A Biscuit & Black Coffee Run

Mama is sitting at the edge of her bed eating a biscuit with jam and drinking a tall black coffee from McDonalds, which Mama declares is pretty good coffee. I am the culprit who snuck the “real food” in. Mama says you can tell everybody the food here is bad and besides, she’s been a nurse for decades.

“I always thought it was stupid when you have an 80-year old patient who has their way of eating and you get them in the hospital and you tell them you can’t have that. That’s ridiculous. Let them eat what they want.”

In other words: Do. Not. Come. Between. A. Southern Woman. And. Her. Biscuits. And. Black Coffee.

She sent me to the cafeteria first thing this morning for coffee but alas the cafeteria doesn’t open until 7 a.m. and it wasn’t quite 6 yet. I’d already changed out of the clothes I slept in last night and put in the bathroom trash the pink ID sticky badge that all the rest of the family had made fun of me for wearing all day yesterday. Hey. I try to follow the rules, I told them.

I had a feeling when I put that badge in the trash I might come to regret it. But I was in a hurry to get Mama some coffee, pronto. Her hospital diet doesn’t allow for coffee of any sort.

Did I mention this place is crawling with security?

They stopped me as I tried to re-enter the hospital. “Sorry Ma’am, you’ll have to go around,’ said the beefy gal, who I swear really did cross her arms over her chest. (Insert eye roll here.) The shorter, squadgy one stood behind me, trapping me between the two automatic doors.

Did they know about the biscuits and sausage hidden in my bag or was it the black coffee that troubled them?

Oh. I see. The lack of that pink sticky badge? Well, you see, I changed clothes. You can walk right there to that bathroom and you’ll find it in the top of the open trash.

She actually cocked an eyebrow at me and turned her head in that sideways way of Poe when he can’t figure me out. “You’ll have to go through the front and recheck in,” she said in her best bossy way.

Oh. Good. Grief. Mama had been waiting for the coffee 20 minutes now. It would take another 10 to recheck ID etc. And what if they found the biscuits? Were they going to confiscate Mama’s biscuits?

Another woman walked up. She was wearing her security badge. An official plastic one. They told her to go around too, and refused to step on that magic spot between the two doors that opens it up to outsiders. So I did it. Right there in front of God and everybody. I stepped on that magic spot and opened that second door to the outsider and she showed them her badge and that she really did work there and they said, “Okay, but you know you are supposed to go around on the weekends.” (Insert her eye roll).

I so badly wanted to ask them if they had been trained by TSA. Instead I just said Please call the hospital administrator and to their credit they did that. She marched me to the bathroom where I retrieved the pink sticky badge and gave the security staff my best smile.

They are just doing their jobs, the hospital administrator said, smiling too. I know, I said. I’m just trying to get Mama some hot coffee.

Mama had a good laugh about the fact that I snuck her a biscuit past not one but two security staff. Only you, she said. What she means is that out of her three children, I am the confrontational one. She doesn’t like that in me one bit when she’s the one I’m challenging but there is something that tickles her when she sees me do it others. Maybe she likes the deflection? Maybe she sees something of herself in that.

“The good news in all of this that you don’t have to have that cataract surgery now,” I said.

Mama laughed over that too. She’s been delaying that cataract surgery. The woman who loves to read doesn’t like the idea of people messing with her eyes. She was worried about that cataract surgery. It scared her.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. “That was a sick joke. The journalist in me.”

“No,” she said. “I’d thought of that too.” The nurse in her.

“Tell me how you can be so scared of cataract surgery and yet they tell you you have stage four lung cancer and six brain tumors and you take that news so calmly and so rationally?”

She shook her head sideways in that way she does and gave her shoulders a shrug.

“Must be all those people praying,” I answered my own question.

“Yes,” Mama said. “It has to be.”

“And maybe your professional training?”

“Sure. What are you going to do? This is what I’m dealing with now. I have to take it a day at a time. Do what I need to do.”

“I guess so.”

But last night, she told Brother John, “I wish they’d found it before it went to the brain.”  Mama said that without a hint of bitterness or anger or frustrating. Just matter of fact, like she was telling the dry cleaners to use light starch.

If you doubt for one minute the strength of a war widow like Mama you ought to read After the Flag has been Folded. Deedy Salie called me yesterday. We don’t talk as much as we used to but when Deedy’s husband David was killed in Iraq, Joe Galloway asked me to reach out to Deedy and her three children. Like several of the Gold Star Wives who read the book, Deedy views Mama as inspiration. She took Mama’s story and translated into hope. If Mama could survive, if she could raise good kids all by herself, then by golly Deedy could too. And she has and is doing just that. Deedy is a Hero Mama too. She wanted me to tell Mama that she was praying for her and that if she needed anything, or if I did, I only had to pick up the phone and call that Mississippi number.

