See Part 1 here.

See Part 2 here.

See Part 3 here.

See Part 4 here.

See Part 5 here.

See Part 6 here.

See Part 7 here.

See Part 8 here.

See Part 9 here.

See Part 10 here.

See Part 11 here.

See Part 12 here.

See Part 13 here.

See Part 14 here.

See Part 15 here.

See Part 16 here.

See Part 17 here.

See Part 18 here.

See Part 19 here.

See Part 20 here.

See Part 21 here.

See Part 22 here.

See Part 23 here.

See Part 24 here.

See Part 25 here.

See part 26 here.

See part 27 here.

The Pieces

It would be a week before we had an informal service for Mom.

That first weekend was mostly an opportunity to see each other. If one were to ask me how many siblings I have, I tend to stop and count. My childhood to my adulthood has seen a sort of core group of siblings. That group consists of five of us (the five youngest).  There are more, but the divorce, distance, and time have estranged us in some ways. I keep in contact with a few of them via social media, but I’m honestly terrible at things like that.  Even among those five, I tend to interact the most with my immediate two siblings (the children of both my mother and biodad).  Why? Simply because I see them the most. I’m positive I don’t call or message any of them as much as they’d like.

However, those of us in that core five were all there. I’m stunned because I simply can’t remember the last time we were all under the same roof at the same time.

We’re all extremely isolated individuals, me more so than the rest. But we had time together to talk. This isn’t the part where we all huddled together and held each other. We’re a family of task oriented people. We see a thing to do, and do that thing. The closest “group hug” we came to was the one I spoke about in the last segment. We spent the bulk of that week seeing more and more family and arranging for the service.

We went to the funeral home the following Monday. We were all pretty much still angry and hesitant at that point. We didn’t bicker with one another at all (which is frankly evidence of God’s grace in and of itself). We didn’t even snap or bark at anyone.  I could feel the tension, but we all focused on respect and making sure we had Mom’s final arrangements at heart. Please don’t misunderstand.  I’m not claiming we were all ready to lash out (although I was).  I’m simply stating it’s hard to let go emotionally when it’s so darn hard to let go physically.  I had no idea how long it takes to arrange a cremation.

We picked an urn. My aunts needed a smaller necklace because Mom wanted at least some of her ashes spread with her parents. Some of us wanted death certificates.  I was one of those. I don’t have any idea what I would need it for. I think I just wanted something. I certainly didn’t want any of the ashes. I don’t begrudge those in my family who do, but I personally wouldn’t be able to function if I had a constant reminder of the wound that exists in my life right now.

The rest of the week was mostly spending time together. We played cards. I’ve played cards with my mom for 38 years. Playing a game without her felt like trying to shuffle with one hand. All of us kept having those moments where we found ourselves looking for her.

One sister kept walking to the living room expecting to say hi to Mom.

Dad wouldn’t go into the bedroom.  He and I both slept in the living room. I haven’t spoken to him about it yet, but I have to admit, I simply couldn’t sleep.  Something happened to my back during the trip, and I’m just not used to having people around. I think there were perhaps seven people in the house at any given time, and there were times where there were perhaps 15-20. Neither my dad nor I do well around large groups. I’d discussed getting a hotel room, but it became pretty obvious that we all just needed each other, even if we just had to be around one another.  Thanks be to God, my back eased up after a few days. I think having Dad around, sleeping in a chair or couch next to the couch on which I slept was more of a comfort than I realized even in that moment.

The days were harder I think. There were things to do, and that required going through my mom’s stuff. I am firmly convinced that my mom stalked her children. She had copies of things I’d thought lost long ago. She had pictures from events I didn’t remember taking a camera to. She had every baby picture of every one of her kids in multiple sizes. She kept random letters from old teachers of mine. She had this for all five of her natural born children.

We each kept what we felt meant the most to us. I honestly don’t have a clue how one of my sisters managed it. She plowed through all of that paperwork to find what we needed for all the administrative things people have to have in times like this. I helped when I thought I could be helpful. We eventually got everything compiled into whatever group it needed to be in.

One thing remained: the obituary.

At first, I thought there was a form to fill out and that someone else would write it.  That wasn’t the case. Someone had to write it. A lot of people had thoughts on what needed to be said. Then I volunteered. I’ve written more than five books, and each of them are more than 30,000 words. Some of them are more than 60,000. I’ve written hundreds of news stories, dozens of features and thousands of captions. Mom’s obituary is 337 words, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

I waited until everyone else had gone to bed (or at least started that way). One of my sisters talked to me about the important things to note. The problem was, there were so many people who mattered. I did the math, and realized my mother is directly connected to at least 50 children (three generations).

After I finished researching and talking to my sister, I opened this very lap top on which I’m typing now, and prayed.

I don’t remember all of the exact words, but I was horrified. I wanted to pay tribute to my Mom, and I wanted any who read the obituary to understand why she was so special. If she knew you, she loved you. It was like the greatest disease you could wish for. All she had to do was meet you and know one of us loved you, and she loved you. She loved you and forgave transgressions for which other parents would cast you out of the house. She provided for you no matter what debt that put her in. She was meticulous in identifying birthdays, anniversaries, school days, and anything else that mattered.

I’ve prayed many times. I’ve seen many of those prayers answered. But in a moment, a flash of realization, God answered. He didn’t answer with audible words; he answered with inspiration.

