By Bruce Freshley
I’m way too driven and self absorbed to see all of the little things God’s doing around me constantly. No, He has to knock me over the head to get my attention. I am a stubborn, hardheaded man of faith. That faith had me often butting heads with my mother over the years when it came to my sometimes awkward but always passionately expressed love for Christ.
My mother, Jean Freshley, was not a religious person. She was a prove-it-to-me skeptic when it came to matters of faith. If she could not see it, touch it, or read about it in some “informed book”…she rejected it.
While my father never missed a Sunday at First Methodist Church in Athens, Georgia, singing in the choir for most of his 90-plus years, my mother rarely went, especially later in life. She simply could not buy into all that low brow, ignorant, literal interpretation of Christian faith stuff. You didn’t get preachy with Jean Freshley.
For Mom, education was everything. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from North Central College, earned her Master’s of Education, and was a teacher all her professional life. As an academic, she simply could not buy into the stories throughout the Bible and, worse still, all those sheep in the pews who lapped up whatever the preacher was serving on Sunday morning.
While my mother was not an active Christian, she acknowledged the existence of God and Christ. Yet I don’t recall her leading a single prayer at the dinner table; my father always did the blessing of the food. If Mom prayed at all, it was a private thing. My brand of faith was more traditional than my mom’s, and we had plenty of interesting conversations when I was in my “evangelical” youth.
NO SINGLE PATH VS. SAVED IN JESUS
In later years, we butted heads on faith again after Mom gravitated toward contemporary thinking within the Episcopal Church. In following the teachings of more liberal theologians such as Bishop John “Jack” Spong, my mother told me that she believed that the evangelicals (like me) have the Bible and Christ all wrong! God is simply love, and love is in all of us. There’s no single right way, no single path, there are many ways to be “one with the Creator”. There is no sin except hate, etc, etc, etc.
Try as I might, I could not get through to her the concept of a personal, intimate relationship with the living Christ. That God does not come into one’s life until you ask Him in. That this intimate relationship with each of us was the whole reason for Christ’s divine birth, life, death, and resurrection…and for our own very creation.
It bothered me that we could not find common ground. I was unable to convince her to see things my way, and eventually, the time began to run out for the opportunity.
In the Spring of 2014, my mom was fighting cancer. I talked with her often by phone and, when I visited from my home near Charleston, S.C., I tried to bring up faith in a soft way. I prayed with her, but we certainly did not debate theology. At this point, Mom was dying, and there was nothing I could do about it except to love her and pray with her.
Just two years before, my only sister Dina had died of cancer. Now Mom was now being slain by the same hellish beast that had claimed her daughter. Mom had fought the battle with and for Dina, day after day, month after month. There is a powerful bond between mother and daughter.
It was almost as if she took on Dina’s fight as her own.
Watching her beautiful, vivacious Dina shrink up, suffer, and die — practically in her arms — was simply too much for Mom to bear. I have no doubt that this stress led to her own cancer. And while Mom approached her cancer battle with fierce determination to beat it, I almost felt as though she was trying to bear the same cross Dina had, suffer what she had suffered, knowing the outcome would likely be the same.
MOMMA IS WITH DINA NOW
When Mom died on June 11th, 2014, I was not there. There was no gathering around the hospital bed to say final goodbyes, just a phone call from my older brother, Phil, and his cracked voice saying, “She’s gone Bruce, Momma is gone…no more pain…she’s with Dina now.”
The heartbreak and anguish welled up inside me; the the tears came flowing down. My knees buckled. I sat down and sobbed at the finality of it all. You try and prepare yourself for this moment because you know it’s inevitable, but you’re still angry because it seems so unfair. It’s all such a damn waste.
Why God? Why cancer? Why my mother? And then the most terrifying question of all as I thought, Is she with you, God? Is my mother in Heaven?
Given my mother’s untraditional approach to faith, I was unable to comfort myself with the certainty that she was with God. Even more terrifying, would I really want to go to a place called Heaven and find my mother not there? That would be hell wouldn’t it, to be torn from the mother you love for all eternity?
“God, please help me with this,” I pleaded in a silent prayer. “I know you love her. I know you love me…but I know the rules…or do I?”
I was done, emotionally and mentally drained. There was only one thing I could do now…rest in my faith in God and in the love of my dear savior, Jesus Christ. I leaned into this to get me through the next several days when we needed to have a fitting ceremony for Mom. I did not want to express my personal doubts and anguish about where my mother’s soul may or may not have gone.
Back in Athens, Mom’s memorial service was a grand affair with hundreds of friends and family, her fellow teachers and students. Even many from her old Adult Forum Sunday school class at First Methodist came, a class she had not actually attended in years. My brother and I both gave eulogies and that was huge for me, to be able to proclaim my mother as she was to us, not as the outside world may have seen her. I wanted them to know the depth of both her character and her heart…a heart many had not seen.
It was cathartic. My father, too, held up well, and it was so fortifying for him to see this outpouring of love for his beloved Jean. At the reception afterward, a lady from that Adult Forum class commented to me that she could always count on my mom to ask the tough questions in class, questions that sometimes went unanswered. That was my mom, always pushing for the truth.
