When Your Mother Suffers

Long shadows stretched over the newly paved 178th St. near Shore Acres Drive in late July, and this meant the day was nearing its end. 

"Don’t you think you should be getting home by now?" he smiled.

We’d been discussing my mother’s arrival after a long trip. She should be home by now, and I should be home to see her. 

Late July in Grand Haven as a budding youngster means rising out of bed some time in the mid to late morning, with the sun streaming through the windows, offering light and life to the cave of slumber now faded with the flood of dawn. Then, it’s grabbing a piece of fruit and getting a run-and-jump start on a BMX bike, hitting the trails, swinging on vines in the hills, and taking the raft out on Lake Michigan on days where you can see the bottom from thirty feet up, and the sand ripples together in wavy, congruent lines like the rings of sawn tree stumps. 

Late July in Grand Haven means riding all day, all over town, never caring for a bite to eat, because, “Who has time to eat?” Late July in Grand Haven means folks go on vacation, and maybe your mom goes to visit relatives in Chicago or some other big city. 

That was 1985. Late July in Grand Haven.

"Your mother’s been in an accident."

"Is it bad?"

"Yes. Go take a shower; we need to go to Indianapolis."

Indianapolis? How did Mom end up there?

The Crash

Mom lives at Sanctuary on the Shore, a nursing home only a mile or two from where I grew up. She’s in a wheelchair, and has only one leg. Her brain is damaged, she has diabetes insipidus, and suffers with bipolar as well. (As long as she’s on her medication, she’s “alright.”) There’s been some serious weight-gain over the years, sitting in that wheel chair and eating chips. Her favorite? Diet Coke with a ton of ice in the glass. 

You know something? She was more beautiful than Barbara Streisand in her hey-day.  But it was the accident when she was 40 which served as the progenitor of her demise, and it was the accident that killed another Mommy who had four children of her own. 

"I remember seeing headlights," she told me a couple years ago. That was news to me.  I had always thought she didn’t remember. Huh. What do I remember? Seeing my mom in a hospital bed in Indiana hooked up to tubes and machines pumping life into her, and the shock I felt in looking at her swollen, black and blue and yellow face, and at her bloated, bruised body; and then her lifeless eyes open like a dead cow’s, she rolls her head toward me, fixing her gaze upon me. Her body heaves up and down under the will of the machines’ beeps and sighs. Mom? Her head turns away as her eyes close.  

This morning we were asked, “So, what are the issues that bother you when we talk about predestination?” (We’re studying Romans in church.)  I have a couple: If all things are under God’s eternal decree and command, how is God not the author of sin and evil?  If God knows the future, how do humans make free choices? 

The sovereign power of God as it relates to how things work in the world, especially regarding suffering and evil is a mystery, obviously (duh). Some get around it by denying omniscience (Cicero and Open Theists). Some deny free will (many—not all—Augustinians and Calvinists). Some affirm both (compatibilists). Some don’t bother about it at all because it makes the head swim (pragmatists). Some try to resolve it with modal logic (scholastics and analytics). Others deny Christ because of it (apostates and rebels).      

"Don’t you think you should be heading home by now?" That was John. He was older—in his 20’s, and he smiled at me through his John Lennon specs. His feathered hair wore like a kind and gentle hat.  

"My mom went to visit my gramma a few days ago. She left this morning to come back."

"She’s not home yet?"


"Where’d she go?"


"And she left this morning?"


"And she’s not home yet?"


"You’re mom should be home by now." 


"Don’t you think you should be heading home by now?"

Pedals pushed hard in gyroscopic fear on that BMX bike, with a huffed and puffed worried flash to home. He’s right. My mom should be home by now.    

There’s my dad, on the phone with the police, his head on the freezer door. Now he’s talking with my mom’s parents, and he’s leaning against the wall, face in.  

"She left long ago," they said. 

