My son concentrated at the square table, pencil in hand, the sun shining through the large picture-window onto his math book in the day room of the nursing home. I could observe him through the courtyard as I looked out from the window of Mom’s room, holding her hand, soft and freckled, while she was dying. From the same day room, down the hall I could hear my other son practicing his assigned piano songs, conscious that the beautiful music he was creating on that grand piano might be the last sounds Grandma heard before hearing the Heavenly choirs.
Needless to say, that week was not the most academically productive week for us as homeschoolers. That being said, we learned more lessons, and more important lessons, that week than we likely will learn during any future week of homeschooling.
This post isn’t meant to be a treatise on why homeschooling should be the preferred educational method when it comes to tragedy. Had my children been enrolled in school, I suppose I could have withdrawn them and had much of the same experience. This post, rather, is meant to show the ways in which homeschooling for years before my mom’s death prepared us to spend her last days with her, and also, how homeschooling in the days afterward has helped us grieve. Homeschooling, for us, is more than academics; it is a lifestyle of searching for truth, goodness, and beauty. And, perhaps surprisingly, there was so much truth, goodness, and beauty juxtaposed amidst my mother’s death and passing into life eternal.
When we heard my mom was in her final hours, suffering with advanced dementia, a quick decision was made. My two oldest daughters would stay home with my two youngest children and my husband, and I would take my middle two children with me across two states to be with Mom indefinitely. I quickly packed our bags with the necessities. The boys stuck their math books in their backpacks, not because they needed to keep up with their math schedules, but because math is certain and predictable, and the journey we were embarking on was anything but that.
There were several indications that Mom was likely to die before our arrival. On the car ride over, my sons asked many questions about sickness, God, faith, and Heaven. “What will we do if Grandma has already gone to Heaven when we get there? What will happen to her? How will we be able see her body, but she’s in Heaven? Will she see Jesus right away, or wait until Judgment Day? Is it okay to feel happy that Grandma is dying? Will Grandma know everything again when she gets to Heaven?” I felt profoundly unprepared for such questions, but the Holy Spirit gave me the Scriptural answers the boys required.
However, my mom was not dead when we entered the nursing home. God gave the three of us a bonus 43 hours with her from our arrival, until her arrival in Heaven. We prayed together. We sang together. We cried together. We learned that time is a precious gift from God, and to slow down and savor it. We reflected on the legacy of Christian faith that my mom passed on to me, and I am passing down to them. We considered that the purpose of life is to be ready to be in Grandma’s position at any moment—ready to die in Christ. Good grades, wonderful extra-curricular activities, and strong friendships are all blessings that have their place. But they should never, ever displace our walk with the Lord as He strengthens our faith through daily family devotions, prayers, and memory work.
Meanwhile, my other family members were at home, waiting. Never did I plan with this purpose in mind, but since their toddler years, my oldest daughters have worked with me in the kitchen, around the house, and with the younger children. This really is a mainstay of our homeschool “curriculum.” When I left, I didn’t think twice about whether or not the girls were capable to care for the children and the home while I was gone. My daughters gave me a precious gift that week: the gift of time to be with my mother as she died, comforting her with God’s precious promises.
There were many conversations at my mom’s bedside. “Why has Jesus not taken her yet?” one son asked. The other answered simply, “Probably He is just nailing in one more nail in her mansion for the prettiest blue picture she will love.” “What do you think Grandma will see first? The angels? Or maybe Jesus?” “Probably Jesus will be a Lamb, though, like it says in Revelation.” I loved to hear their child-like faith in the midst of my grief. They speak of Heaven as a very real location, which of course, it is! But, in my adult mind, I often think of Heaven in an ethereal manner.
Minutes after my mom’s soul went to Heaven, we were surprised to observe her body resting peacefully, the same as before death, except for no breath. I once again held her hand. It was still warm. I curled my upper body onto her bed and sobbed, my son holding my other hand, and weeping quietly. We cried together, just as Jesus cried when Lazarus died. When our tears were empty, my son said, “Mommy, the tears just burst out of me! There were so many happy and sad feelings all mixed together!” Well said, son. Well said.
As we prepared for her funeral, I reflected on the relationship I had with my mother, especially prior to her memory loss over the past several years. Mom was a surprising support to me with the many non-mainstream choices I made in life—marrying early, welcoming God’s gift of many children to our family, staying at home rather than choosing employment, working toward eating more wholesome food. She always wanted to hear what I was learning, and I was always eager to share. She was never homeschooled, and when I was a child she supposed she could never homeschool me; yet, we loved to learn together whenever we had the chance.
The rest of the family made the same trek across two states and joined us for the visitation and funeral. My oldest daughters brought along piano music and played before the funeral. They hadn’t rehearsed for this moment; rather, their whole life homeschooling, which places a great emphasis on the beauty of music, prepared them to share this gift with everyone in attendance. My oldest daughter worked with her siblings, cousins, and the organist to share “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” with the congregation, the same song Mom sang to me when I was a child, the same song we sang to her when she came to live with us prior to moving to the nursing home.
Now, we have returned home. Life is mostly back to normal, in our academic routine. But everything is not the same. For months, years even, we have begun our school days with prayer requests. Grandma has always been on the top of that list. Of course, my four-year-old requested prayers for Grandma our first day back to “school.” I explained that we can thank God for Grandma, but we no longer have to pray for her because God has answered our prayers by taking away her suffering, healing her, and bringing her to Heaven where we will someday join her. A blessed conversation, which now, the four-year-old repeats every morning instead of asking for prayers for Grandma. In the midst of our academics, we stop when we need to, pausing to grieve or mourn or share something we remember. Our lunchtime conversations center more and more about what Heaven not only will be like, but is like right now: what Grandma might be doing, whom she might be meeting, what she may be experiencing in a very concrete way.
My mother’s sickness, death, and funeral is in our past, but of course, every mother has an ongoing impact in the life of her children. My mother’s life on earth had a profound impact on me, on who I would become, on the kind of mother am I today. Her faith was a priority in her life, and she modeled that to me through reading me a Bible story every night and singing hymns before I drifted off to sleep. Later, that priority manifested itself through her employment and sacrifice to pay for private Christian school for me. I remember how she cried after the opening service my first year at boarding high school. She said that though she wanted to keep me home for her own sake, yet, like Hannah with Samuel, she would give me to the Lord for His service.
The educational model my mother chose for me was not the same I choose for my children, and yet, the educational philosophy is exactly the same. We have both done the best for our children with the tools we currently have. We have both chosen to prioritize passing God’s Word on to our children above all else. Mom didn’t homeschool me, but she did teach me what ought to be valued, and because of that, I can do for my children in our homeschool exactly what she most wanted—namely, to teach my children God’s word daily in a caring Christian environment, to give my children to the Lord for His service, all the while keeping them home to love them like no one else can. In her living, and in her dying, God in His wisdom and mercy granted that she would pass on to me and to my children educational experiences that no school could teach: legacy, togetherness, and the sure hope of eternal reunion, thanks be to Christ!
Marie K. MacPherson is wife to Ryan, homeschooling mother of six, and child of God. She is the author of the devotion book Meditations on the Vocation of Motherhood (2018), and editor of Mothering Many: Sanity-Saving Strategies (2016). A certified Classical teacher from CCLE and Elementary Education graduate of Bethany Lutheran College, she enjoys researching and writing in her free time.