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Missing my mother

Jenny Baxter was 16 years old when her mum died from cancer - she now encourages women to celebrate motherhood and support each other


I struggled to take it all in.

My friend John patiently said it again, “There was more information about your mother than you knew.”

I looked at him blankly.

He sighed. “If things had been properly done, she might not have died.”

The awful truth enveloped me like a parachute settling over my head, making it hard to breathe.
“I can see it is hard to understand. I’ll come back soon and give you the details.” And just like that he was gone.

John is a good friend and I believed him. What’s more, as he is an ex-nurse, I trusted him medically. But I struggled to hear what he had to say. More information, he had said. What did that mean? The conversation was very puzzling because my mother had died of breast cancer so long ago. Decades even.

My rational brain tried to catch up, and I attempted to reason my way through it. Of course, this makes no difference I reminded myself. It happened. There is nothing I can do. Her life is over. God has walked beside me all these years, and I can lean on him through this too.

I waited for John to return, trying to make polite conversation with the people I knew in the room. But I wasn’t comfortable sharing this devastating news with them. Not yet.

My mind raced. Would mum have lived if we had known? Would she have died by now anyway? Why do I have to wait to find out about this information John had? Where was he anyway?

I gasped, and woke up with a jolt. It was 5am, and still dark.

It was a relief to realise it was all a dream, but I struggled to breathe normally. Disturbed. Upset. I lay there, my heart beating fast, my emotions continuing to wash over me. It had felt so real, so perplexing. It is true – when my mother died of cancer, I didn’t have all the information. As young teenagers, my sister and I were told very little and kept in the dark. With all the best intentions, we were left in a space of not knowing.

The dream seeped into reality. In a half-asleep stupor, nothing made sense and I dozed in and out of a fitful sleep – too upset to rest; too weary to do anything but lie there. I waited, knowing that eventually, daylight would come. Maybe then I could make sense of it all.

This is the worst thing about grief: When it feels like you have finally got it out of your system, then at the most unexpected moments it comes up behind you, and clutches your heart. Again.

Death was never meant to be part of our lives – and intuitively we know it. Before their sin, Adam and Eve had access to the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9), and death was not originally intended for them. So, it is not surprising that deep within we all scream, “Death is not fair! It’s not right!” Because it isn’t. It’s all wrong. It grates against us with its ragged teeth gnashing.

I have chosen over the years not to allow my mother’s death to harden me. It is difficult at times, but I want to remain soft and pliable, not just for myself but for those close to me, especially my children. It always hurts to lean into the grief and roll with it, and it is easy to put up self-protective barriers. But I know hardness brings bitterness, and that’s not where I want to go.

Instead, I have chosen a path of encouragement, life and blessing. Every day, both when our five children were little and now as young adults, I ask God to teach me how to do this motherhood job when I have no mother to impart her wisdom to me. Like many people, I have gaps in my knowledge – the things my mother never taught me.

For each gap, I asked God what I should do: survival when sleep-deprived; weaning a baby; keeping my cool when everything went wrong; relating to the in-laws; growing great teens. Then there are many things my mother never knew, so in reality she couldn’t have taught me! Some of those include doing life as a ministry family; managing family/technology balance; and life within a step-family.

For years, I have felt God calling me to pass on these things he taught me. Family life is messy and imperfect. All of us suffer, because life is never an easy road. We women do the best we can to take what we have in our hand, to intelligently and diligently enable those around us – parents, partners or progeny – to grow, love and learn. My call includes creating a safe space where women can treasure their mothers, treasure their own motherhood and treasure their children. A place where everyone can all learn to be their best.

I must admit though, that in my experience, the biggest and most enduring learning curve is growing in my ability to understand grief and death. This suffering, this tragedy, this living of life after my mother’s death, is the refining gift that changes me.

I have learnt that God walks with me closely and shows me a path through it all (Psalm 119:105). He is no stranger to suffering (Psalm 42:9–11). He leads my steps, and holds my hand. If I let them, the ragged and rough elements of my suffering smooth over dark and ugly places. The stress and pressure squeeze out the dross, and refine me (1 Peter 1:6-8) into someone with more compassion, more kindness, more love for the broken and hurting.

Staying soft to death and its horrors hands me life in all its richness. Such paradox. To allow mum’s death to harden me would be its victory. But God brought Jesus to life again. There is such a thing as life after death after all, and it is called resurrection.

All these years later, my mother’s death still shapes me, as my recent dream confirms. I know deep down, I still treasure her. But thankfully her death doesn’t hold me. Jesus does.

The road is dark, sometimes. Often it feels like an endless tunnel. But if I keep on pushing through, if I keep on pressing into the dark, I know this to be true: daylight eventually comes.

+ Jenny Baxter is the former editor of Christian Woman magazine (Australia/New Zealand). She and her husband Stephen live in Tasmania where he is the Senior Pastor at Hobart Baptist Church.

The Baxter family is now spread out a little – The two youngest, Elliot (married to Nicole) and Hilary, live in Hobart; the eldest, Marion, (married to Luke) resides in Melbourne with children Eli and Zoe; with their Uncle Joe living nearby. Number two daughter, Alice, is a staff worker with YWAM in Biarritz, France.
You can follow Jenny’s blog and download her free e-book Time to Shine at treasuringmothers.com

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