Ruth Grace Wagner Crawford. My Mom. She died of cancer in October 1997. She was 62, and I was 27. By this time I’d seen death professionally for several years, but never lost a close family member. I clearly remember thinking that I would/could be a better minister – that this was part of how I would hope God to redeem my own loss and her suffering – but teaching me how to enter into the valley with others.
Our family entered into that valley in the Spring of 1988 – my senior year in High School. My dad told my sister and me in May. I graduated several weeks later, and then went off to Europe to work and travel for the summer. Home for a few weeks in August, I then went off to college at Texas Tech in Lubbock. All this to say, I didn’t really walk that valley with my family, not at that time. My sister on the other hand, came home every weekend and was there to help dad care for mom during her treatments. Mom went into remission and stayed fairly healthy for 5 years.
Year six brought a new occurrence of cancer with my parents living on the East Coast, and me still in Texas, in graduate school, and married. Again, I was not really present in the valley with them. Yes, I suppose I had my own kind of valley from a distance, but that distance also enabled/allowed me to avoid thinking and feeling the experience daily. My sister, again, went for extended periods to walk that valley with them.
Again, Mom’s treatment was ‘successful’ and the doctors said the cancer was in full remission. Several years later our folks made their way back to our home town of Tyler. Mom came out to visit us for a week when we were living in Midland. I began to make a move closer to them. Over a period of several months, I job hunted until I found work 30 minutes from my parent’s home. At nearly the same time, my mother got sick again, with a high fever and weakness while traveling in Canada. She was so weak that she had to leave the plane in a wheelchair. Weeks later, she was dead – 2 weeks before Laura, Camille and I actually moved to East Texas to be near them.
Turns out the cancer hat returned, and her oncologist predicted that future occurrences would follow the same accelerated rate – 6 years remission, then 3, then 18 months, next nine months, etc. The only hope would be a massive chemo attack on her system followed by a transplant of her own bone marrow that had been harvested years before as a part of her first treatment. The idea is to take her to the edge of death, destroying the entire immune system and the cancer with it, and then to bring her back with the bone marrow therapy. Days after the first chemo treatment she acquired a serious infection, got a rash, and died days later. This final trip through the valley was brief, for her anyway.
I was around this time. We’d made the trip home, and were down the hall making funeral arrangements when she took her last breath. I remember standing in the hall with my wife, father, pastor, and others – crying, screaming, cursing – F**K NO – – F**K NO!!!
Some time later, my sister arrived – she’d gone back home because we thought Mom was doing better. Interesting that Kim had been there for so much of their previous journeys through the valley, but not this conclusion – and I had just the opposite experience. (As Kim reflected on this at the time, she said that Mom must have known Kim couldn’t have handled being there when she died. We struggle to make sense of why things happen as they do.)
So my dear friends gathered at my parents’ home and offered the comforting ministry of presence. Sometimes that’s what we have to offer – just ourselves, here and now. No matter what else happens in my life, one of the most precious moments will standing in my Dad’s living room with these few intimates, and knowing that, hurt as we were, we were not alone in the world. And for me, their presence manifest the presence of Christ with us in our grief. Nothing to say, nothing to do, just be. And that is precisely how Ruth Grace Wagner Crawford lived her life – first and foremost, she was present. And she still is…