Wonders of the Brokenhearted


The argument over health care is politically-charged and I have nothing much to add to it other than choices matter. They can make the difference between life and death, between a good life or a miserable one. Mama has choices, and for this day I’m grateful for that.

When we sat down as a family to weigh the options, finances was not the determining factor. Mama’s best care was. I am completely aware that for millions around the world that’s not the case, and I am thankful for those of you out there who are working to minister to those families. Your work is heartbreaking. The devastation you see on a daily basis unimaginable.

I think about the story my own father-in-law told me about the young girl he carried in his arms, rushing to get her aboard a flight, hoping to get her transported from a remote mission field of Ecuador to a hospital in large city. Only before he got her aboard that plane, the girl died in his arms. An antibiotic that cost a handful of dimes would have saved the child’s life. But her family didn’t have those dimes, didn’t have the option of better health care for their child.  Although decades have passed since he carried a dying child in his arms, my tender-hearted father-in-law can’t tell that story without his heart breaking for that child all over again.

Somewhere in the evolutionary process of this thing we call civilization, we have come to think that having a broken heart is something to be avoided, or altogether denied.

I can’t think of anything less civil than living among a people unwilling, or unable to have their hearts spilled out on behalf of another.  I want to live among the brokenhearted. For it is there that we find our real selves. 

Remember what the Skin Horse said to the Velveteen Rabbit?

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”


Nurse J. pulled me and Sister Tater aside and told us that Mama’s decision to transfer to the University of Washington for care was the right one. It’s a teaching hospital, she said. They’ll have more options open for her.

Isn’t it funny how a little affirmation even from a complete stranger can be such an encouragement in moments like these? I know Nurse J.’s words will never leave us. I know in the months and years to come, we will think of that moment in the hallway and remember that even the nurse thought it was a good decision.

Sister Tater just called. She’s with Mama tonight. This is the first night I’ve been away from the hospital since Friday. It’s my first hot shower in three days. And I’m here on this comfy bed in my nephew’s home, not sleeping, even though I’m bone-weary.

The tape is on rewind. I am trying to remember every single thing about my mama. “How many times have I done that for you?” she said today as I wet her hair down and brushed it into place. “I bet you had a time with it,” I replied. Mama kept my blonde straight hair in a pixie-cut, so there were always cowlicks and bangs to keep up after. “I did,” she said.

You were my number one daughter, she said. I overheard her say the same thing to a granddaughter later in the day.  She wasn’t being insincere. Mama considers each one of us her favorite.

Oh, and how she fussed over Sullivan during her first ever Skype call. “Look at how wide-eyed he is,” she said. I tell myself it’s because Sullivan already recognizes the sound of my voice. Daughter Ashley plays along. “I hope his hair stays dark,” Mama said after Ashley held Sullivan’s crown up to the camera so Mama could study the Mohawk he’s got going on.

Mama knows this child will only come to know her through the stories he hears. Sister Tater is expecting the birth of her own grandson in November. It’s not wrong to pray that Mama be here for that, I assured her. We are a people of prayer. We are a people of faith. We serve the God of miracles. Man studies the body, Sister Tater says, but God knows the body.

The Redhead I wrote about in Will Jesus Buy Me A Doublewide? ended up with lung cancer the result of breast cancer spreading. When the doctors found the cancer in her lungs they asked if she wanted to know how long she had left and she told them no. The Redhead said that her days were all part of God’s Economy. She cherished the treasure that each day held for her.

Will you pray that I have strength for this day? Mama asked as her grandkids gathered around once more to pray. Oh, how I wish you could see them. These children who used to gather at Mama’s house each Christmas for the big dinner and all those presents from Grandma Shelby — the toy trains and the pretty dresses, the handmade dolls and the remote-controlled doggies  — these children stand around her bed holding-hands as one of them reads from Scriptures, and then they pray. We are a praying family. As I said in the book I wrote about Mama, our life circumstances demanded it of us.

The prayers of these grandchildren are the gifts they give their grandmother. It’s like watching Skin Horses and Velveteen Rabbits come to life — For Real. 

It’s far more than magical. It’s something beyond this present moment into the wonders of the Brokenhearted.

















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  • Gwendzach

    We too are praying for you and your family. Dad & Mom Z

    • Thank you Mom & Dad. Sorry I didn’t get to talk to Dad on his birthday. Hope it was a good one. How old is he now? 29?

  • Beautiful writing! Still praying for sure for strength and comfort for all of you!

  • AFRoger

    Good decision. Teaching hospitals are able to do things the for-profit world can’t always do. For my wife Jean’s brain tumor, we had the best hands we could have hoped for. The five-fold emphasis of “all things” in Colossians 1:15-20 is not a mis-statement. The One who is foremost, who has first place, has such a place in all things including “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health”–words from marriage vows that aptly describe what this living business is. I’ve learned that we don’t really have a full vocabulary for praise until we have first properly learned to wail, to wail in the midst of hope and to hope amid the wailing. God’s peace to you.

    • Roger — Your words ‘We don’t have full capacity for praise until we first properly learn to wail” Wow. Just Wow. So true.

  • Gloria

    Please know your extended family is parying for all of you and with all of you. Please tell your mama that He will hear and answer our prayers! Thank you for the beautiful word picture. I can see the prayer circle made up of all those generations.

    • Gloria today was a perfect example of God answering prayer. She made it through the biopsy that doctors considered very high risk. Not only made it but has done exceedingly beyond all expectations. Prayer Matters. Prayer Ministers.

  • Cindi

    Their hands were touching but it was the hearts that were joined together in prayer! All that love so faithfully taught, generation to generation, heart to heart, a bond that God blesses and honors. I’ve never read your book or heard your name before yet you just invited me to be a part of that circle of love and I am so blessed. I will hold my children and grandchildren’s hands and pray, and as others join in the circle will continue to grow. Long after mama and you and me are gone the circle will still be there and we can join together an pray for the hearts we haven’t even met yet, God is so good. Thank you for inviting me to hold hands with you and mama and the grandchildren and now as the circle grows we may as well pray for the person in the next bed and the one across the hall or one floor down from us because their family couldn’t make it into town. Love and prayer can’t be contained within time or space, they are perfection, they are God!

    • Cindi: Yep, it’s the crossing beyond this present moment that resonates with me as well. This relay team of passing of the baton…

  • Rachel

    This one has me in tears! I’ve been a caregiver to a mother with diabetes, congestive heart failure, and now end stage renal disease since 2001. She’s been on dialysis since 2002…and so close to death’s door many times. I try not to think too much these days about the future. We live from crises to crises. The will to live is stronger than the will to let go and be in Jesus’ arms…something I do not understand. I’ve raised my children all during these years…it’s agonizing to watch our mother’s give in to the ailments of disease and old age. It’s been many years of watching a living death. Only Jesus gives me strength. As I came home today from 11 days away with my family, only God and my husband know the angst of emotions. 80% of the caregiving falls to me…perhaps one day the purpose of this experience will be revealed. Thank you for sharing.

    • Oh, Rachel, I simply cannot fathom it. The day in and day out of such caregiving to an ailing mother, while raising kids. I know my mother’s time here in the hospital is limited. She will be given a treatment plan and then the great diminishing will begin. Radiation, chemo, the progression of cancer that doctors have said is treatable but not curable. Reminds me of something I once heard Corrie Ten Boom said — If I had known what I would endure, I could not have endured it. But God gives the grace as we need it. Grace to you, Rachel as you continue to minister to your mother.