I come from strong men and women of faith. It’s deep in my bones. When someone told me that I was strong in the midst of a whirlwind, I’d shrug or just not say anything. Because they could only see the outside. Some days I might be crying inside, other days I was falling apart or holding myself together by thin thread, or “bleeding” on the inside.
My grandfathers and other kinfolk lived and died in Kentucky. They were people of the land, men who were share croppers, soldiers who came home from the Civil War with nothing and did a little bit of anything to create a new life. One great-grandfather eventually owned a 3000 acre farm of rich bottom land along the Cumberland River.
These men killed hogs, milked cows, grew sorghum for molasses and tobacco for cash. One grandfather became the father figure of the family when he was 16 years old and then left farming during the Depression when he couldn’t feed his family.
The women were farmers’ wives who canned vegetables that they grew, picked fruit and made jellies, killed chickens, made quilts from scraps of cloth, made the family’s clothes, upholstered furniture, made flowers for hats, and one took a steam boat down the river to learn how to be a teacher. They buried their newborns and cared for aging parents and in-laws. Strong women, sometimes stoic women.
Death, tragic accidents, even violence were not strangers to these ancestors. Life was hard in the hills of Kentucky, but you seldom heard complaining or whining. It just wasn’t done.
I tell you this because how we respond to tragedies is usually a reflection of who we watched as we grew up. When it was time to plan Jennifer’s funeral, it was familiar territory; my three brothers and I had already buried our father and mother.
Our parents’ legacy went beyond the farm. They were partners in ministry long before the famous couples in television ministry today. They served small churches from Parsons, TN to Galveston, TX, on to Detroit and Lansing, MI, to larger churches in Alabama, North Carolina, and West Tennessee. When Daddy had voice surgery, Mama went to work on the night shift at a factory. When he had a kidney removed, she took in sewing until she was hired to teach sewing classes at a Singer Sewing Machine store. As soon as he was able Daddy worked the night shift at the Sheriff’s dept. and preached at a tiny church on Sundays. When he recovered, he went back to full-time preaching. One of these days I need to write a post called “Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid”.
Daddy’s one kidney slowly failed through disease, so Mama went back to school to become an R.N. Then three times a week they spent the evening in the ritual of dialysis while both worked full-time jobs.
When he died too young at 56, Mama looked for another way to make a difference. She worked in Haiti for six months and then retired and headed to Africa. At the church clinic where she nursed, she was known as Mama Johnson. She had to come home in 1992 with lymphoma and breathed her last breath in her own bed in 1994.
So – when Mama’s oldest sister called me early on Sunday morning after Jennifer’s death Saturday afternoon, she said, “Martell, just listen to me. I can’t come to the funeral but my heart is with you. And your Mama and Daddy? They’re standing at the gates of heaven welcoming Jennifer home.”
Those words were a comfort to me and a month later I wrote this in my journal:
May 18 2002
I miss her phone calls, our conversations about struggles, life, and her walk with the Lord. I wonder about her conversations now. Do she and Mama explore each other’s lives? Do they sit with my grandmothers and their mothers to share memories? Or is it nothing like that? Are the events of heaven an ongoing praise of the Father, Son, and Spirit?
Because of our temporal nature all I can relate to are the words of our conversations, thoughts, and memories. Do the citizens of heaven observe our daily struggles and see the whole picture as God does? Can they see where this journey leads? What would Mama have said to Jennifer as she entered heaven? “Welcome child. You have made the impact God wanted you to in only 21 years.” Did she introduce Jennifer to Grandmother Stephens and Mama Stephens? Did Jennifer suddenly see the big picture of her journey and where it began?
My journey in grief was just beginning In May of 2002, so the story is far from finished. Next week I’ll share the planning of a funeral and what we learned in those first days about this daughter God gave us for a few years.
Do you know what you are made of? Have you been tested through adversity? What do you pull from? Maybe you didn’t come from strong men and women – maybe you come from a dysfunctional family or abuse or people without faith. Even though my faith guided me through the valley of shadow of death, I many days and nights when I questioned God or struggled to make sense of my personal grief.
Oswald Chambers says our relationship with God determines how we use the events that shape us. Our Father is working according to His own wisdom, accomplishing what is best. He will leave us alone until we are one with Him.
“Lord, I am in great trouble,
so I call out to you.
Lord hear my voice;
listen to my prayer for help.” Psalm 130:1,2
I surely don’t have all the answers for those who journey through grief. My purpose here is to share how I coped, what worked for me while at the same time showing that I struggled. It has taken me ten years to share this story in such a public way. My prayer is that these thoughts help the suffering and those who want to help the suffering.
I count it all joy that I have found a way to reach others with my story.