In early November 2005 my mom began a journey that changed us both. She got into her little car and began to drive to Denver International Airport, 60 miles from her home, a route she had driven thousands of times during her 69 years. But this time she faced a particular challenge. She told me after the fact, “I realized that I was having vision problems. I did some experiments at home and figured out that what I thought I saw, like a book on a table, wasn’t actually in that spot on the table. It was really six inches to my left. So, I figured if I drove down what I thought was the median on I-25, I would actually be in the middle of my lane.”
Just telling that story makes me shake. Still.
I have often wondered what would have happened if my mother, on that November day, had confided in a friend or family member that she had significant vision issues and needed help. What kept her from doing that?
Deep-down, I know. I am my mother’s daughter. My internal dialogue often goes like this: I can do this. Chin up, Girl. Figure it out. No need to bother anyone. Me and Jesus. We’re a good team. We’ve got this.
Thankfully, my mother did get to the airport and eventually to my brother’s house in Albany, New York, that Thanksgiving. There she met a neurologist who recognized her significant vision issues as a symptom of a rare, always fatal disease: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). The disease affects about one in one million people per year worldwide. It acts like Alzheimer’s on steroids with a life expectancy of only months.
Despite this grim diagnosis, Mom determined to fight the disease. She assured us that once she returned home to Colorado, she would be fine. When I asked her how she would do things like cook and clean she said simply, “My friends will help.” I wondered.
I knew Mom quickly rushed to help her friends, but I suspected she had not told any of them about her sight issues. I found out later that indeed she had not.
Well, Mom was right about her friends. They came.
They sat with Mom as she wept about her crazy brain. They listened to me as I struggled to know how to help Mom. They brought tea for her visitors. They fed Mom when she could no longer feed herself.
As I watched these women, I gained courage—courage to stay, courage to do what I did not think I could do—sit with a dying woman, my beloved mother.
And my mother gained courage too—courage to accept help and courage to let go of her fierce independence.
Because of these dear women (I call them Storm Sisters—women who don’t run when storms hit their friends’ lives), I was with my mother late in the afternoon on January 23, 2006, when her breathing slowed to almost nothing. A beautiful smile took over her face, a face that had been frozen and silent for a week. She began to hum along with the hymn I had playing on a CD player for her, “Thine is the glory, risen conquering son! Endless is the victory thou o’er death hast won.” I kissed her and said, “Jesus is waiting. You can go. Jesus is waiting.” And then Mom took one last, raspy breath and entered heaven. What a moment! I could almost touch Jesus. And almost see heaven.
Oh, the gift my mother’s friends gave me! These Storm Sisters. They helped me stay.
Afton graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in literature as well as a teaching certificate in secondary education. She and her husband John are the parents of two adult children.