I read to Mama all of your notes and told her of all your calls yesterday. “You’ve done a good job of reaching out on that network of yours,” Mama said. “Now if only all those people who say they are praying will pray.”

“They are, Mama,” I said. “My people pray.”

I read to Mama the piece I wrote yesterday about her granddaughters ministering to her. “That’s some beautiful writing,” Mama said. “I love that.”

“Whatever anybody says about me the only thing that has ever really mattered to me is God and my family,” she said.

That was obvious as several of Mama’s grandchildren and her children gathered in her room yesterday and listened as grandson Robert read a devotional Sister Tater suggested.

 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.


Huh? We all looked to Sister Tater, who said, “I may have given you the wrong Scriptures.” And we all laughed through our tears. (Insert whole group eye rolling). Sister Tater had suggested Psalms 137. “Maybe it’s 139,” she said. Okay. Rewind. Robert read 139.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Ah, yes, much better word. More laughter. Then a prayer.

“I have not asked God to take this from me,” Mama said. “But I want to hear from God every single day. A word to get me through the day. I not only want God to see me, I want to hear from him.”

So breakfast is finished. Mama enjoyed that coffee. She’s listening attentively to Dr. Stanley.

“I like my Southern preachers,” she says.

Dr. Stanley is giving a message about God’s promises, a message from Psalms 46.

“Right there, what he just said, write that down,” she said.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” 

“Did you hear that?” Dr. Stanley asked. “God is a very present help in times of trouble.”

And so for this day, Mama has heard a word from God.

She worries about the grandchildren she hasn’t seen yet. Jessica in Hawaii. Stephan in Alaska. David & Rose in Portland. Ashley and Zack in Spokane. And Shelby in Bend.

Will I see them? she asks.

We can Skype them, I tell her.

Will they be able to read what you write? she asks.


Can you put it on Facebook? she asks.

Yes, Mama. I’ll put it on Facebook.

Mama wants as many people praying for her as we can reach. Prayer matters. Prayer ministers.

Mama will undergo a biospy on her lungs on Monday. They know it’s cancer. They know it’s malignant. They are just going to determine the specific cancer cells. The tumors are in what the doctor has described as “exquisite places” but I don’t think he’s using that term the same way that the editors at Vogue mean. They can radiate those tumors, shrink them. But there is much unknown yet. There is no plan of action until after Monday’s surgery.

But this much we are sure of — this is not curable.

The woman who has suffered so much in life already has more suffering to face.

Mama is not mad at God. Not railing against Him or this suffering to come. And if she’s scared — and you’d think a nurse who is annoyingly cognizant of all these matters  might be —  she doesn’t show it.

“Sometimes brain tumors can make people act ugly, if that happens don’t take it personally,” she warned.

“I won’t Mama,” I said.

“I appreciate the way you are handling all this with peace and dignity,” Mama said.

I wanted to tell her I learned from the best but I couldn’t get the words out through my tears.




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  • Amanda Eiland

    Praying for your sweet mama. “No weapon formed against me shall remain”


    Amanda E.

    • karenzach

      Perfect, thank you.

  • Ladydiole

    Oh my!

  • You’re right. Those that said they are praying really are praying.

    • karenzach

      I read your note to Mama. She asked who you were. I said a Texas friend. She is surprised that anyone in Texas would be my friend, I think. LOL.

  • JulieMcClelland

    Courage. Bless her and all her family.

  • kim

    Praying for you and yours and your incredible mama.

  • Ddjrfd

    dang nab it you have me crying again, your writing is so beautiful, what a gift you have. I will be praying for all of you in my morning and bedtime prayers. I’m also going to get your book. I want to know your beautiful momma more, please give her a hug from me. “The wings of a prayer carry high and far” Anonymous

    • karenzach

      Thank you. We need prayer in ways we never imagined.

  • AFRoger

    Prayers for Mama Shelby and the whole clan. God’s peace.

    • KarenZach

      Tell me how your lovely mama is doing, Roger. I am amazed by her.

  • Gloria

    Karen – your writing amazes me and moves me. Please tell your mama that the Steele family is praying. You can pick up that phone and call us anytime too and we will be there for whatever you need.

    • karenzach

      Thanks girl!

  • Jeanie Cloninger

    I found your blog through Renee Winchester. I am praying for your Mama and the rest of your family. Having been through this before with my Dad, I can tell you that in the midst of heartache you can find joy. In between the tears, there will be laughter. And most of all, there will be love.

  • Cathy Day

    Karen, please tell your Mama that I am sitting in my daughter’s apt tonight in North Ga and have had prayer for her and her family. Share one of my favorite verses with her, Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God. Love Cathy Day