The call came at 4:30 a.m. on March 2, 2003. My brother, Gary, was on the phone from Ozark, Mo. As he told me that our mother, Dalcie Rainey, had just joined our father in heaven, I felt conflicting emotions of relief and sorrow. I was grateful that she had been released from her prison of a decaying body and from a mind suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. But I knew I would miss her deeply. Our lifetime talk was over.
I’ll always remember the drive that I made that day up to Ozark. I had traveled the same route for more than 26 years. As I wound through the forested, rolling hills of Northern Arkansas and Southwest Missouri, I had a lot of time to think. I didn’t turn on the radio. Didn’t pop in any CDs. I just drove and thought of Mom’s life and of her influence on me.
Mom was 35 years old when I was born breech—a dangerous way to hit the streets for both mom and baby. She used to tell me that my feet hit the floor running and that I’d been running ever since. Affectionately, she called me “The Roadrunner.”
As a child she nursed me through chickenpox, mumps, and the measles—plus dozens of colds, sore throats, and bouts of the flu. Whenever I had high fever, she would offer a chilled washcloth. Her steamy, hot potato soup was best to eat when I was propped up against a pillow in bed. (Isn’t it interesting how clearly we remember how our mothers took care of us when we were sick?)
A warm kitchen was Mom’s trademark and it seemed to always attract a crowd. It was the place where food and friends were made. She was a good listener and always seemed to have time to hear whatever I had to say.
And how Mom could cook! There were green beans seasoned with hickory-smoked bacon grease, sugar cookies, pecan pie, and best of all, her chocolate bonbons made only at Christmas—at least 2,000 calories in every bite. And her picnics at Swan Creek … well, what can I say? She would spread out a well-worn Indian blanket and open up an old basket that was packed with more than enough food.
Mom taught me to laugh, and she helped others laugh, too. She and I fixed joke packages together at Christmas. (They were really only funny to Mom and me.) On Christmas Eve, she and I would have more fun unwrapping gifts. She would put sacks inside of sacks that went inside of boxes that were inside of more sacks. Tears would literally stream down our faces from laughing so hard.
But on this journey home, tears of another kind filled my eyes.
Driving on, I reflected about how I learned forgiveness from Mom. She forgave me time and time again for not making my bed and for not picking up my clothes. She also forgave me when I got so angry as a teenager that I actually took a swing at her—and fortunately missed! (My dad should have hauled me over the coals, even though I was 17 … but he didn’t—I’m not sure she ever told him.)
But I guess the most profound thing Mom modeled was a love for God and people. Compassion was her constant companion. She taught me about giving to others even when she didn’t feel like it. She taught me about accountability, truthfulness, honesty, and transparency. She modeled a deep loyalty to Dad and to the Lord. When I was six, she led me to Christ during her Bible study class one Sunday evening.
We loved to fish together and to grab a bite of Chinese food. And she and I were known for wolfing down a cheeseburger or two—along with a dozen bonbons—laughing all the time. I guess it’s obvious: Mom was an incredible woman! She was an organizer, a hard worker, and a great person in terms of family values. She and Dad taught me that family is not just an address—it’s all about relationships and caring for people to the very end.
Expressing our affection
Dad was just 66 when he died instantly in 1976 from a heart attack. In contrast, Mom was 90 years old when she finally joined him. It was fascinating to go through the process of losing Dad in what seemed like a split second, and then watching Mom wither away and suffer for two years with Alzheimer’s disease.
I had told Dad on numerous occasions that I loved him, appreciated him, and was proud of him as a man. But when he passed away with no goodbyes, I resolved to be sure that Mom always knew that I loved her.
In fact, long before Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she and I had a special way of expressing our affection. As I would prepare to leave her Missouri home and drive back to Arkansas, she would come out to her porch and wave to me. I’d honk the horn three times to symbolize “I-love-you.” Then I would wave to her—wondering if that would be the last time I would see her alive.
