“Here, this is for Mom.” I handed my sister Jeanne half of a rueben sandwich and kept the other half for myself. It was April 24, 2005, the day after Mother’s funeral. Just a few weeks earlier—on March 22—she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in her lungs and brain. The doctors told us we would have her for three to six months—she asked the Lord for 10 more years, and we all believed Him for a miracle. But in His sovereign wisdom, grace, and mercy, the Lord chose to take her home quickly and relatively painlessly.
Two weeks earlier, she had just completed her first full week of radiation and her body had handled it beautifully! She needed some help walking and had begun losing her hair, but she wanted to visit her friends in Houston so I brought her home with me. She had a list of things she wanted to do: She wanted to see her friends at Turning Point Ministries’ Friday night Bible study and go to Denny’s afterward. On Saturday, she wanted to see her Japanese friends and go to a good Japanese restaurant. And, among other things, she wanted to go to PetSmart to pick up some things for Coco, her Pomeranian companion. I used to tease her by calling her “Coco 1” and the dog “Coco 2.”
I had to preach Sunday morning, but Mother was too weak to join me. When I got back, she had taken a fall and was obviously in pain. From that time on, her health deteriorated quickly.
It seemed as if God had given her the grace and strength on Friday and Saturday to accomplish everything on her list of things to do and people to see, except one: We never made it to a deli for a good rueben sandwich.
Preparing the Way
In hindsight, I can see the Lord’s preparation had begun long before my mother showed up that weekend with her list. As a widow, Mother had begun experiencing heart problems several years earlier. In 2003, with her difficulties increasing and my travel schedule becoming more intense, we moved her out of the house she and I had shared for eight years and into an apartment in Austin to be near Jeanne and her family. She missed Houston, but she loved being close to Jeanne’s children, and they loved having her there.
Last October, she flew with me to Japan where she visited family while I ministered. After I finished my teaching commitment, I was able to join them for our final day before departing for the U.S.. The day after we returned to Houston, my little nephew Randy kept calling from Austin to say, “Mammaw, are you coming home TODAY?” Only six months later, she truly has come home.
Sushi, Shoes, and Salsa
Her memorial service was a beautiful mixture of tearful good-byes and happy remembrances. Jeanne, my brother-in-law Paul, my younger brother Kenny, and I all shared from our hearts.
Jeanne talked of how my mother said her children would always be her babies, and we were, as much as we fought it! Kenny talked of how my mother always defended him and stood up for him. And I recalled all the habits my mother had instilled in me, like taking off my shoes before going in the house—even now, as a grown man, when I determine in defiance to walk through the house fully shod, I can only get so far before I hear that voice saying, “Dougie! Do you have your shoes on? Douglas, take off your shoes!”
My mother had a soft heart that welcomed people into her life and made them feel like family. Close friends shared of the joy and laughter she brought into their lives. She loved to cook for people, and she would have neighbors over for “girls nights” at my sister’s house, serving them sushi and out dancing every one of them!
Others remembered Mother teaching them a Japanese “fan dance” and the jitterbug. “But don’t tell Dougie!” she would say. And I recalled her participation in what became known as the “salsa revival night” at Houston’s Prayer Mountain, a series of 40 days of worship, the last 40 days of 1996. As local Hispanic leaders led us in worship that night, a spirit of overwhelming joy and exuberance broke out resulting in a salsa line of praise to the Lord. As mother danced past me, she said, “Dougie, what’s the matter with you! Come on! Let’s praise the Lord!”
Friends at the funeral confirmed how much family meant to my mother. Kenny, they said, your mother always believed in you and wanted so badly for you to believe in yourself. Jeanne, she always talked about what a good mother you are and what a good daughter. Doug, she was so proud of you because you are doing what God called you to do.
A Fighting Spirit
Yet for all the joy she brought and her love for laughter, my mother was a fighter, too. As a little girl during World War II, she was separated from the rest of her family for an entire year. She ate out of garbage cans to survive. She told us how they learned to run fast enough to keep up with the shadows of the planes so they could dodge the bomb shells as they dropped.
I remember as a young boy how my mother and I were kicked out of a restaurant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for being Japanese. But my mother never held on to bitterness and was later hired by the owner of the restaurant as he apologized for the actions of his employee. The whole time we were growing up, she worked extra jobs to provide for her family.
Mother’s courage conflicted with her commitment to family as she entered this short, final season of life. After her diagnosis, we sat in the doctor’s office as she boldly declared, “I’m not afraid to die—I know Jesus!” Then with tears, she said, “But I want to see my all grandchildren grow up.”
I got an emergency call from my sister on Sunday, April 17, and drove to Austin with out-of-town guests, then drove back to Houston Monday afternoon. I was scheduled to speak on Tuesday evening at an orientation meeting for a team of 25 who were going to represent Houston at the Transform World Conference in Indonesia. My plan was to drive to Austin afterward to see my mother.
Around mid-day on Tuesday, Jeanne called and asked,”How important is your meeting?” When Mother woke up that day, Jeanne said she had asked, “Where’s Dougie?” then, “Is Dougie here yet?” and finally, “Tell Dougie I love him.”
Needless to say, I left immediately for Mother’s bedside. Those next few hours and that next day were moments I will treasure forever. When I arrived and walked in her room, she had tears in her eyes. She held us and told us she loved us. Jeanne had asked her earlier if the Lord had been showing her anything about heaven and if she was afraid. “I’m not afraid,” Mother said. “Only sad.”
At one point, she and I were alone and she looked at me with knowing eyes and said, “Dougie, pray for me.” In that moment, my mother seemed to see me both as “son” and “minister.” I could imagine in just a small way how Mary felt as she knew Jesus as the Son of God, yet he was her son, too. I felt as if I was praying for her “last rights,” and the memory of her eyes looking up at me is a moment I will never forget.
Life Without Mom
When my stepfather passed away 10 years ago, my sister and brother both asked Mother to live with them. But my mother wouldn’t have it. “I live with my oldest boy, Dougie!” At 38 years of age, single, and heading up an international ministry, I have to admit my first thought was, “Oh, great.” Buying a house with my mother was not exactly how I had envisioned myself at that time of my life. But as the oldest Asian son, it was my responsibility to care for her.
The day after the funeral, I sat alone in that same house going through my mother’s things, and it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. The void was deep and unexpected.
I drive past certain restaurants and other places that now bring back precious memories. The PetSmart store near my house is a personal reminder to me of that last weekend we had in Houston as she gave me commands about what kind of dog food to buy!
My sister shared at the funeral how everything she knows about being a wife and a mother she owes to my mother. And probably for the first time in my life, I realize how much of who I am and how much of what I’m doing I owe to my mother as well.
This May was my first Mother’s Day without you, Mom, and I miss you. I know I didn’t always have the words to tell you how much I love you, but I hope you know that I do. I am so thankful for those eight years we had together, and I wouldn’t trade one day for anything in the world.
I remember in the hospital when you leaned over and said to me, “Dougie, I’m going to beat this, you know!” And you did beat it, Mother, Your son-in-law Paul said you taught him how a Christian dies. You passed on to eternity beautifully, with courage and grace and leaving behind a legacy of love.
Thank you, Mother, for everything. I rejoice now for the day I will join you in that “salsa revival line” in heaven! You’re dancing with Jesus now!
Thank you for caring!