Memories That Won’t Go Away
By Matt Humphries
It was a typical Friday afternoon at the Humphries’ house in Saigon, Vietnam. Mary Humphries was busy in the kitchen cooking and getting ready for her guests that evening. She made sure the ribs were cooked just right, the green beans were properly seasoned, the top of the bread was brown but not too brown, and that there was enough cherry pie to feed a small army. And before too long, a “small army” did arrive—approximately 90 American servicemen and women who were fighting in a war far from home and who looked forward to a homecooked meal every Friday night that Mary and other women from the Vietnam Baptist Mission helped prepare. There was heartfelt sharing at these Friday Night Fellowships, a great deal of laughter and often tears.
Mary and her husband, Jim, had answered God’s call to foreign missions, and in the summer of 1966 arrived in Saigon, along with their three children, ranging in age from 7 months to 8 years. Jim pastored Trinity Baptist Church, whose members were about 95% military people stationed in and around Saigon. Jim preached the gospel and served as encourager and counselor to many of the men who served in the war. Mary served alongside Jim, fully his partner, as they provided the spiritual food of God’s Word and offered words of comfort or encouragement during some difficult days of the war. Mary was always seen singing in the choir and teaching children of missionaries and expatriates in Sunday school.
This Mary was my mom, and these are precious memories I have as a young boy growing up during the six years our family lived in Vietnam. Mom was born in Springdale, Arkansas, on May 10, 1933. She graduated with honors from the University of Arkansas with a degree in home economics. Soon after getting a job teaching in Lubbock, Texas, she met my dad. Shortly after they married, Dad felt called into the ministry. They moved to Fort Worth, Texas, for Dad to attend seminary while Mom taught home economics in middle school to support them during this time.
Throughout Mom’s life and ministry, she was known for several things. Everyone who ever ate a meal at the Humphries’ house would testify that Mom was an outstanding cook. Her cooking drew people to our home and to Wednesday night suppers at the churches Dad pastored.
Mom was also known for her wisdom. Reading the Bible was part of her daily routine, so people would come to her with their problems, and she would counsel them from her experience and from God’s Word. When people questioned how she could have taken her young children to a country like Vietnam with a war going on, her response was always that it was safer to be in God’s will. She entrusted her family into God’s hand. I remember times when mortars or small rockets would hit the city of Saigon near our house, and the explosions would shake our windows. Mom and Dad would take us kids downstairs and put mattresses over us in case our house was hit! Mom was always calm, assuring us and praying.
Mom longed for people all over the world to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior, as she did. After our family returned to the States, Mom became active in the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU), an organization that supports missionaries around the world by enlisting prayer support and educating local churches about missions. Mom dove into this task with great enthusiasm, as she did most things. She loved educating church members about the vital importance of missions in the Christian life. Serving as president of the Texas WMU for two years was truly a labor of love, for it fit Mom’s personality well. She was able to communicate her heart’s desire that people around the world know and experience the saving, redeeming love of Jesus Christ.
The Beginning Signs
Around nine years ago, some changes started to occur in this smart, attractive, and fun person that we all loved and had depended on down through the years. At that time, my wife Stella and I and our two children were living in East Asia. I was a medical doctor, and we were serving as missionaries with the same mission board my parents had served under. To keep up with our stateside family, we made frequent phone calls. Talks with Mom were special, as we would chat about things going on in our daily lives. But now, Mom began telling me things she had told me just a few days before. Sometimes, she would get confused. My brother and sister told me that Mom was having trouble with her memory, and I recognized the signs—the beginning, slow, onslaught of Alzheimer’s.
Three years later, my family returned to the U.S. and settled in Tyler, Texas, where my parents lived, as did my brother, Mark, and his family. Mom and Dad were still living at home, and it was still a happy place. Mom was often misplacing things and spending a lot of time looking for her keys and glasses. Always a good driver—sometimes reminding us of her excellent driving record: “I have never gotten a ticket”—she began getting anxious while driving and was much less confident than before. Once she was driving and hit another car with the left front part of her car. We got the car fixed and about two minutes after leaving the repair shop, I got a call from Mom. She had had another accident with a dent in the exact same place that had just been fixed! After that, she did not drive again.
Faith and Fading Memory
As Mom’s memory continued to decline, her doctor confirmed that she had what we all suspected—Alzheimer’s disease. Things that Mom could do naturally before, now became stressful to her. Planning and preparing a meal and going to the grocery store caused anxiety as she would get lost in the grocery store and forget what she was shopping for. During this time, my father was also ill, having episodes of fever with no strength for several days. So, Mom and Dad moved into an independent living facility in Tyler. Mom was very happy about this, as she no longer needed to shop and prepare meals, and there were activities in this facility that she could be involved in. She loved to share Bible verses with other residents, and everyone seemed to love her. On Sundays, we would pick her and Dad up and take them to church, which they both really enjoyed because they could visit with their friends.
