By Christine Ha
Becoming a Christian wasn’t easy. It took the suffering of someone closest to me to teach me that our lives here on earth are finite, and only through devotion to Jesus Christ can they become eternal.
I closed my bedroom door behind me and shut both her and the sorrow out.
When I was 13, my mother received a phone call from the doctor. A hacking cough had been plaguing her for several weeks, and she had been on endless doctors’ visits. While eavesdropping on her phone conversation, I heard her begin to cry. A million thoughts ran through my head since I had no idea what was happening. My mother soon hung up, and I immediately retreated to my room. Overwhelmed, I didn’t know how to handle her frantic state.
Once I composed myself, I confronted my mom. She was trying to be strong in my presence, but her voice wavered as she told me how her cough was due to a small but malignant tumor found in her lung. The doctor had just called to diagnose her with cancer. Everything suddenly seemed surreal, and I thought—hoped—it was all just a bad dream.
Unfortunately, the cancer was real. This shocked everyone, doctors included, given my mom’s healthy lifestyle. The doctors concluded the tumor could not be surgically removed because it was centrally located on her lung. Instead, my mom had to begin chemotherapy treatment. It was spring, and as flowers bloomed and nature awoke from its winter dormancy, my mom’s fight for life officially began.
The first adverse effect of chemo I noticed was her lethargy. She was no longer vibrant and often slept throughout the day. Hair loss came next. Weeks passed, and Mom’s hair thinned out until only stubble remained. I was extremely embarrassed of Mom’s appearance; even when she wore a wig, I dissociated myself from her around others. Mom’s sickly appearance, not her welfare, was what bothered me most. Looking back now, I often wonder how I could have been so shallow.
I frequently heard Mom crying alone in her room. Determined to uphold her composure, she often hid her bouts of depression from me, her only child. One afternoon, however, while my father was out, she approached me, sobbing for compassion. Bewildered and subsequently debilitated by disgust for my inability to sympathize, I became enraged by my mother’s weak mental state and coldly refused to acknowledge her desperation.
“If it wasn’t for you, I would kill myself,” she claimed. Being caught off guard only increased my agitation. Tears stung my eyes. Unsure of how to respond and as much as it hurt to hear this, I closed my bedroom door behind me and shut both her and the sorrow out. Mom never cried to me again, and I was relieved.
It was difficult for me to make sense of all that was happening during these times. I had grown up in a Buddhist home, but did not practice any form of religion and could not explain issues like life and death. Even so, I had learned about Jesus at an early age. My classmates had told me how God had sent us His only Son to die on the cross for our sins.
Although I didn’t fully understand this concept, the image was haunting enough for me to constantly nag my mother to appease me and embrace this love story between God and man. After several unsuccessful attempts as a young evangelist, I impatiently gave up, my faith fleeting. Without encouragement from my parents to seek God, Christian ideals quickly faded, and I lived my childhood ignorant of God’s grace.
Ironically, several months into her illness, Mom befriended a pastor who helped her gain a healthier perspective on life. He often visited, and in time, she trusted Jesus as her Savior. Christian pictures and the Holy Bible soon adorned her room.
Mom did not force her new beliefs on me but was happy I started attending church with my friend and her mother. Since Mom was preoccupied by her battle with cancer, the role of surrogate mother naturally fell to my best friend’s mother with whom I was spending all of my time, including Sunday morning services. The only time Mom spoke of God with me was when she casually asked me to pray for her healing. I agreed, glad to find an easy way to lend her support.
Months passed, and Mom’s hospital visits exceeded her time at home. It wasn’t long before Mom permanently moved into the intensive care unit. Her health had severely deteriorated, and constant medical care was needed. Plastic tubes pumped liquids through her body, which was quickly being consumed by cancer. Fluids constantly invaded her lungs, taxing her every breath, so a thick draining tube was inserted through her chest, leaving a massive puncture wound.
The cancer and its intense medication also damaged Mom’s cognition. She now functioned like a child, not recognizing her own family. Once, I entered her room, and she looked at me confused. Turning to my dad, she asked, “Son, who is that stranger?” She no longer called me her daughter, and to me, she was not Mom. Her mind and body had wasted away, devastated by the disease.
