I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. There are some things, though, that I simply have not had the courage to think about, so writing has seemed daunting. It has been weighing on me, pressure on my chest, a load of bricks on my shoulders. I have started this post countless times. And it just sits there, unfinished. Jumbled thoughts. Incoherent phrases. I haven’t been sure exactly what to say. So I’ve decided to just start talking. I’m not going to think about how it sounds or even if it’s structurally sound or grammatically correct, so you’ll have to forgive me that. There are things that simply need to be said. They need to be known by people who care about me, my family, and my mother. Before we begin, though, let me suggest that you first read this post if you haven’t already, then come back here.
The things that you need to know are the ways in which I knew God was and is present… both for my mother and for those of us she left behind. So if you will bear with me, dear reader, I will tell you a few stories.
1) How the family found out
As you read in the previous post, I got a call from my Uncle Kimet, my mom’s brother, on Christmas morning, informing me she had been killed. At the time, I didn’t really think about how he had found out. Later on, he told me that his daughter’s boyfriend had been the paramedic to respond to the 911 call. I assumed that he had met my mom several times and called my cousin or my uncle upon seeing her and broke the news to them. After the funeral, I found out what had really happened.
Uncle Kimet’s daughter, my cousin Brooke, is dating a guy named Scott. Scott is a paramedic. He had never met my mother. Scott doesn’t work in Richmond County, where my mom died. With it being Christmas, he had volunteered, out of the goodness of his heart, to work the downtown Augusta area so that others could have the time off to be with their families. He responded to the call and because of the situation, it took him and his partners a while to get there. She and her boyfriend, Bobby, were living in a tent by the river. They lived among others in a makeshift “homeless camp” of sorts, and needless to say, they were off the beaten path. No electricity, no street lights, no address. Bobby had gone out to find a phone to call 911, and from my understanding, ran out into the road with a flashlight to wave down the ambulance. He tried. The paramedics tried. But Scott knew, upon arrival, that there was nothing that could be done for my mom. She was already gone. She had sustained two blows to the head. This particular call had affected him greatly… the sadness of the situation. Homeless, penniless, fatally injured, young… Christmas morning. Still thinking about it when he finished his shift, he and Brooke went to my Uncle Kimet and Aunt Karen’s house to celebrate Christmas, and he began to talk about this heartbreaking call he had responded to. My aunt and uncle hadn’t heard from my mom in months. They had no way to get in touch with her and they had no idea she was dead. Scott talked about the squalor he had found this woman in, and my aunt and uncle noticed some similarities to my mom’s situation. They began to talk about her, and as realization began to dawn, someone finally asked what the woman’s name from that morning had been. Denise Green. My uncle found out in that moment that his only sister was dead.
I am not one to overspiritualize things, but I do know when I see God’s hand in something. It’s a sad story. A really, really tragic story. But I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that Scott volunteered that night and that he was the one who responded to the call. What if it hadn’t been him? What if it was just some random paramedic? She had no personal items to speak of- I assume she didn’t have a list of phone numbers that she carried around from place to place. I don’t even know if she had ID. Would we ever have known what happened to her?? How long would it have taken any of her brothers or her dad or my sister or me to finally think, “I haven’t heard from her in a really long time…” and start searching for her? Would we always have wondered? Scott was able to reassure us that, despite her history with her boyfriend Bobby, and despite the injuries to her head, she had NOT been beaten up. I had been thinking about it for days, tormented by thoughts of this man beating her up, hitting her in the head, and killing her. The knowledge that she was otherwise unharmed and that, honestly, it looked like she had simply fallen and hit her head, was an immeasurable blessing. If it hadn’t been Scott, could I ever have known that? Would I always have had nightmares about this monster beating and murdering my mother??? God was gracious in His orchestrating of events that early Christmas morning. I am immensely grateful for it… and I am immensely grateful for Scott.
2) Some hope in her final days
A few weeks before my mom’s death, I got a Facebook message from an old friend. Julie and I had had a few classes together at Augusta State, and I have always been very fond of her. She’s one of those good people. Honest, compassionate- but she might not let you see that at first, straightforward, funny, genuine. I hadn’t heard from her in a while, so I was glad to see a message from her…. but quite surprised when I opened it. She had met my mom. She was working with Mercy Ministries, a homeless ministry in Augusta, and my mom was one of their clients. Her message informed me that my mom wanted me to know that she was getting her feet on the ground. Changing her life. I had heard it all before, and I told Julie so. I didn’t mean to be cynical but, honestly… She had been “turning her life around” for the past 20 years. I would believe it when I saw it actually happening. Julie informed me that, now that she knew Denise was my mother, she would do everything in her power to help her. They had talked about getting her GED (she quit school in the 9th grade) and maybe even taking classes at Augusta Tech to help her get a real job. She was going to help her get housing for abused and addicted women- which would necessarily keep her away from Bobby, who had a history of beating her up. Julie had shown her some pictures of Juliet, my mom’s only granddaughter. And she told me how her face lit up and then fell when she saw those pictures. She started to cry as she talked about how she wanted to be a good mother and grandmother- one worthy of being in her kids’ and grandkids’ lives. Julie was committed to helping her do that.
My mom died before she had a chance to realize any of those dreams. That is so, so sad to me. But I take comfort here again, knowing that God orchestrated this, too. I know my mom well enough to know that Julie is the type of person she would have loved and trusted. I know that she would have believed Julie was really going to help her. I allow myself to believe that, even as she was dying, she finally had hope. Hope that her life would turn around. Hope that she would see my sister and me again. Hope that she could be a real grandma. And hope that she could be the woman that she always wanted to be. Her death was a tragedy, no doubt about it. But what would have been even more tragic is if she had died without hope. And I believe that maybe she died with her head held just a little bit higher than before, believing that life was finally going to change for the better. I’m forever grateful to you for what you did for her, Jules.