To tell of everyone my mother loved or cared for would take too much space, and to list just some of them would raise them above the others, when my mom would never want that feeling. In these ways, my mother was so very much like our savior Jesus Christ.

I typed out the words in moments, but my eyes were flooding with tears before I finished the third paragraph. Then, as I teach my students, I had to revise and edit. I’d just finished shattering my heart describing a woman I loved so very much, and I had to stomp on the shards over, and over again to make sure that the skill of the writing matched the emotion of its content. I read it at least five times.

I tell you all, whoever reads this, I’ve often been described as dogged and driven. People sometimes speak of amazement with how able I am to focus on a task. This isn’t my strength. It never was. It was only ever the strength and faith God gave me, not one he placed in me as my nature, but one he loans me through his own. I’m weeping now, this very moment as I type this recollection. But I endure because of the strength He has given me.

When it was done, it all came rushing out.  I made it outside, sat on the step of the porch and let it all go. I don’t have a clue how long I balled. Amidst gulps of breath and sniffs of snot, I quoted every verse of scripture I could bring to mind.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew Chapter 5:4)

“We rejoice in our suffering, for suffering builds endurance, and endurance builds character, and character builds hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God has filled us with love through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5).

“‘For I know the plans I have for  you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

I thanked God for the strength he gave me. Eventually, the tears ceased. I went back inside, and went to sleep.

The next day, the family was happy with the obituary. We sent it off, and I created a program for the service, so people would have something if they wanted it.

My adopted sister and brother (I honestly couldn’t explain with a million words how my head works, so just know that if I think of you as family, you are) stopped by for a day. They brought their youngest daughter.  We talked, and they provided me company and comfort. I showed them all the stupid stuff my mom kept just because I had it once. She kept this photo copy of a random comic I bought. I didn’t even buy another issue, but there it was.

Students in my class would recognize what’s called a phase card. It’s a card that indicates what privileges a military student has.  My mom kept it. I don’t even know how she got it, but there it was. If some random person took a random photo of me, she found it, printed it, and put it in a book.  She did this for every one of us.

Dear God, almighty Father, praise you for giving me a mother who loved us so much.

One of my nieces, a talented stage performer, recorded hymns. Not only were they beautiful, but they were so comforting because these were hymns my mother requested. They were hymns of praise and worship. As I’d grown in my faith, I realized how estranged my family had become with Christ. Those requests, and hearing someone we love sing them, comforted me because they demonstrated that though we struggled with (at best) misguided churches, my mother’s faith remained all the days of her life.

All that was left, was to say goodbye during the service.

 

 


Questions and Revelations

Did the verses help?

They didn’t help. They filled me. They gave me strength. They weren’t like some bit of fresh air from a stuffy office; they were the source of any effort I could offer. They still are. If one were to ask me to prove God exists, I can’t really point to anything specific. I don’t think that’s how it works. Instead I invite them to seek Christ. Read God’s word. Let it be what you turn to in times of need. If you do this with an earnest heart, you’ll get it, and if you never do, there isn’t anything I’ll be able to say or do that will convince you. Since I’ve began this journey, I’m certain that my ability to get through it is based primarily on God’s word and the ability he gave me to seek it to find the right verse for the right occasion.

What did the obituary say:

I thought about where to put this, and it just seems this is the right spot. One can read it if he or she wishes, but he or she can also move on.

These are the words God wrote through me to pay respect to my mother:

Marietta Zavala

June 23, 1949-July 26, 2018

Marietta Zavala, 69, passed away July 26, 2018, in Yuma, Arizona.

She was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 23, 1949, to Dale and Corinne Starbuck.

She moved to Yuma in 1984, where she began working at Yuma Proving Ground until she retired Dec. 1, 2010.

She is survived by her husband Rafael Zavala, and her sisters, Gladys, Dawn, and Michelle.

She is also survived by her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, but to offer names would require more space and time than a simple column can provide, for what made her special, was her endless love, compassion, and generosity to anyone she met.

She managed birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and holidays for more than 50 people, a number which only reflects those she was related to by blood or marriage, but she loved and cared for so many others who think of her as Mom, Grandma, or Great Grandma. She never let a single child she ever met go without presents or, more importantly, a phone call to tell them how much she loved them. This is the legacy she leaves on this earth. It is one of a woman who would always welcome those who needed somewhere to stay; it is one of a mother who cared for children as if they were her own regardless of their relationship. That boundless affection was reflected in her constant desire to prepare her home to be a place of welcome for those for whom she cared.

When someone needed anyone, she was always the first to be called and the first to be there. She will be missed by all those who are now unsure of who to call because the one who was always there has been called to Heaven.

The family is scheduled to host an open house memorial from 4-7 p.m. Aug. 3 at 7584 E. Olive Ann Lane, Yuma, Arizona, 85366. Flowers and letters of condolence may be sent to the same address. 


If you have other questions regarding my faith or thoughts or actions at this point, feel free to ask, and I’ll add them to the blog.  I try to ensure these passages are self reflective. My chaplain told me to take this opportunity to look at myself, but at the moment, those were the only real thoughts going through my mind. Questions might help me remember other thoughts or parts of The Bible I’d overlooked while typing this post.

Thanks for reading

Matt

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2 thoughts on “Testimony: My Trial of Faith as My Mom Struggled With Cancer Part 28

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