That’s when I grab the little golden cross from my bedroom and start rubbing it between my fingers and thumb. Something to provide solace. Or maybe good luck.  Maybe an answered prayer. Never really prayed before, and not sure I know how to. The stars are out now, and it’s dark all over. Where’s my mom?

Hope Trumps Evil

How that does indeed fit with the predestination of God? “He comforts us as we comfort others with the comfort we receive from him” (2 Corinthians 1:4). That’s a perfect circle if there ever was one. But does he actually send the pain, only in order to comfort us through it? Odd. But is he not in control of all things, as surely that nothing happens by chance? 

Hard to figure out. Sailing between the Charybdis of determinism and the Scylla of human autonomy … not sure how to do it at this point.  

Just now, my daughter shows me a leaf with a flower attached to it. She’s written on it, too. “I’m making a card for Jade. She’s vomiting really hard.” My daughters (8 & 6) came home from church today to find out that one of the neighbor girls next door is sick. So they decided to make some cards for her.  

They took green leaves from the trees and put flowers on them, and wrote her little notes on the leaves. “I hope you get well soon.” Signed, “Nylah.”  

"Hope" was missing the "e" and instead had a macron (long-vowel marking) over the "o."  Interesting. She’s bringing someone some comfort, because she has been given comfort by God. How did they get the flowers to stick on the leaves? God, I love my daughters. 

Mom’s speech is usually slurred due to her medication and normally, she “doesn’t feel well.” That’s been the story for 20 years. Just now, she told me she woke up this morning and said to the Lord Jesus that she was ready for whatever he gave her today—whether to stay there in that place, or to throw off the garment of this temporal body and wait for the resurrection. 

"Whatever the Lord wants, Chris," is what she told me. I’m 41. How would I like to live the next 30 years the way my mother has lived hers?  God, no. It’s what philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams calls "Horrendous Evil." 

Horrendous evil is evil that happens to someone that renders their life meaningless or simply unable to live. 

One example of horrendous evil is knowing that you are personally responsible for the death or disfigurement of a loved one. Or maybe it’s being responsible for the death of someone else’s loved one and then suffering mental and bodily damage to the point of being made inoperative in most of life. Or maybe it’s being 13 years old and having this happen to your mom. Our hometown newspaper reported that she had been found naked. Naked. What? How? 

On the other hand, Adams says that such evil is capable of being “engulfed” and “defeated” by the love and power of God, because of his overwhelming presence. This seems to push off the “problem of suffering” to the next life, so I’m not sure how that helps us here and now. 

Still, knowing that Christ was tortured means that when we suffer, we are suffering with him and he with us. And perhaps the knowledge of the beatific vision (presence of God in the next life) aids us in coping with evil here and now. And maybe a get well card made by a little girl from a tree and a flower is a little way of defeating the evil, bit by bit.  Maybe with every good deed, every act of kindness, every act of forgiveness and reconciliation, there is the defeat of evil: with every act of faith.  

In His Hands

It’s raining outside, and it’s a real downpour, like liquid spikes made of crystal. Steady rain on a Sunday brings the soul into restorative sleep, and my mom’s response is the restorative rain of faith: trusting the Lord for good or for ill.

"My life is in your hands," she told the Lord this morning. That’s what she told me, in her crackling, slurred voice, her 68-year-old voice. 

"Honey, I told him, ‘Lord, my life is in your hands.’ Are you there? Honey? Hello?"

"Yeah, Mom. I’m here. I’m just listening to you." 

Her faith leaves me numb and speechless. It’s not a bad kind of numb, but a good kind. Still, I can only listen at this point.

So, my mother is comforted by the Lord and the little Vietnamese girl next door is comforted by my daughters, and I am comforted by the downpour of rain outside and by my mother’s faith. It’s an act of the will to have the faith that is comforted by these things, and it’s something that is like a buoy, keeping us afloat, as we await the rescue ship, for surely it is coming, and we must hold on. 

*Read more from my friend Chris at his blog. It’s here …  

Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.