Days and weeks passed, and little by little, the loss hurt less and less, but the tormenting questions still remained. I threw myself back into life, business, and family with my wife, Martha, raising our four teenagers, now mostly grown up.
EASTER AT MOM’S GRAVESIDE
But the pain of the loss resurfaced almost a year later as Easter rolled around in the spring of 2015; we still needed to make arrangements for the final placement of my mother’s ashes, and my brother and his wife invited all of us back to Athens to lay the ashes to rest and have a family graveside gathering, for one last formal goodbye.
Easter and its promise of eternal life seemed the perfect time, and yet, there was that doubt again, nagging at my heart. An Easter graveside memorial for Mom. On one hand it seemed perfect; on the other, it felt like a cruel joke. We agreed to the plan.
That afternoon, the spring sun was hot and bright. Rather than feeling warmed by it, I felt like it was a hot spotlight adding to our awkward discomfort in our formal Easter Sunday attire. We all gathered around the shiny new granite marker surrounded by freshly turned red Georgia clay. My mom hated that hard, red clay. Every spring, she would complain that you couldn’t grow anything in it.
In some ways, it still felt wrong that my mom’s life was over. I could hardly look at the grave stone…I don’t even remember what it says. I was just getting madder. I don’t remember who spoke. I think my brother Phil said a few words, then someone else…I knew that I could not trust myself to speak.
I was mad. Mad at Mom for dying, and mad at God for not answering my many passionate prayers. There were still just too many unanswered questions. I wanted so badly to cry out with just the right words, to anoint this moment with some soothing passage of scripture that would honor my mother’s amazing life, comfort my gathered family and glorify my Lord…and yet, there simply were none. Only questions.
IT’S EASTER…I WANT LAMB
After a few awkward moments, we all turned and walked like zombies back to our cars to follow my brother Phil and his wife, Marilee, to Easter dinner at a restaurant she had picked for this occasion. A couple of weeks before when Marilee and Martha had been on the phone planning the Easter activities, Martha had asked if I had any dining preferences, knowing that I would likely be the hardest to please.
I shouted from the sofa, “Yes, by God, it’s Easter…I want lamb!”
We always have lamb on Easter in our home, but I suddenly realized I was being my usual overbearing self and said, “Well, that would be awesome, if we could… but at least let’s go somewhere nice.”
I could hear Marilee chuckle on the other end of the line, knowing her brother-in-law all too well and saying, “Well…I’ll see what I can do.” And that was that.
Now I realized I was getting hungry as we drove in our caravan out of Athens and across Oconee County toward Watkinsville, No one talked much in the car, at least I don’t remember any conversation, only the one in my head… and my throbbing headache. I tried to turn my thoughts to a happier subject, such as the dinner ahead, but the fear, the anger, and the pain just kept pushing out everything else.
I remember telling myself, Damn it, just get ahold of yourself. You’re ruining this day, and it’s not about you!
I looked over at Martha, took her hand and tried to change my attitude, thinking of my father, our family, and the gathering ahead. Before long, we had arrived at the small bistro called Chops & Hops. As we walked in the front door, we saw a big chalkboard behind the hostess stand with this greeting: Today’s Special… Roast Lamb.
I smiled for the first time. Thank you Lord, I thought. I turned to Marilee, pointing to the sign and saying, “Did you know?”
She replied in amazement, “No…I had no idea. I just thought you would like this place!” I do love my sister-in-law.
SUDDENLY ALERT AND ALIVE
There were about eleven of us, and we all gathered around a big, long table in the middle of the restaurant. As we looked at the menus, I, having obviously already made up my dinner selection, looked around the place. There were very few people in there, maybe only five other tables. It was a quiet Easter Sunday in a quaint little town. We practically had the place to ourselves. That is when I started to feel suddenly alert and alive, inordinately aware of all around me and oddly — at peace.
Another one of the patrons, an older, distinguished gentleman, approached our table and walked up to my dad. He reached out his hand to my father and said, “Dwight, I’m so, so sorry about Jean. You know how fond of her we were.”
My father, delighted, grasped this gentleman’s hand with both of his and said, “Bob Reeves, by golly, my old friend… it’s so good to see you!”
As they bantered back and forth, chatting about old times, I heard and understood very clearly a message in my soul: ”Bruce, listen carefully…watch what I am about to do.”
It wasn’t some booming God voice, but the unmistakable awareness that I was suddenly experiencing events around me from a perspective that could not be my own. I suddenly realized what was happening before me was not by chance. Dr. Reeves had been a fellow professor at the University of Georgia with Dad and, as he explained to those of us on Dad’s end of this long table, Mom had actually taught the Reeves’ two children when she was a teacher at Oconee Middle School.
