was four-years-old. What would I do with my children while I worked? How would I ever better my life? I would never get out, never be able to get an education. I would be trapped in poverty forever.
I woke each morning with these thoughts replaying over and over in my mind. But this advice came from the church counselor, and I believed she wouldn’t be in the position she had on staff at our church if she weren’t thought of as someone who was wise, who heard from God. Fear gnawed at me like a dog on a meat bone.
One day I mentioned what she had told me to my pastor’s wife.
“She doesn’t have to live it, does she?” she said softly.
Shock and joy hit me simultaneously. Simple words and it was as if a cage door just flew open and let me out. I didn’t have to blindly obey the church counselor? I won’t bring the wrath of God down on my life? I can actually think for myself? What a concept. Simple, and yet I was forever changed.
One morning, I was staring into the bathroom mirror, hurriedly applying make-up. I had nowhere to go, really. I was deep in thought about my future. Where would we be in two years? Where would we be in five? I had no skills, no education. How would I provide for my children? Where would we go? What will we do?
As if God were standing right next to me, I sensed a strong voice interrupting my reverie. “I’m not asking you to live five years from now. I’m only asking you to live today.” My mascara wand stopped mid-stroke. My eyes widened as I stared back at my reflection. It was as if I was having an out of body experience and I suddenly found myself once again standing in front of my bathroom mirror. I only have to live through today?
Over the next few days, ideas danced around my head like butterflies flitting through a flower garden. My first step was to sign myself up for six secretarial courses at the local community college. It was challenging. I fought through panic attacks and depression so deep I felt I was drowning, but I took a deep breath after each hour-long class and forged on.
One night I had a dream. I lay in a huge mahogany four-poster bed with a beautiful white spread over me. In this dream, I awoke to find my mother silently approaching. She was wearing a long white nightgown. She sat on the edge of the bed, threw her arms around me, and began to sob. I felt helpless, but I comforted her as best I could. I awoke with a start, and lay there thinking about her.
Back in Los Angeles, she was very ill, having suffered several rounds of chemotherapy. Her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, and a particularly large tumor in the back of her neck had twisted her face. I spent as much time as I could running down to Los Angeles to see her, but my younger sister was there taking care of her, and she insisted I do not uproot the children, knowing her time was short. My heart broke for her.
One weekend I drove down to be with her to spend the night in her smoke-filled bachelor apartment. As soon as I got there, I began to have the familiar sensation of panic. This was unknown territory. My heart had ached for my mother’s love for as long as I could remember. I had never reconciled many things that had happened between us. She had never expressed her love for me, never held me, had never bought me a “Hallmark moment” card. She was not an affectionate person. She was emotionally closed off, and guarded herself carefully.
But I loved her desperately. Watching her suffer was torture. I arrived at the apartment and sat down on her couch. Immediately she came over and sat down next to me, put her arms around me, and began to sob. It was as if someone hit the play button. The dream I had three months before appeared in my mind as if it were playing on a movie screen. I stiffened, but I sensed the presence of God in the room and I tried to breathe into the moment. I held my mother, patting her back softly.
“Why did God give me cancer?” my mom asked me. I fumbled for words.
“He didn’t give you cancer, mom. He loves you more than you could ever imagine. We get these diseases because we live in a fallen, toxic world, and we don’t always take the best care of ourselves.”
She asked me more questions about God, about his love, about how she could know him. I asked her if I could pray for her. I was treading very lightly. I felt I was on holy ground but it was shaky and I was afraid I could blow it.
“Please,” she whispered.
Those next few moments were the most beautiful and pain-filled moments my mother and I ever spent together. It was like a precious gift had been wrapped up for us and left on the doorstep of our hearts.
What happened next will surprise you. Picture me in a black robe, holding an open book, and saying the words, “Dearly beloved…” Stay tuned.