My mother was dying, and I went for a run.
She was in her second year of stage 4 breast cancer, and doctors had just discovered the cancer had spread to her brain.
She also had bipolar disorder, which at the time was causing her to cycle in between periods of euphoric mania and catatonic depression. I was visiting from out of town, trying to help my dad care for her.
In a moment of overwhelm, I decided to take a run through the neighborhood park, at dusk, to let the stress roll off me.
When I reached a stone picnic table, nestled under a grove of trees, I stopped to stretch.
There is something about being alone in nature, even if it’s just a city park, that calls the truth out of you.
And you can’t run from it.
I looked up at the first emerging stars of the evening, and felt the wind on my skin — heard it moving through the leaves, and I knew it was time for my mother to die.
I didn’t have to say or even think it. The truth was just there.
I knew it wasn’t fair that she developed cancer, and I wanted more than anything for her to be healthy again, but it had gone too far. Cancer had sucked the life out of her, and now it wasn’t fair that she had to continue suffering.
Staring up at the sky, I felt compelled to speak to my grandmother — my mother’s mother, who had passed away over 10 years prior.
It’s time, I told her. Please. Come and get her, and bring her home.
Being the skeptic that I am, I threw in one last request: Please, let me know that you heard my prayer.
Prayer is a funny sort of thing for an agnostic to do. It comes with all sorts of disclaimers and feelings of uncertainty and sheepishness.
So of course, I immediately followed that request with a silent: Actually, don’t worry about that last part.
Having been raised with a Christian upbringing, I knew that you are not supposed to put the Lord God to the test. My current agnosticism aside, why take a chance?
But human brains are also funny things, and you can’t effectively control what they do. So my brain decided on its own, that yes, it will need a sign that my prayer was heard, and that it should come in the form of an item that belonged to my Grandmother.
And because my brain had the privilege of knowing that my Grandmother’s possessions are very scant, and none that I know of have been seen around my parent’s house in recent years, it thought this would be adequate proof of divine intervention.
As I walked home, I apologized to God for my brain’s disrespect and assured Him: Again, do not worry about that last part.
By the time I’d gotten home and showered, I’d mostly forgotten about the prayer. My mother was in a manic phase, which, although disturbing, was welcome break from the crippling depression.
I was settling in to watch some TV when she rushed up to me excitedly, holding an old, worn leather satchel.
“Ivy, have you seen this?”
“No,” I replied.
Holding it with both hands, thrusting it into my view, she opened it to reveal a small bundle of old acrylic paints, and wooden paint brushes.
“This was my mother’s art bag!” She exclaimed.
Everything she said after that faded into the background while I started down at the bag that was so forcefully pushed in front of my face.
My logical mind leaped into action. I had no idea this bag existed. The only items I knew of that belonged to my Grandmother were her scrapbook, which I knew was tucked away somewhere in the attic, and her wedding ring, which was on my finger.
Okay, touché Grandma.
Despite my persistent doubts that it still could have been a coincidence, I went ahead and took comfort in the idea that she’d heard me. But would she make good on her promise?
A few weeks later, I was back in town because things had gotten worse. My mom was stumbling and falling frequently due to the brain tumors, and her mental state had declined significantly.
She was suffering from severe depression, and dementia-like symptoms, brought on by the tumors.
I decided to drive her to a nearby outdoor mall that she loved to go to. I helped her in and out of my car, and held her steady as we walked to get coffee, something she always enjoyed. I hoped maybe it would snap her out of her mental fog.
We sat next to each other on a bench, sharing a cup of coffee and feeling the late summer breeze. We were quiet for several minutes, when she spoke:
“My mother came for me last night.” She said.
I was startled by her words, especially because she’d said nothing in the entire hour we’d been out together.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“She came for me.”
“Where you dreaming, or awake?” I asked.
“Awake,” she replied, “Just laying in bed, looking at the ceiling.”
This was something she did for hours on end during her depressive phases.
“Was it her whole body, or just her face?” I asked.
“It was her whole body.”
She paused for a moment, and then said:
“My mother sat down beside me, and I felt her love.”
I was speechless. I’d read a great deal about near death experiences, and knew it was common to see and feel comforted by loved ones. I think this is why I reached out to my Grandmother originally — I knew that if anyone would greet my mother in the afterlife, it would be her.
This was also quite shocking, considering my mom had been in such a state of mental decline for the past week, that she hadn’t said much at all, and what she did say was mostly incoherent.
I was also struck by the wording she used.
Not, “My mother came to me,” but “My mother came for me.”
Several weeks later, my mom went into hospice and passed away.
This coming September, it will be 4 years since she’s passed. I’d love to say I’m 100 percent certain she’s in heaven, but I still cannot. Even after these experiences that some would call blatant signs from God.
An agnostic since the age of about 13, and a lover of science and reason, I go through phases and cycles of spirituality.
I also have a strong need for certainty, and that doesn’t play well in the spiritual domain.
Human minds are wired to find patterns and meaning, so could these stories just be that human part of my brain, searching for comfort and meaning in suffering?
Why would God waste his time sending me little trinkets while people are suffering from starvation, child abuse and genocide?
Why did He give her cancer in the first place? Why did He make our bodies so flawed?
These are questions that will never have answers. And you know what? I think I’m okay with that.
The more I push myself to find certainty, the more confused and lost I feel.
Today, on this Mother’s Day, I’d like to let it go.
The truth still matters to me, but I want to accept that I’m incapable of knowing the ultimate truths about our existence.
I just want to let go of the need for certainty, and live my life in peace and hope.
Hope that my mom still exists, and that I’ll see her again.
One thing I am certain of is that she loved me, and that is all that matters.
I love you too, mom.
Happy Mother’s Day.