I told Mom in as many ways as I could that I loved her. (But can anyone ever really say, “I love you” enough to their parents?) In February 1985 I wrote her a tribute and put my feelings and expression of love into writing. It hung proudly in her kitchen for more than 20 years.
Now that framed tribute hangs in my office. Next to my dad’s.
“This body is worn out.”
A family characteristic that was passed on to me from Mom is that of … how shall I say it … being a little self-sufficient? She amazingly maintained her independence until a couple of years before she died. She was a very resourceful, strong-willed person.
But when I went to visit Mom in February 2001, I noticed that she was very confused about setting the thermostat for the heat. She also complained that her phone would not dial my number. She started to allow Gary, his wife, and Barbara and me to help her in areas where she had once said, “I can do it myself.”
Realizing that Mom’s health was declining rapidly, Gary and I talked about what we should do. I’ll never forget going to a rest home, just to check it out—the smell, the feel, the sounds.
Mom told Gary and me, “I just want to rest. I just am so tired. This body is worn out.” She also wanted to stay in her own home. So we began getting help for Mom for just a few hours a day. Eventually, after two or three trips to the hospital, she weakened considerably, and she eventually required round-the-clock care. The women who helped her were absolute angels. They were some of the most loving people I’ve ever met. They cared for Mom in a wonderful way.
As I sat next to Mom’s bed a few days before Christmas 2002, I rubbed her hand and occasionally stroked her face. Unlike the rush of other Christmas’ trips home, this visit was filled with time to sit in silence and just think.
There was no conversation. No dialogue. No laughter.
I thought about the power of a family. There was time to ponder the generosity of God’s provision of a great mother.
As I sat there, I didn’t just see Mom’s withered body and snow-white hair. I remembered her contagious laughter, bright smile, and the exuberant joy she had when cooking for me. While reminiscing, at one point I thought that I could almost smell one of her juicy cheeseburgers sizzling in the kitchen.
There were very few words that day. Mom looked occasionally towards me—as though she was trying to remember who I really was. Over and over, she’d ask, “What do I need to do? What do I need to do?”
I had tried to assure her there was nothing left for her to do. Eventually, I jotted down some thoughts and read them to her. I wrote:
… Mom, you have run the race, you have fought the good fight, you have finished the course, you have accomplished everything He sent you to earth to do. Your work, Mom, is done. Mom, you’re free to go home.
You cleaned house, you loved Dad and created a family for Gary and me. You cooked, you washed, you picked up after me, you did it all. Your housework is all done, Mom. Mom, you’re free to go home.
You loved your mom and dad; you loved your brothers and sisters all the way to the end. You loved your nieces and nephews—you loved them all—all that God brought your way. Your labor of love is done, Mom. Mom, you’re free to go home.
You faithfully served God, you worked with youth, you taught, you hosted many a church potluck dinner, and you led me to Christ. Your spiritual work is done, Mom. Mom, you’re free to go home.
So into the care of angels, carried to the throne room of God above, there your Savior stands to greet you and wrap you in His arms of love. Heaven will be a richer place when you get there. There is nothing left for you to do. Mom, you’re free to go home.
I honestly don’t know if she understood what I read to her.
From the grave to the cradle
Mom’s funeral and memorial service were held on Tuesday, March 4. After the services, our family had such a sweet time talking about her life. We were all there except for our son Samuel and his wife, Stephanie, who live in Nashville, Tennessee. Stephanie was due to deliver our third grandchild any day.
And so it was that just two days later Barbara and I found ourselves in the car once again, this time headed to Nashville after receiving a call from Samuel that Stephanie was in labor. Six hours later, just 20 minutes after we arrived at the hospital, we heard what has to be one of the happiest sounds in the world … a newborn baby’s cry. Samuel Peterson Rainey II had entered the world.
Can you get a sense of what I was feeling? From the grave to the cradle. What a paradox. I was so grateful to God for how the week concluded. It was a wonderful reminder of His goodness and all-sufficient grace … that there is life after death … that I will see Mom again.