In the South, where family is important, mothers play vital roles in our lives as caregivers and housekeepers, as nurses and counselors, even as a family’s moral compass. As such, mothers become mythic figures in Southern culture, whether it be through country songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” or movies like Sounder. In this brief essay, we share in one man’s experience of losing his mother but finding her again in the Bible that she held dear.
by Rora M. Kellis
St. Joseph Hospital in Southern Pines, North Carolina is a large intimidating structure done in Jacobean-Tudor architecture. It opened in 1928 as a golf resort that had failed during the stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression. The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh purchased it and reopened St. Joseph as an acute care hospital in 1948. By the late 1960s, the facility had shifted its mission to long-term care. It is a beautiful hospital with a caring staff, but the only thing running through my mind was Momma saying in the weeks before her passing in June of 1993, “Don’t send me there, that’s where people go to die.”
There were many evenings when Mom and I would sit and talk about options and closure. Mom even took the time to record the Christmas story from the Bible for the grandkids which we listen to every year. She wanted them to remember her and that she loved them dearly. She even had me convinced that the reflexology that I tried actually worked. Whether it did or not, it meant the world to her that I tried. Unfortunately, everything ran it course, support from hospice has run out, and her battle with cancer had reached a point beyond the ability of friends and family to attend to her needs. I simply had no other options.
Family and clergy had been summoned, and we sat silently as my Reverend William Hancock read one of the Psalms. He had been her Pastor at Flint Hill Baptist Church for many years. As he read, her breathing became increasingly labored, until it simply stopped. My mother’s wishes included a DNR, or do not resuscitate order, so no one moved. Reverend Hancock briefly paused on her passing and then finished the Psalm. When he had finished, I had to get out of that room!
My heart had just been ripped from my chest and I needed air, a cigarette, to lash out, something, anything . . . I bolted downstairs and out the side door of the hospital in an attempt to clear my head and attempted to regain my composure. There was a void within, which felt as if the air I inhaled escaped before it could be exhaled. I could not elude the overwhelming feeling that I had failed her.
Reverend Hancock and my wife Helen were waiting when I returned to the lobby. As any good Baptist preacher will do, he offered comforting words and we spoke of salvation. Helen reminded me that my mother’s “workbook” Bible was still upstairs, so she went to retrieve it. Momma had requested that I allow the preacher to borrow her “workbook” Bible to help him with the eulogy. She had been highlighting text and making notes in the margins for years in that bible.
We were still talking when my wife returned with the Bible, and she passed it to the preacher. Instinctively, he dropped it open and gestured to the text while making a point. A feeling of peace came over me that is hard to explain. Without trying, he had opened Momma’s Bible to the Psalm that he had been reading when Momma passed. The entire Psalm her Pastor had read had been highlighted. Somehow, I feel that was her way of letting me know that everything is alright.
Death is part of life, and that is a fact that we must accept. I have now assisted other family members in similar situations and have a different perspective of St. Joseph, palliative, and hospice care in general. The folks who work there provide an invaluable service that is often misconstrued and under-appreciated. St. Joseph is not a place to go to die, it is a place to go to say good-bye, but only for now. I will have a greater appreciation of St. Joseph, and I will always cherish Momma’s Bible.
St. Joseph of the Pines. 2021. St. Joseph of the Pines History | St. Joseph of the Pines. [online]
Rora M. Kellis lives and writes in Vass, North Carolina.