Her condition in the ICU quickly worsened to “very critical.” My heart ached when I saw my own mother kept alive by machines. Flakes of clotted blood floated out of her lungs through her chest tube. A tangle of wires monitored vital signs, and a thin tube fed her intravenously. Oral feedings had become impossible due to the restrictive respirator pipe in her throat. Mom’s breathing now depended on a plastic tube and a pump. It was hard to accept that a simple machine dictated her life. Amidst a maze of tubular tentacles, she looked like an alien. Fear and fury gripped me every time I walked into the room with her and the machines. Standing at the foot of her bed, I wanted to scream and break the accordion pump to pieces so I wouldn’t have to listen to its desolate, relentless motor. Instead, I only stood there, silently holding vigil.
One day, I was summoned by the school counselor. Leaving class, I prepared myself for the possible bad news. Surprisingly, my uncle was there to escort me out of school, saying only that we were visiting Mom. At least she is still alive, I thought, but quickly became uneasy at what was in store for me at the hospital. It was unbearably silent in the car. I stared out the window, wondering when the Moment was going to come—the Moment when my world would cave in and my life would change forever. Would this Moment happen today? Tomorrow? How long would I be absent from school? I busied myself with worries about the work I’d miss. Thinking about homework was much easier than thinking about the Moment.
We arrived at the hospital. Entering Mom’s room, I saw several people had flown in to visit. Some were crying. All looked worn. It fell quiet as I approached Mom’s bedside.
Mom’s eyes were closed. Her dry, cracked lips smeared with Vaseline were wrapped around the respirator tube. I could offer no solace to her and was suddenly overwhelmed with guilt. Seeing her on her deathbed, I finally realized the extent of her sufferings. All previous anguish washed away and was replaced by a surrendering sadness. I saw how meaningless it was to be angry and decided to instead make Mom’s last memories in this lifetime be of love and peace. It was at that Moment that I made the conscious decision to let go of my selfishness and take on the burden of grieving the loss of my mother. I realized I would rather lose her than see her hold on to another day like this.
I looked down at the heart monitor attached to her finger. Gently, I rubbed her hand and blinked back tears. Feeling my touch, Mom slightly opened her eyes and looked at me. She made no sound, but for the few seconds that we locked eyes, I knew she loved me and did not want to go, but this decision was God’s. All I could say in response to the words expressed by her eyes was, “I Love You, Mom. You can go.”
The nurses told my family that we should go home and rest since Mom looked stable that evening. Reluctantly, we all left.
Later that Later that night, the phone rang. It was the doctor offering her condolences. Mom had died. Commotion broke out at home. My aunts argued, claiming it was unwise to have left Mom when she was dying. Others said Mom probably didn’t want anyone to see her pass and that she only hung on long enough to see her only daughter one last time. Neither my dad nor I said anything. Shocked, I locked myself in my room.
I was now faced with the arduous task of grieving. For a long time, I was in denial. It wasn’t until I finally found God after extensive searching that I was able to begin healing. When I felt alone, He offered me refuge in His Word. When I didn’t think I could survive, He gave me hope and peace through intimate prayer and meditation. In the times I spent with Him, I could feel His comforting hand take hold of me like a warm blanket over my soul.
A moment is defined as “a minute portion or point of time.” Although it took years of self-reflection for me to fully accept Christ, it was the defining Moment my mother died that started me on my journey of spiritual freedom. It’s bittersweet irony that my mother, who originally rejected the notion of Jesus, was the one to finally bring me to Him. Dealing with her terminal illness made it the hardest year of my life, but this incident was needed to bring me salvation. My mother’s deep suffering taught me that only through Christ can I transcend all obstacles.
By the grace of God, I not only survived it, I became a pillar of faith and a living testimony of how He makes all things possible. In the end, I was made stronger. By welcoming my mom into His kingdom, God forever changed my life by showing me that He will never desert me even in the most tumultuous times. The cliché is true: God works in mysterious ways. Without challenges that stretch us, there is no growth or knowledge. With His mercy, greatness can come from hopelessness. For me, a worldly death begot eternal life.
(Christine Ha graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 and currently lives in Houston, Texas.)