I met my mom when I was 20 years old. She didn’t know she was my mom yet and neither did I, it was something we took a while to figure out. Our introduction certainly did not foreshadow the closeness that would follow. When I first saw her she was bent at the waist with one hand on the doorknob and the other on the collar of the dog (who was somewhat of an escape artist) she said, “You must be Bart!”
Whether she liked it or not, I soon became a fixture at her house. I fell for Lisa hard and fast and her parents were forced to deal with me. I was young, brash, and loud, and like a stray dog given a bone, impossible to get rid of. I cannot imagine how stunned they were when a mere 5 weeks into our relationship I approached them for permission to marry their daughter.
Her dad did not appear to be thrilled with the idea. Afraid to come right out and ask, “May I have your permission to marry your daughter?” I instead said, “I bought Lisa a ring and would like your permission before I give it to her.” His reply caught me off guard.
“Well if you already bought the ring, what are you asking me for?”
“I could take it back,” I replied sheepishly, my heart sinking several levels in the process.
“Could you get a full refund?” My heart sank even further. Before I could muster a second response Lisa’s mom interrupted.
“Now Chuck! That’s enough! Of course you can have our permission,” I can still feel the sense of relief her words brought.
That night, for the first of so many times, Shirley Rehm came to my aid. As she did she made a choice, a conscious decision. Confronted with an impulsive young man in his first year of college working a part-time job, impetuously asking for the hand of her daughter, she chose to love me and accept me.
She never stopped loving me, although there were many times she could have. She could have, if she was the type of person to love conditionally. She wasn’t, and she didn’t. She was a mom, and she loved like one.
When I announced I wanted to be a doctor, she didn’t doubt me as did my own parents. She was interested in every step of the process, wanted to know about every letter, every acceptance and every rejection. She cared about every test, every grade, and every honor I received. She cared about my job, my work at church, every area of my life. In her listening, encouragement and acceptance there was love, a kind I had never before experienced.
Within a matter of months she knew me better than my own family. They knew what I was doing, she understood who I was. They teased and mocked, she loved me unconditionally. I know she did because there were times when I did not deserve it, when my poorly thought out jokes and words caused hurt in the family. I know at times I hurt her too, but she was not the kind to say it. She loved me anyway.
Her choice to love others was perpetually on display. Over the years I saw her be kind to an assortment of sister-in-law boyfriends, some of whom became sons-in-law before they became ex sons-in-law. Some were weird, some were strange, others were awkward. She reached out to them, welcomed them, and made them feel a part of the family.
Her love was not limited to family members. One of Lisa’s sisters often brought guests to family functions. Shirley Rehm would greet them with her beautiful smile and standard hug (genuine and warm) and make them feel like they belonged. That was her way.
Love is an incredible transforming force, and the motherly love she showed me changed my life. The acceptance and support she showed gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams. I doubt I would be a physician if it were not for her.
Her encouragement never stopped. She was particularly proud of the clinical ethics work I do and has encouraged me in this regard for over 25 years. Every ethics meeting or consult has been followed by a call to mom, who proudly listened as I told her the stories. Even at the age of 57, there was something special in knowing that she was proud of me.
How could I ever thank her for such love?
A week ago I did my best to show her my gratitude. I had helplessly stood by for years and watched as the combination of pulmonary fibrosis and heart disease caused her to slowly wither away. The always classy, always beautiful woman had been unable to leave her home for a year and had reached the point where nearly every breath was a struggle. She had been on hospice for a few years and was seriously thinking about stopping her heart medicines and allowing nature to take its course.
The decision was made for her last Saturday. She fell at home and broke her upper arm. The fracture was severe enough that she could not continue to live alone at home. Not wanting to live out her brief remaining days in a nursing home, she discontinued her meds.
I had promised her that if she ever reached that point that I would be there at her side. I kept that promise last weekend. I monitored her pulse, respiration’s and comfort, squirting morphine into the mouth of the only mom I have ever known to make sure she did not suffer. She didn’t. A little before midnight last Sunday she went home to her Savior, waking to full breath, a strong voice and a body that was whole.
And leaving behind a hole in my heart that cannot be filled. I will miss her. I will miss her faith in me, her encouragement, and her unconditional love.
I will miss my mom.