After two years, when Dad’s health declined to the point they needed assisted living, they had to move. With fewer activities at the new facility, it was harder on Mom. Her memory had declined some, but her cheerful personality remained the same. She had always been a walker, and walking seemed to help relieve her anxiety. She would walk many times around the building both outside and in the halls and was known as “the lady who walks.”
Six months before my father passed away, both Mom and Dad moved into a memory care unit. Mom seemed less anxious when she was near Dad. So much of her life had been devoted to serving alongside my father, and in his later years, taking care of him. The night the hospice nurse called to tell me that Dad had passed away, I told Mom and she looked sad, but was calm. I will always remember her lovingly looking at Dad and then tenderly kissing him goodbye on his forehead. She had been his lifelong partner and was truly devoted to him for as long as he lived.
Losing her life partner was not easy for Mom, although by this time her memory was not good. When we came to visit her, she would often ask where Dad was. With her memory failing more, and with Dad gone, her anxiety began to increase, especially in the evening hours. She still walked, but she often needed anxiety medication. Though Mom’s memory was failing, her faith remained strong. When any of the nurses or aides seemed worried about something, Mom would quote Philippians 4:6–7 to them: “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Later, when Mom became anxious, one of the nurses or aides would quote this verse back to her. It was amazing that in the months near her death, when Mom could not remember what she told us 30 seconds before, she could quote the 23rd Psalm confidently and rapidly without making a single mistake.
Music had been a big part of Mom’s life, and it was a great comfort to her up to the very end. My sister, Tracy, would often play the piano, and Mom and other residents of the memory care unit would gather around and enthusiastically sing old hymns such as “The Old Rugged Cross,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Because He Lives,” and “Victory in Jesus.” Dad had loved to sing these songs too.
The Pandemic Changed Everything
About six months after Dad passed away, a new challenge struck that has affected countless lives across America and the world—the COVID pandemic. Before COVID, my siblings and I and our families would frequently visit Mom. With COVID came restrictions so that we could not go into the assisted living facility to visit her. We could stand outside the fence of the facility, wearing a mask and keeping a distance, and see her when she came out to the back yard of the facility. After moving into memory care, one of the residents got COVID, and we could not see Mom at all. She would sometimes have to stay in her room and was not able to even walk in the halls of the facility. We got phone calls about her increasing anxiety and agitation from the staff, and we got many phone calls from Mom! She had her cell phone, and there were many days when she would repeatedly call one of us and repeat the same things she had told us just a minute earlier. Sometimes when she called, she was frightened and said that people were out to get her. She was upset, and we could not go into the facility and comfort her or even see her! This was a very difficult time for her and for us. Even today, it brings tears to my eyes.
Another move for Mom turned out to be a great blessing. Tracy was working with several assisted living facilities in Denton, Texas, that had memory care units, and she got permission to move Mom to one of the facilities there. Since Tracy worked for them, she could visit Mom almost every day, and there were quite a few activities for the residents. Initially, Mom seemed traumatized from the isolation she had suffered, but after several weeks, she seemed a lot happier, especially getting to see Tracy often.
For several months things were going well, but Mom’s Alzheimer’s began to progress more rapidly, and we started seeing some pretty big changes. She could always recognize us up until the end of her life, for which we were very thankful, but she could not remember much else. She became more anxious and near the end of her life would walk up and down the hall repeatedly saying “Help, help!” One week before she passed away, she told her nurse that she was ready to see Jesus. She had a stroke a couple of days later and rapidly declined after that. She became more unresponsive, and a few days later passed away.
Mark was working in the Dallas area during the last few days of Mom’s life, so he was able to visit her every day. Tracy was there with her the entire time until she died. My family and I came to Denton on the day she eventually passed away. She was being kept comfortable by meds given by the hospice nurse. We spent some time with her, and I was able to pray with her one last time. Not long after that, she went to be with the Lord and to be reunited with my father.
Mom’s funeral service was indeed a celebration of her life and all that the Lord had done for her and for all of us. Missionaries who served with us in Vietnam were there. Women she worked with in the Texas WMU were there. Family, friends, and church members were there. A good friend of ours, who is Vietnamese, spoke at the funeral. He said that if Mom and Dad had not answered the call of God to go to Vietnam, he and his family may not have become Christians. They may not have moved to America, where they have lived for many years and raised their families. Today they are active members in a Vietnamese church in Houston.
I am so thankful that my parents loved God above all else. They obeyed Him, and loved each other, their family, and others with the kind of love that only comes from God. May we follow their footsteps which lead to Jesus. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).