Black top leading nowhere

How Do You Answer When Death Asks You Impossibly Hard Questions?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I sat alone in the intensive care waiting room of Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver hungover with sadness and worry. It was June, 2002. Early morning sunlight cut through the tinted solarium windows and glinted off the plexiglass covers on the round, wooden tables in the empty room. I stared blankly at the jigsaw puzzle under the plexiglass on my table. A few days before, my mother’s lungs had collapsed and I was waiting–waiting to see if God intended to let her join us again in this life or take her to join him in the next. My mom’s potential death asked me impossible questions.

Fall colors

How Can I Know my Mom’s Life Here is Complete? 

The Redheaded-Wildflower had lost her father just before Easter. We still ached from his loss. Losing my mother meant none of our parents would be left with us. I was forty-six but in that moment I felt like a child unable to field my disparate emotions.

But as much as I wanted my mom to remain with us, if God’s healing took her to her true home, I wanted to let her go. I bowed my head and prayed against my selfish desire to keep her with me. That’s when, for the first time, I truly examined the puzzle decorating my table. It was an early American scene featuring the stars and stripes, Colonial people and buildings, and a powerful white stallion prancing with a patriot on its back. Strangely though, the horse had a puzzle piece missing from its belly. For that matter, there were several pieces missing from the picture.  

Why would they decorate the table with an unfinished puzzle? I wondered. Then I thought maybe the puzzle was not a decoration but a project to distract the minds of those waiting. I needed distracting.

Family puzzle time

I rose and searched for the box that might contain the missing pieces. Unable to fix my mom’s lungs, I could fix this stupid puzzle. She’d had COPD for years, with a noisy oxygen machine clunking in her small apartment, its tube following her around like a tether. But no matter how I pleaded she would not, could not quit smoking. Cigarettes! I hate those damn things. 

But the solarium book shelves held board games, videos, and books, but no puzzle boxes. I looked at the assembled puzzles under the plastic on the other tables. Unfinished all. I sat down wondering again, Why unfinished puzzles? 

I don’t know about you. But during times like these my mind runs wild down many strange trails. 

Were the puzzles subtle reminders that life is always unfinished, especially as it exists in an intensive care waiting room?  

Pink Rose

I knew my mother’s longing, though she was seventy five, wasn’t fulfilled yet. She still had a spectacular rose garden to tend. People from blocks strolled by to admire it. She’d be on her knees gardening amidst the thorns and blooms. They would ask, “How did you get such a beautiful garden?”

“Simple,” she’d answer. “Plant some roses and pour your heart and soul into them for ten or fifteen years and presto there you have it.” She always was a smart ass.

Red Rose

Should I Pray for God to Take her Home? 

Was she speaking a metaphor? As a single mom she had poured her heart and soul into us. But for my siblings there had been no presto moment. Their mental health issues combined with drug and alcohol abuse including homelessness and anger and depression sprinkled in left her exhausted. She always felt she should and could do more.

“Lord, she’s so tired. If it’s your will, take he home and give her rest and healing.”

But her grandchildren, my children, still needed her loving gardening. She was not a distant, untouchable grandmother to them. They loved the gifts and cards she sent regularly, even when cigarette smell wafed from it reminding them she had not quit the habit that would eventually take her life. They had graduations and weddings and special events they wanted her to attend. She was our matriarch and we still needed her wise pruning and fertilizing.

gudy gaskill bridge

Or Should I Pray for God to Heal her Here?  

“God, don’t take her yet,” I prayed.

Then again, the puzzles were only a few pieces short. Maybe they were unfinished as a reminder that, though all lives lack a few pieces, the picture is as beautiful and complete as humanly possible. As Solomon wrote, “There is a time for everything. . . a time to be born and a time to die.”

My mother survived the Great Depression and wars like the world had never known. After my father died in 1968, she raised four challenging children during a time when addiction and rebellion left many of our generation dead or emotionally, mentally, and physically disabled. Without any help from the government, she carved out a life like a sculptor chiseling away at a flawed but potentially beautiful piece of marble. That piece of art became the stable center of life for us. She had lived a rich and hard life. Who was I to say her life was unfinished? 

I studied the puzzle and mumbled, “God, forgive my selfishness.”

City Scape

Only God Knows when a Life is Complete

As I wrote here, listening for God is crucial. So I waited on answers from the doctors and—more so—God. I wondered if the missing pieces of life are incidental. After all, the missing piece in the white stallion’s belly didn’t detract from his beauty. It actually produced a sense of reality and mystery. Real life has few concrete answers. All the pieces are never there and few fit without a little hammering.

That June God saw fit to answer our selfish prayers and stop my mother at heaven’s gate and grant us more time with her.  The following year she made it to Christmas, the graduation, and the wedding. God allowed us to add several more beautiful pieces to the picture of our lives together. 

