by Jennifer M. Ginn

A mom living, and dying, with purpose

MY MOTHER WAS ALWAYS on the way somewhere, her heels clicking briskly across the church parking lot or her Daniel Green slippers clomping on hardwood floors toward the kitchen. She moved with purpose you could count on.

But after the deaths of both my father and the disabled sister she had supported for many years, her own strength began to fail. And during the first few months in the care facility that would become her home, she became a shuffler, pushing her shiny blue walker in rhythm with feet that were still in charge. She moved in the company of many such assistive devices guided by heavily veined hands attached to failing bodies and, like Mom’s, to feet that shuffled.

I remember her younger self. In those days I was the shuffler, lagging behind in teenage distraction, paying little attention to my own gait. “Jennifer, pick up your feet,” she would bark, “before you trip over them!” In the care facility, watching her shuffle, I became impatient just as she used to, finding it hard to hold my tongue.

Knowing her as a woman whose feet had always been on the move made it hard for me to watch her lose her mobility. Eventually her feet wouldn’t cooperate with her urges to move forward, and she began to sit more than she walked. Finally, she became wheelchair dependent.

That didn’t stop her feet.

Though they could no longer push her forward, still they moved. And in her mind, clearly she was still going somewhere.

Rocking back and forth in her wheelchair, feet on the move, she began to speak softly and rapidly to someone I couldn’t see. When I listened closely, I caught her words: “Only in thee, Lord, can I find the way. Only in thee, only in thee, dear Lord.” I leaned toward her and asked, “Mom, the way to where? Where do you want to go?” But she didn’t seem to hear.

For a while she did have lucid moments. When I arrived for a visit, she would smile and hold out her hands to me. Did she remember who I was? Not always. Occasionally, out in the sitting area she might introduce me to someone near her: “This is my sister,” she would sometimes say, pointing to me. I knew better than to contradict her.

In this back-and-forth of clarity and confusion, the constant was her feet in motion. Propped on the wheelchair footrest or on the floor under the stationary chair in her room, they were never at rest, especially during her well-practiced prayer: “Only in thee, dear Lord, can I find the way.” As she spoke the words, her feet kept up.

One day there was more. That afternoon when I walked into her room and stooped over her wheelchair, I heard a more urgent plea. As always, she repeated, over and over, “Only in thee, Lord, can I find the way. Only in thee, dear Lord.” But then came a more impatient chorus: “Please, please, please, please…” Her words fell out in quick succession, all in one breath.

I no longer needed to ask where she wanted to go, with her feet on the move and her lips, too, in whispered petitions. Surely she was already on her way toward the bright forever life she’d always trusted, and reaching for the One who would lead her there.

My mother died a week later, when in her bed, the strained breathing of congestive heart failure gradually quieted into silence. Her feet were still. They couldn’t get her where she wanted to go. But in the end, she knew the way without them. So did the One who answered her prayer.

The Rev. Jennifer M. Ginn is a retired ELCA pastor who enjoys writing, coaching and serving as an interim pastor. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and two furry children, one a Jack Russell terrier and the other a yellow cat with a temper.

This article is from the May/June 2023 issue. To read more articles like it, subscribe to Gather.