Sorting by

Skip to main content

My 96-year-old mother entered hospice care a few months ago. For a while, it seemed as though she would go on forever, even though we knew that was unlikely. Like Queen Elizabeth, she continued driving well into her 90s, mainly trips to the hairstylist, but still.

Looking back, it seems as though Covid, as much as anything, was the thing that changed her life. During the pandemic, she was alone much of the time. Her groceries were delivered to her door. She watched TV. And she had little human contact. I remember driving over on her birthday and singing “Happy Birthday” outdoors beneath her fourth-floor balcony. My voice didn’t carry as far as I thought it would, so I sang into my cell phone and she listened to me on hers. When I was finished, she told me I had beautiful voice, which no one has ever said before or will likely ever say again.

And then, last May, she began to decline noticeably. She fell. She went to the hospital. She was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection. And suddenly, or so it seemed, she was no longer like Queen Elizabeth, after all. For the first time in more than 90 years, she seemed mortal. (And by then, we’d learned Queen Elizabeth was mortal too.)

She moved from independent living to assisted living, and for a while that seemed to be the right move. She perked up a bit, probably from all the attention – staff, family members, and other residents.

After the move, I would visit, and we would walk the halls together. She tried, she told me, to walk a lap in the morning and then again in the afternoon. And it was then that I realized that I had inherited the “keep trying” gene from her. Former president Jimmy Carter just passed the one-year point in his own hospice care, and I imagine that my mom will do her best to break his record. This has always been a family trait, mostly (but not always) a good one.

So, together we walked the halls of “DeVos 3,” which will be her last earthly address, and whenever we would meet someone, she would stop and introduce me. “This is my son,” she would say. “He’s a pastor.” And the reply, like a call-and-response liturgy, was always, “We know, Ruth. You told us.”

But that didn’t stop her. She is proud of me and says so each time I visit – to me and to anyone who wanders into her room while I am there.

Her memory, though, like her strength, continues to fade. When I visited today she asked me what month it was, and it was then that I realized the extent of her loss. She still knows me and my sisters and the names of all her grandchildren, and she lights up every time I open the door to her room and shout, “Hi, mom.” (I never used to talk so loud to her, shouting in her ear at times, but her hearing seems to be fading along with everything else.)

My sisters and I visit most days, splitting up the assignment. We sit in silence most of the time. She asks how my family is. We eat a piece of Hershey’s chocolate from her stash in the closet, and as a pastor I always smile to myself and think it’s a kind of communion, except much sweeter and better tasting.

I even combed my mom’s hair today, which is not something I ever imagined that I would do. But she was about to be pushed in her wheelchair to the dining hall, and she wanted to look good. “How do I look?” she asked after I combed for a few seconds. “You look great, mom,” I said. And to me, she did.

I am grateful for this time together, even though for her sake I wish she did not have to be like this – so close, but not yet at heaven’s door.

In Jeff Munroe’s fine new book, Telling Stories in the Dark, he has a chapter on memory loss and dementia. Suzanne McDonald, the expert Jeff consults in that chapter,  compares the caregiver’s time to Holy Saturday, the time between Good Friday and the day of Resurrection. I think it’s an apt comparison. These days I feel like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, a bit lost and in shock. Their words, “we had hoped,” are three of the saddest words in all of scripture. Like them I didn’t expect things to end this way.

In my mom’s mind, the future is clear. There will be a resurrection. She is going to be with “Jack,” who was my dad (and her husband of nearly 70 years). I think it’s a tribute to their marriage that she looks forward to being with him. “He was such a good husband,” she says each time I visit. And I believe her, but as with all marriages I remember moments over the years when she did not feel that way, when she let him know how angry she was, or hurt, or whatever it was she was feeling at the time.

Her 95th birthday

Still, here’s the thing, maybe the most striking thing I’ve learned while sitting with my mom over these last few months. Loss of memory can sometimes be a gift. I know it isn’t always, and I can imagine that there are plenty of counter examples, but as I sit with my mom and experience (for the ten-millionth time in my life) her love for me, I realize that there can be a kind of grace in not remembering a few things. It’s not denial; it’s choosing to remember her life as good. My mom wants to leave this world a grateful person.

My relationship with my parents over the years wasn’t always easy. I gave them plenty of reasons to wonder about me. And there were times when, I believe, they could have been more accepting of me and the choices I made. But when we sit together in my mom’s room, what I hear is, “I am so proud of you, Doug.” It’s as though all those times of conflict have been swept away or that they don’t matter anymore or even that a kind of forgiveness has taken hold when, for many years, that seemed unlikely.

I remember a time when I would have wanted to dispute the point with her. Not that long ago, I might have said, “You weren’t always so proud of me, were you, mom?” And strangely, surprisingly, unaccountably, I no longer feel a need to say any such thing. It’s over. We don’t have to go back and revisit any of it. We have this time together. We sit together, sometimes side by side on her sofa. We sip tea that I bring back to her room from the dining room. Or we look at her mail which she can’t seem to open anymore without assistance.

And together we are a mom and a son, present in the moment, a moment with a surprising amount of grace. I never expected to get there.

Doug Brouwer

Doug Brouwer is a retired Presbyterian pastor and the author of several books, including his memoir, Chasing After Wind: A Pastor’s Life (Eerdmans 2022).


  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    Thank you for this, Doug. Grace has many appearances.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    O Doug, thank you for these remembrances of your Mom. She was a delight where she lived, meeting and chatting with her was pleasant, and she and her hair always did look nice. Your closing three paragraphs speak volumes about love, family, forgiveness, and faith.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for this, Phyllis. Even now, getting her hair styled lifts her spirits noticeably!

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Thanks for this poignant account of visiting your mother. I have assigned it to my pastoral care students.

  • CB says:

    Thank you! Definitely something here for today’s churches and denominations on how to remember the good events and gracefully bury the disagreements.

  • Ron Rozema says:

    Thanks for this piece/peace, Doug, with its story of grace for you and your mom. God go with you both and with your family.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks, Ron. I’m glad that our fathers were buddies all those years ago…and that they always called each other “George.”

  • Peter Dykstra says:

    Thanks, Doug. I can feel the grace. It brings back times as a son with my own Mom. Though she never complimented my singing. In the end it didn’t matter that she held on to her Buick and refused to even look at Hondas.

  • Steven Tryon says:

    This is beautiful, Doug. Thank you.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    As one who never heard, “I love you” or “I’m proud of you,” I was so happy reading this, not of course about the sorrowful side, but at the loving joy you gave us to experience. Thank you, Doug. So much.

  • Ruth Boven says:

    Thank you for this precious reflection, Doug. I have sweet memories of your mom from both visiting in her home and sitting near to her in the balcony on Sunday mornings occasionally. Yes. I can also affirm that she is proud of you. As you say so beautifully, attending your mother on this journey is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It slows one down. You’re wise to receive this time as gift and as holy. Having recently walked that journey with my own mother, I can testify to the tears and the beautiful tenderness. God be near to you and your family and your dear mom.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks for this beautiful piece, which reminds us that there is grace at the end, too, whether we are able to see it as such or not.