On August 5, 2003, the night before she passed, she said, “I’m ready, Eugene.” 

I can’t fathom it’s been nearly twenty years. I miss her so. We’ve added pieces to the puzzle picture of life. She now has six great grandchildren from my children. She’d enjoy them I know.

And now I too wrestle with an urgency to finish well. What do I need to finish? What have I not said and done? Yet I am only a man, and know I cannot say or do it all. I cannot piece together the perfect life. Perfection is God’s domain. 

Then again maybe the puzzles in that room served only as a much needed distraction. Because real life is much more complicated than even a fifteen hundred piece jigsaw puzzle.

Fern Scott and grandkids

8 thoughts on “How Do You Answer When Death Asks You Impossibly Hard Questions?”

  1. Well done Eugene. My dad died in 2000 after years of decline and he’d often say, “I wish the Lord would just take me.” Mom died three years later at age 93, still active in every ways although she missed Daddy so much. She drove her car that day, went to bed, had a stroke and didn’t wake up. My brother called on that Friday in September and I called my friend Ric, who had a plane and he flew me to Clovis on Saturday so I could sit with Mom at the hospital. She died the next day. Then it hit me, I was an orphan! For the first time in my life Mother was no longer on the planet. Anyway, thanks for your musings.

    1. You’re welcome, Doug. Though it’s been a few years, I’m sorry for your loss. I did not expect to feel orphaned. Orphans are young children. But aside from missing her, that was also a powerful emotion. I’m not sure I’ve earned the patriarch status. Take care, friend.

  2. Georgie Ann Kettig

    so true, and very poignant, Eugene,… and I’m so glad that your Mom made it through that first crisis, and was able to be with you and your family through some more beautiful and meaningful shared moments,… even the eventual realization and expressed words of her “readiness” bring a sense of peace and completion ~ even though, as you say ~ “the way our lives go”, seems to leave these unexplained “gaps” in the overall picture, as we go through it,… we are called to somehow connect the “visible”/tangible reality of someone we’ve known and loved dearly, with a new condition that seems “invisible” by comparison,…

    “invisible” in a mysterious or spiritual way?,… do our “senses” try to adjust?,… do we “feel” them somehow still “present” in special moments?,… alas, we are “seeing through (that) glass darkly”, and can’t answer our own questions,…

    I remember telling another anxious and suffering family member, whose parent was “on their death bed”, something that I had realized when my own mother was passing,… I told her that I had realized that, at this point, we can feel that we want to cling to them, and “hold on to them” for as long and as tightly as we are able to do, while experiencing all the fearful and loving and hopeful and prayerful emotions that we have,… but at some point, no matter how tightly we hold on, they are just going to “slip through our fingers” ~ quietly, peacefully, inevitably ~ and we’ll have to accept that “this is just the way it is”,… some things “are simply bigger than we are”,…

    just to add ~ I think losing one’s mother is probably one of the most difficult things to go through, and to adjust to,… we are so close to our mothers from our very “beginning”,… the essence of “love and life” are big “mysteries” all wrapped up in motherhood,… our hearts beat together very closely,… certainly, we are deeply bonded with our mothers, and through them to the even greater heart-beat of the One Who gives us Life,…

    (this is not to diminish the importance of our fathers, but we have all been “uniquely designed”),… (-:

    1. Thanks, Georgie Ann. She was a strong and courageous woman. I think of her often. It is strange and beautiful to now be on the top of the family tree. I pray I live us to her.

  3. Georgie Ann Kettig

    I think that those close to us, “who have gone before us”, have a way of joining together with us, and strengthening us for the overall needs and challenges at hand ~ maybe not so much about the “particulars and details” that we tend to be focused on in “everyday” life ~ but in a general sense, having an awareness and concern for everyone’s basic well-being, and a sense of the inherent “bonding and togetherness” of “family”, that may actually “defy” the “ordinary” human personality tendencies that are inclined to quibble and disagree,… maybe it’s also “an angelic anointing” that will come upon the “elders”, as they step into these roles,…

    in my own case (as I am now the “alpha female” in our family!), it’s a very different dynamic outwardly from the ways my mother would be doing things,… she was also a “very strong person”,… I’m more like her mother, and can feel, by comparison, like I’m “leading from behind”,… (lol!),… but I do have a strong faith and “lots of love”, and I’m using this opportunity to be more expressive about these things, than I could have ever been around my mother,…

    God, the “Great Coordinator in the Sky”, sees us and knows that we are all different, and that we live in different times, coping with different needs and challenges,… He has made us the way we are, and will use us, inwardly and outwardly, as He sees fit,… and he is not judging us by “the World’s” standards, but will help us mesh with His needs and plans, as we listen to Him,…

    what else can we do?,…

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