Dr. Reeves turned to the entire table and said, “I don’t know if you kids realize what a truly special woman your mother was…I mean as a teacher. She taught both Alex and Kari in English and literature, and it was she who gave both of them a true love for reading and writing. She was that spark, your mom was, that great teacher who changes lives. Alex went on to graduate with honors and attend medical school and Kari…why, she has such a passion for writing she’s just published her own book!”
We were all a bit surprised. Much of Mom’s teaching years were later in life, after most of us had left the nest. Dr. Reeves then wished us all well and said, “I just had to come over and tell you all what your mom means to us…enjoy your Easter dinner.”
With that, he returned to his table on the other side of the restaurant, out of view. I settled back in my chair to take in what had just transpired.
“Wow,” I thought, I had no idea. I knew about the Reeves kids, though I had forgotten their names. Mom used to talk about them occasionally as a two of her favorite students, but I never paid much attention. And a book? Kari Reeves wrote a book? I knew for a fact that my mother never knew anything about that.
Dinner was served, and we all enjoyed a suddenly cheerful meal together; Dr. Reeves’s kind, heartfelt words had been an unexpected tonic for all of our hearts. Oh, and the lamb was excellent, thank you.
But my thoughts soon went back to that book. As if on cue, a tall, beautiful young woman in her early thirties was soon approaching our table. She carried herself with poise and grace as she smiled warmly and headed straight over to Dad.
Time seemed to slow down; I felt a hyper sense of awareness, and of God’s presence. My mind was as clear as a bell as I heard in my spirit: “Bruce…watch, son… listen…watch what I am about to do.”
As the young woman stopped at our table, both my father and I stood up to greet her. It was Kari Reeves. She reached out to shake my father’s hand.
”I just had to come over before you leave,” she said, “and tell you just how much Mrs. Freshley meant to me.”
MOM’S SECRET LEGACY
As I listened intently, Kari told Dad how she had gone on to college and followed her passion, ballet, ending up at Juilliard as one of the nation’s premier ballerinas. That ballet career had ended with a leg injury, so she was now working in the arts in New York City, and she had just published a book.
“Dr. Freshley,” Kari explained softly, looking directly into his eyes, “the book has been life changing for me, and it never would have happened without Mrs. Freshley’s belief in my ability and her encouragement to be a writer all those years ago. Without her, I never would have written it.”
With that, they embraced; I could see Dad was deeply moved. She stepped aside as her father Dr. Reeves re-approached the table for one last goodbye. My head was spinning. I reached out and touched Kari’s arm.
“Kari,” I replied, after introducing myself, “tell me about your book.” Somehow I knew full well that the next words were why I was here in this place, at this time, and I clearly wasn’t in charge of any of it.
“It’s called Canyon Road, and it’s a book of poetry,” she paused, then corrected herself. “More like prayers really. It’s a book of prayers, written in a longer, poetic form, almost like Psalms.”
“Yes,” she replied with a knowing smile. I could feel God’s presence surrounding us. I could feel His joy and delight. “I have a ministry now in New York, reaching out to the arts community in the city. From a poetry-literary approach, I find I’m able to reach people who would otherwise not be open to God’s word. It’s been the greatest joy in my life.”
She went on to explain that she was sponsored by a church in Mt. Pleasant — a church that is right in my own neighborhood. I was reeling and overwhelmed. I could feel God’s love pouring over me and heard His inner voice, “I am all around you, son…always.”
Before she left, I gave her a big hug and asked her to send me a copy of her book. When Kari left, I sat in my chair, stunned, silently talking to God: How was this possible? How was it that my mother’s passion for teaching English to this young lady more than a decade ago had somehow resulted in a book of prayer? My mother, the literalist, the skeptic, the religious wanderer, had inspired a book of praise for you, Almighty God? And now that book was being used as a backbone of a ministry to reach others!
His voice now was unmistakable: “Bruce, I waste nothing. I waste no one. I do all things to my glory.”
I was swimming in His words as they flooded through my head. Wisdom, joy, and love poured over my soul as everything suddenly became clear to me.
“My plan is too big for you to see, but my hand is in all things, and I do all things to my glory.” There it was again…all things to my glory. This was always His plan. We are ALL part of His plan. Just because we don’t understand, just because we are hurt, angry, or frustrated with the cards we are dealt, does not mean we are not intimately a part of God’s glorious journey. Tears welled up in my eyes as I realized the stunning truth…
“Your mother is here, with me, Bruce; she is here in my arms, and you will be together again.”
Suddenly the anger and fear I had felt so strongly at Mom’s graveside washed away; it was like being born again. I could feel the love of my mom’s soul smiling down upon me from Heaven, basking in the love and presence of God, knowing that I now knew the truth. The same truth that she now knows. Once you give your life to Christ, wherever you may meander, you are still His forever.
We are all flawed. We are all literalists, skeptics, and religious wanderers. We are all stubborn and hardheaded people of faltering faith. Some of us try and deny our faith, but we’ll fail at that too. We are all human, born into sin. It is our birthright. But God has a plan for each of us, one grander and more magnificent then we can ever comprehend, and He is always working on it.
“I waste nothing. I waste no one. I do all things to my glory.”