We lost our home, houses, an airplane, and, oh yes, my mother. Nearly our sanity. And every time I thought things couldn’t get worse they did. This is a hard story to tell, but I’m writing this for all those folks who’ve ever dangled over a cliff. Especially those whose fingernails are currently scrapping across that last jutting rock.
In Memory: Naomi Dinguess Cantees – June 2, 1928 through Eternity
All the Mother’s and Father’s Day tributes got me thinking about my Mother. Few people are as special as mom’s are to children, except perhaps the reverse.
I felt that way about Naomi Dinguess Cantees—my best friend and mother. Sadly, she left us at an early age, 55. She was smart, the valedictorian of her class, but what I remember most was her laugh. Loud and full. If you couldn’t laugh and have fun around Naomi, just get on down to the funeral home. Her love for life was contagious, and in her view, nothing was more important than the person in front of her. What I learned about respect and kindness, she taught me.
Once she explored Kentucky on a tour bus. (We’re from West Virginia so Kentucky is a stone toss across the river.) We teased her unmercifully, but she didn’t care. She was no less excited about touring the Bluegrass State than she was of sightseeing in Italy. Everything and everyone received fair treatment from Naomi. She was happy with what life had given her—my cantankerous brother and me, her small home, her loving family, and the designer-less clothes in her closet. Nary an ungrateful bone in her body.
Humor, smells, stories, and road trips—many wonderful things stand out when I think of mother. However, the juggernaut in my memory is the cancer. A three-year battle. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with—watching someone I love die slowly, painfully. Dear God, human beings aren’t cut out for this stuff.
When a person receives a death sentence their body peels away from their soul and you see them in a way you’ve never experienced before. Especially when pain is involved. She stayed with my husband Alan and me through much of her illness. What I witnessed kept me awake nights, but I was proud of my mother, of who she was. Her pain was excruciating, not entirely because of the cancer, but because of a surgery that cut off her tail bone. A surgery I and others encouraged. Afterwards, I heard her muffled cries into a pillow almost daily. And sometimes tears just materialized in her soft, pretty eyes.
She never complained. She never said, “I can’t take this, why me?, or I wish I’d die.” Never. Not the entire three years. She never even said she was afraid. In fact, when I complained that, “It’s just not fair.” She said, “Why is it not fair? Why not me?”
Are you serious? Who says things like that?
If you’ve ever prayed for someone you love to die, then you’ve seen horrible pain. I prayed that awful prayer. But, she didn’t die anytime soon. Towards the end, my brother and I tended her comatose body, never leaving her for even a minute as we changed shifts. And then one morning two nurses assured us they would stay with her while we had breakfast together for the first time in weeks. Thirty minutes later, she died. Without one of her children with her, she could die. Finally.
I was happy for her and so proud to be her daughter. Her legacy of love for God and for people had prevailed, even in the worst of circumstances. We were at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a long way from home. Many hospital personnel had become Mother’s friends. When her tortured breathing finally stopped, nurses, doctors, and others gathered in her room, no one doubting that the brave, lifeless woman before them had slipped into heaven. And we all cried together.
What my mother was to courageous and inspirational, I was to tortured and discouraged. Mother went to heaven, I stayed in hell.
I’d only been married two years when mother became sick. Up until then I had been living what I thought was the good life—chicly-dressed, somewhat well read, West Virginia bred, and at that time, very well-to-do. I always enjoyed a good time, but after mother died I sometimes drank with friends until I was so drunk I couldn’t remember the previous evening the next day. It seemed a good thing, forgetting the memory of her pain. A pain I was complicit in.
If losing mother to cancer wasn’t horribly sufficient to unglue me, Alan and I were in the throes of fighting for our financial lives. A recession had slammed the U.S. around the same time as Mother’s diagnosis, the early 1980s. The majority of our money was tied up in a public energy company Alan helped found and in his own consulting firm. Just weeks after mother’s casket had settled into the surrounding earth, energy markets that had already nosedived finally weighted their anchors to us. Alan tried to shield me from our personal meltdown, but it was impossible. Our small fortune plummeted.
We sold two houses and an airplane, all at significant loss. I was hospitalized twice for what was thought to be heart problems, but turned out to be anxiety. Personal bankruptcy wasn’t an option for my husband. “I made the debt, I’ll pay it back,” he said. More than once I tried to change his mind. Never has anyone worked so hard to dig his way out. But the harder he clawed, the further we slid. One lawyer asked why he was fighting so hard. He told him it was because it was all that he had. But it was as useless as fighting Mother’s cancer and almost as painful to watch.
Finally we lost our residence, Alan’s dream home. Personally, I hated the thing. It was cavernous, the planked ceilings running fourteen to twenty-eight feet in height with wooden beams, and four stone fireplaces. How many times had I prayed to get out of that house? It was like living in a ski lodge with no room service and floor to ceiling glass windows, made for throwing stones. Still, it was a roof over our heads. And it was the place where I had come to the end of myself, standing at the top of a lengthy driveway in the middle of the night, shaking my fists at heaven.
It was where I would have the experience.
Some people would call it a born-again experience, others might say I just found the Lord. My Grandmother Dinguess would declare, “Finally! Raise them up in the ways of the Lord and they’ll always come back to you.” I can still hear her spout that oft-quoted scripture.
