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White Rose

Growing up, we had a Mother’s Day tradition in my part of Virginia. At church that Sunday, men and boys whose mothers were still living would wear a red rose on their lapel and any one whose mom was deceased honored her by wearing a white rose. That may explain why I have never liked white roses.

If I were to wear a white rose on Mother’s Day this Sunday, it would be the 10th time since my mother slipped from our arms into her Saviour’s everlasting embrace. While I won’t wear a white rose, I will honor her here.

Out of all the yellowing albums and shoeboxes of pictures, one of the photographs that best captures my mother’s life is from a Sunday long ago. As usual, her hands were full! In one hand she is holding her Bible and a baby bottle. The Bible is cluttered with papers—and probably some sheet music because she was both a Sunday School teacher and church piano player. At our little church, she was a “Swiss Army knife” of servanthood! In the other hand, she (along with my older brother) holds the hand of my little sister, who was just learning to walk. I am the only one in the picture who isn’t being very useful!

Two more daughters were born in later years, and then grandchildren followed. Her hands were always busy, loving her husband, loving her children, comforting, correcting, cooking, cutting hair, reading, washing, and playing the old hymns—but with the style of Jerry Lee Lewis! On Saturday night, she used to practice for church the next day. She loved songs about heaven. She sang and banged them out in rapid rhythm, like she planned to be there. By God’s grace, she made it. But to get there, He led her through years of suffering—as He stilled her busy hands. When she was dying of cancer, I wrote this from her bedside:

Early morning, January 12

The last bits of snow catch the light of a near full moon as it sets over cold, vacant streets.  I had expected to write this article from Pakistan, where I was to interview survivors of two church grenade bombings, but that trip was cancelled in order to be here—Room 9331 of the cancer ward of Duke University Medical Center. 

My mother, so thin now and so fragile, lies in a bed next to me.  A tangle of tubes runs into her much-bruised arm.  The machines she is attached to seem detached from her pain as they hum quietly to themselves.  I have sat through the night with her, catching a couple of naps during her shallow sleeping and shallow waking.  She is resting now, and I am writing.

We had a good evening together, holding hands and reading much Scripture.  My earliest memory of her was of her reading the Bible to my brother and me; so tonight it was my turn.  With nearly 40 years of teaching Sunday School, she taught many children about the Lord besides her own.  Hers was always the quiet service in the back rooms—which is where much of the Lord’s work is done.  An old preacher once told me, “Between the great things we cannot do and the little things we will not do, lies the danger of doing nothing.”  My mother, armed with flannelgraph, animal crackers, and Calvary Love, was never in such danger. 

We recalled tonight how we used to sing together.  I was too young to read; so she taught me the words and played the piano.  That old, beaten-up piano had a keyboard that looked like an ugly grin with ivories yellowed, cracked, or missing—but we sang the Lord’s songs around it nonetheless.  At church she played, too.  I remember how pretty she was at the piano.  She played, and I sang solos for special music of the songs she had helped me memorize.

She reminded me tonight that one of those songs that she taught me was about Stephen in Acts.  I had forgotten that.  Sitting here in this long hour before dawn, the words of the chorus all come back:

I see Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand.

I see Jesus yonder in the Promised Land.

Work is over, now I am coming to Thee.

I see Jesus standing, waiting for me.

She cannot sing now behind the oxygen mask with her throat parched by radiation, but she did tell me in the middle of the night that there are times lately when she has heard the most beautiful music.

The east brightens.  Mama is stirring.  She asks to be propped up so she can see the morning sky.

On Mama’s last birthday, I gave her a dozen red roses. She died the next day, and so I slipped one of them into her hand. At her funeral, my brother, sisters and I scattered the last red petals on her casket—fragrant bits of life cast in the grave—a promise of things to come. I know through the power of the Risen Christ, Mama has never been more alive—her hands never more busy, serving and praising in the place she so often sang about and now sees—a place where all tears have been wiped away by nailed-scarred hands and where no one ever wears the white rose of sorrow.

Tim Keesee