Singing Our Mother into Eternity

by Dr. Mark G. Press

Mom loves music! If there was any message imprinted on my family, it was this. My mother sang around the house just for fun. She had grown up on music. For every birthday, she (and Dad, while he was alive) would join in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” over the phone to whichever child or grandchild was marking the day. Our childhood trips to her parents’ home in Detroit were always marked by music, especially the old Victrola in Grandpa’s basement ringing out with strains of Glenn Miller tunes or (our special favorite) “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor.”

Mom sang in school. By the time she was in high school, she was part of the “Bethany Trio,” a group of friends who participated actively in Walther League and who sang at many church gatherings around Detroit during the late ’30s and early ’40s. Choir rehearsal was a given for her, even while we were growing up.

So it was fitting that Mom’s deathbed became a place for music. Pancreatic cancer was the doctor’s diagnosis. She looked at it more as a “distant early warning” from God to be prepared for His final call. One of her earnest requests from the Lord was to be able to remain in the home where she and Dad had spent their last years. With the powerful and loving hand of God, the caring support of neighbors, and the magnificent assistance of hospice, that desire was fulfilled.

When I arrived at the house on a Sunday a week before her death, I found that my brother had been unable to fulfill one of Mom’s requests: to read to her the words of “My Course Is Run” (TLH 599). Somehow, I found the strength to read it to her.

Several times during the following days we came together around Mom’s bed with the words of some of her favorite hymns: “Beautiful Savior,” “A Mighty Fortress,” “For All the Saints,” “Now the Light Has Gone Away.”

The death rattle started Saturday afternoon. Having served as a pastor, I knew the sound from being at other deathbeds. We had hoped the end would come quickly, but the hours dragged on. Finally, around 10 p.m., we decided to get some rest. I awoke at 1:15 a.m., and the rattle was worse. I went into Mom’s room and grabbed her old Lutheran Hymnal. “My Course Is Run” was the first hymn I sang to her. Then I turned the hymnal one page earlier to “Who Knows When Death May Overtake Me” and sang all 11 verses of that powerful hymn.

As she struggled for each breath, I turned one page earlier to “For Me to Live Is Jesus.” Then I noticed that Mom had written on the inside back cover of her hymnal her “Favorite Funeral Hymns.” I had already sung two of the three, and the only one remaining was 521, “What God Ordains Is Always Good.”

My voice was trembling as I reached the second-last verse:

What God ordains is always good.
Though I the cup am drinking
Which savors now of bitterness,
I take it without shrinking.

A cynic might say it was my singing that killed my mother. But it was at that moment that the rattling stopped. I called the rest of the family into her room, and Mom went calmly and peacefully into the presence of her Savior. My brother and his wife joined Connie, my wife, and me in singing the last stanza:

What God ordains is always good.
This truth remains unshaken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
I shall not be forsaken.
I fear no harm, For with His arm
He shall embrace and shield me;
So to my God I yield me.

And to our God we yielded our mother, singing her into the eternal chorus, where the singing goes on forever: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:12 NIV).

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