Rest assured, I was raised up to know God. Sunday morning and night, Wednesday prayer meeting, and sometimes on Saturday—that’s how we did church some weeks when I was a child. In those days, God was preached as the ‘eye for an eye’ Loathing Lord of the Old Testament, regardless of the denomination, and we trotted to them all—Methodist, Southern Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Church of God, Church of Christ, and the occasional Pentecostal tent revival. My grandmother was usually the one taking me, and she didn’t discriminate. Mom and dad sometimes took me to the Episcopal Church, where I was sprinkled and confirmed. So, my spiritual life was as well-rounded as it was confusing.
All that hell, fire, and brimstone, coming at me at such a young age, was drowned out by partying in my twenties and early thirties. Still, sometimes I’d watch Brother Jimmy Swaggart, as he was called, on television. Some labeled him the Protestant Pope. He was first cousins with Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis and just as colorful. I loved watching him strut back and forth, swabbing his forehead, his voice rising and falling with the urgency of his message. After mother died, I’d cry and cry watching him. Finally I quit. That’s when I ended up at the top of the driveway.
Broke and broken, I wept and shook my fists at God in front of the house that would no longer shelter me, without a mother’s comfort. It was a week night and I was severely sober. I hit my knees and shouted an accusatory prayer. Sobbing. The same old outrage about mother—“How could you . . . ? Where were you . . . ? Why didn’t you . . .?” On and on . . . My mother had died and it was God’s fault. It had to be somebody’s.
And then it happened.
Something or Someone spoke to my soul, incredibly, above my sobbing outrage of whys—so strong, so real, so powerful. These are the words I heard: “It’s not your business.” I remember licking the salty tears from my lips, gasping, rubbing at my eyes with shaking hands, still on my knees, and feeling strangely okay.
“It’s not my business.” I remember saying it aloud, and knowing, knowing in my heart it was true. Jehovah God was telling me that something in His Very Big Universe had played out beyond my ability to reason, and I believed Him. Yes, she was my mother and the void she left was as big as the galaxy’s black hole. It wasn’t that she died at fifty five, although that would have been enough. It was that she was in such pain, muffling her cries with a pillow so I wouldn’t hear, never complaining, asking after others, always noticing a new dress, a pretty smile, or sad eyes. She touched so many lives with kindness and laughter.
“Oh, God,” I cried, “She didn’t die for nothing. There was a reason, a purpose.” I felt amazingly calm and empowered for the first time in . . . forever.
My mother’s life wasn’t over any more than Jesus’ was when he died on the cross. His death looked like history’s darkest hour: Mary, his mother, crying at the foot of the cross, His disciples scattering, disbelieving all the bad and good news Jesus had tried to convey. And yet, it wasn’t the last chapter in Jesus’ life; it was probably only chapter three out of a gazillion.
“Why not me?” my mother had asked. And yet the process of dying is scary. I think it was for mother. And I think it was for Jesus, too. They knew what they were facing. But, life’s end was bearable for they also knew where they were going.
Just like Jesus, my mother is still alive. She’s a spirit who lives in her dream house in heaven, where the sky forever surrounds her, probably traveling the galaxy, writing, something she always wanted to do. I think that’s a plausible scenario. I know I’ll see her again, and I know she completed her purpose, whatever that was. I never question it anymore.
In the years since Mother’s death and losing our home, I’ve had setbacks and I’ve had victories. I prayed to be more like mother and I am: I’m kinder, less judgmental, more empathetic. Even emotionally stronger. I also have more joy. Could it be the “have great joy through experiencing great pain” philosophy. The joy to hell scale, I call it. I don’t think so. More likely, joy came because I fell at the foot of the Cross.
The most remarkable thing I learned is that the spirit realm is real. We absolutely have a Savior and angels, but we also have an enemy, Satan. The Thief, as he is sometimes called, didn’t really care about stealing my stuff or even killing my mother, although he did a pretty good job. What he coveted, salivated over, schemed for, and perhaps killed for. . . was my faith. Had I forfeited my faith he would’ve stolen the thing that, other than Jesus, most connects me to the Father, the thing God most entrusted to me—my destiny.
“If you seek me you will find me, if you search for me with all your heart,” the Scripture says. I was seeking Him, through my pain, anger, confusion, depression, and faith deficit. And still, He was ever-present.
God’s revelation that night in the driveway transcended my human understanding. Mother’s death path He said was “none of my business.” In the natural world that sounds more like the Godfather than God the Father, but at that moment something unbelievable happened: my faith kicked in at about a hundred on a scale of one to ten. Somehow our Creator allowed me to grasp that He had a plan—not just for Naomi Cantees, but for all of us. Something amazing. Something I can’t imagine.
Our fifteen minutes on planet earth isn’t about us, really. It’s about our Savior, about what He did for us and what he wants us to do for each other.
Lose yourself and find your destiny, that’s what I discovered. That’s what Mother did. And that’s how you hold on in the worst of times. Entrust your life’s story to the world’s best-selling Author, your heavenly Father.
Next Month: The aftermath of financial chaos. The greatest miracle of my lifetime!