3) Not-so-chance encounters
In planning her funeral, one thing we struggled with was the question of who would officiate. We grew up in church, and my mom had been in and out of churches since her teenage years, so we knew that there were quite a lot of preachers who knew her. The hard part, though, was that we knew that all of them had known her when things were bad. They knew her in her wild teenage years, or they knew her in good times when she was married to my dad… but that meant they also knew her when she walked away from everything good and chose a dark path for her life. Honestly, I was terrified that our only options were either someone who didn’t know her or care about her, or someone who knew her and thought she was trash. My sister Rachel and I decided that the best thing to do was ask someone who knew me… at the very least they would care about her and what had happened to her simply because they cared about me. Patrick and I, having been very involved in the church scene in Augusta for years, know lots of pastors and preachers. We could basically take our pick of any number of them. We discussed it for a while, tossed a few names around. But one name kept resounding in my head. Over and over and over again… Every time we would discuss anyone else, I just kept hearing “Jason Mitchem.” Jason and his wife April used to be Patrick’s youth pastors. They are an amazing couple who I only just started to get to know a few years ago, when we came home from our first year in Denver for winter break. I loved them instantly. I felt comfortable with them instantly. They are kind-hearted, compassionate, generous, loving, funny, warm people. Still, though, I thought it was odd that Jason’s name kept coming to me. There were certainly other, more obvious, choices. People to whom we were more directly connected. And other than one visit to his church, I had never known Jason as a preacher. But I decided just to go with my instincts. Patrick asked him and he immediately said yes. He didn’t ask my mom’s name. A few days before the funeral, Patrick, Rachel and I met Jason and April for lunch to discuss what we wanted for the funeral, and to tell him a little about our mom and our relationship with her. We told him what had happened to her and talked a little about her life. A few minutes into the conversation, he realized he didn’t know her name. When we told him it was Denise Green, he and April exchanged a look and then started to describe a woman named Denise who their church’s ministry to the homeless had encountered a year prior. They couldn’t help wondering if it was her. April said that the woman she was thinking of was warm and sweet and that she had been very special to them. She had impacted a lot of lives in their church just by virtue of who she was. She said the woman could not talk about God without crying. She said that whenever the music would start at their outdoor worship services, this woman would just begin to weep. I knew it was my mom. Jason pulled up a picture on his phone of their son Devin talking to the woman in question, and, though it was blurry, it was undoubtedly her. We were all shocked at this bizarre, unexpected connection… and, again, at the hand of God orchestrating events. April went on to tell us that they had talked with her several times and given her food, clothes and other necessities. She said that her son, Devin, in particular, had really connected with her and loved her a lot. They hadn’t seen her in a while and they had often wondered what had happened to her…
Every time I think about this, I cry. It’s yet another example of God’s goodness and faithfulness. I thought we would be stuck with a stranger speaking at her funeral… or someone who thought very little of her. Instead, we got someone who not only knew her, but loved her. Jason spoke beautifully that day. And he was able to speak as someone who had shared a little piece of life with her and who cared for her a great deal. I hadn’t let myself imagine that would be a possibility. But God knew. And a year ago, when He brought the people of Revivify Church and my mom together, He knew that this was going to happen. He knew what my fears about her funeral would be. And He already had a plan. I’m so grateful to Jason and April and their church for what they did for her. And if we hadn’t asked Jason to speak, we never would have known. We wouldn’t have known that not everyone in her life turned their backs, or looked at her with an air of superiority. We wouldn’t have known that good people, people who loved her own daughter, no less, loved her too… And even reached out with love in their hands and their eyes and told her she was worth something. We would never have known.
4) The perfect song
This last story is much smaller in significance than the previous ones. But it remains another example of God’s concern for even the small things we care about. As I’ve said, my mom’s name was Denise. But throughout her life, everyone who truly knew her called her Sissy. As I searched the internet for songs to use for the slideshow of pictures that would be played at her funeral, I was getting a little disheartened. I had no idea what type of music she liked. Most “mama” songs didn’t seem appropriate because they didn’t accurately represent my relationship with her. But as chance would have it, I stumbled upon a song by Alan Jackson, called “Sissy’s Song.” I’m not much of a country music fan, so I had never heard this song, but I decided to try it, just in case. It was perfect. It talks about a woman, “Sissy,” who died unexpectedly, far too young, leaving shocked and saddened loved ones behind… The chorus says that she flew up to heaven and walks with Jesus now, looking down on her loved ones and saying “Don’t worry about me.” It was exactly what we needed.
As I recount these stories for you, I am again overwhelmed and in awe at how God works in the lives of humans. It would be so easy to question where God was throughout her life when so many sad things happened, or where He was while she lay dying in her tent. But I know the answer to that question. God was there with her. He is here now, with those of us she left behind. He was there through every tragedy of her life, through every bad decision, in every moment of happiness, in every song that made her cry. He rescued her many, many times. I hope this doesn’t sound cruel or heartless, but I sort of think it was His grace that took her away. Life had dealt her a cruel hand. Maybe God decided that she had had enough, that He had seen her suffer enough… and that it was time for her to come home to a place where there would be no more suffering and no more tears. Maybe. That’s just a theory.
But here’s what I do know. God was in that tent.
A line that I will never forget from a song Patrick sang during the service (My Father’s World):
“Let me never forget,
that though the wrong
seems oft so strong…
God is the ruler yet.”
Thank you for reading.
My mom, age 19, pregnant with me, holding my sister