In December of 1997 my 93-year-old mother lay dying in the hospital. I might have been guilty in prior years of thinking that the passing of someone over 90 would not bring forth strong grief as, after all, she/he would have lived a good long life. I was totally wrong. That was the year I learned the deep difference between happiness and joy.
All ten of Mamma’s children and nine chosen ones, as well as thirty-three grandchildren and thirty great-grandchildren expressed ourselves differently, but each was heart-broken at the thought of losing Mamma, Momsey, Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, “Miss Eula,” or whoever she might be to us. We couldn’t imagine ever finding full happiness again without this dear lady whose cozy bedroom had become a sanctuary for all of us, a place where we knew we’d find loving support, challenge to keep our chin up, boosts to our faith, spurs to fulfilling our dreams, or simply a refreshing catching of the breath, a place to lean over a game of Scrabble and lose our other concerns in whether or not we could brilliantly use our “q” (or use it at all!).
It seemed natural to sing around Mamma’s hospital bed. Gradually she slipped too far away for us to communicate in any other way. She’d always enjoyed her children being around her and so we sang, some of the boys strumming guitars. We gathered each night around Mamma’s bed to sing even though for days there had been no response from the still figure in the bed. We sang all her favorite hymns and, with Christmas approaching, felt compelled to sing carols too. It was apparent Mamma wouldn’t be with us at the big Christmas tree at her house this year. In fact, some of her last words had been that she wouldn’t be seen sitting in her big blue chair. “But,” she’d whispered, “I’ll see you.”
It was a struggle, even a battle, for me to sing Joy to the World beside Mamma’s silent form and to the accompaniment of her struggled breathing. But I was determined to do it. When one of us dropped out of the singing, others took up the slack. Nurses, who had ignored hospital rules to let us overcrowd Mamma’s room, told us, their eyes moist, how much our faith and–yes, joy!–meant to them as we sang Mamma to heaven, her flight to perfect peace finally occurring in the wee hours of December 12, 1997.
For over a year I could not sing any of the Christmas carols without needing one of Mamma’s handkerchiefs. But I knew how much she loved Jesus and loved Christmas, how she loved seeing the little ones sitting around the tree singing Away in a Manger. I knew how she’d always beamed as her youngest sons Stan and Charlie took turns emceeing, throwing in a line about how Santa had been delayed by a heavy snow but might still make it through. I knew how she loved to see the incredible awe in the children’s faces when a real live Santa Claus came walking in our big front door, a pack on his back. It would have been a tremendous sorrow to her if she knew she’d laid a shadow forever over our Christmas spirit. So I kept singing. We all did. And the joy of the Lord came to us even in the midst of grief–joy, not happiness.
And now years later I can sing more joyfully than ever. For there are even more memories–memories of Mamma’s sweet concern for us to the very last, of her dreams for each little great-grandchild, of her love of life. I remember vividly my husband’s tenderness throughout that dreadful-sweet time and my children’s thoughtfulness. William pulled on his dad’s boots and went out in a cold dawn to help his cousins dig Mamma’s grave in our small family cemetery, all of them wanting her place of rest to be personally and perfectly right. My daughter reminded me: “Grandmother’s happy now and not hurting anymore. She’s singing with the angels. And you’re just going to have to learn how to make those good green beans she always cooked for us.”
So, yes, joy does spring up in the midst of sorrow. I know that is true. The words to the wonderful carol Joy to the World remind us that Jesus is the source of all true joy.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.
–Words adapted from Psalm 98 in 1719 by Isaac Watts