- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

"People get ready, there's a train a-comin'

You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'

Don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord."

"People Get Ready," The Impressions

The Impressions' "Train to Jordan" made its long-awaited and long-overdue stop in Beltsville on July 8 to pick up a very special and very willing passenger my mom, Shirley Stewart.

She had struggled with cancer for years, yielding ground ever so slowly and every so stubbornly, like the Germans and Japanese in the waning days of World War II. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries came and went, and Mom was there for all of them, sitting off to the side, enjoying the jokes and the two-man circus put on by her beloved grandsons, Sean and Jeremy.

Over the years, we learned all about the "numbers" Mom's blood cell count, which indicated how well the chemotherapy and radiation treatments were working. They were our lottery numbers our hopes rose and fell depending on how high or low the numbers were.

Starting last Christmas, though, Mom's health started into free fall. Like a plane whose landing gear finally rumbles into place after a descent that started hundreds of miles away from the airport, we knew we were really starting to land. Mom started using oxygen around the clock. Her gait became more and more unsteady. The walker followed, then the wheelchair.

The effect on my sons, Sean and Jeremy Sean especially was inescapable. He began fighting trips to my parents' house, unwilling to face the inevitability of Nana's illness, whatever it was. I began rehearsing the inevitable sit-down talk I would have to have with him, while at the same time practicing how I myself would handle the news.

A few months ago, Dad began to think about in-home hospice, because my mom didn't want to spend her last few days in a hospital. He started using the phrase "It won't be long now" two or three times a week instead of two or three times a month.

But it was long. At least it seemed that way. Mom's mountainous faith in God kept her plugging away, accepting the inevitable with a serenity I couldn't begin to fathom. I knew I should be using the extra time to prepare for my talk with Sean, but I couldn't do it. Fear of saying the wrong thing, of implanting the wrong idea in his head, paralyzed me.

And it occurred to me in Mom's final days, as I began to review her life and that incredible faith in Jesus Christ, that Jeremy is, in a sense, worse off than Sean. Sean at least will have vague, faint memories of Nana, of her presence at family gatherings, of her gifts at Christmases and birthdays always books, videos and toys that centered on God. Jeremy is too young to appreciate any of it. One of the worst tragedies that will come out of all this, I realized, will be having to say to Jeremy one day, "It's too bad you never really knew your Nana, Jeremy, because"

And then one Sunday the inevitable became real, and my mom was truly and permanently gone, and Sean and I were sitting on our front step watching Jeremy try to blow bubbles.

"Sean," I said. "Nana died yesterday. That means she's in heaven right now with Jesus. And that means we're never going to see her again, at least here. We'll see her someday when we go to heaven, too."

"Never?" Sean said. "Never," I repeated.

"Not for my birthday?"

"No. And not at Christmas."

Sean's little brow furrowed a bit at the thought of that.

I tried to tell my little 4-year-old son about death, how our bodies are like gift-wrapped Christmas presents, and what really counts is what's inside underneath the paper and the ribbons and the bows. I tried to explain that death is sad, because we won't see Nana again, but it's also happy, because Nana isn't sick anymore and, well, we will see Nana again. And I realized halfway through all of this that death, theology and 4-year-olds don't mix that well at all, and for 4-year-olds' daddies, it isn't that much easier.

And finally I gave up, gave Sean a big hug and said, "Everything is going to be OK, Sean. Mommy, Daddy and Jeremy are still here. How about we blow bubbles?"

And so we did, blowing golf ball-size bubbles that danced on the summer breeze. Jeremy oohed and aahed, Sean laughed and giggled, and I thought about my Mom's courage and faith, and whistle-stops and steam engines, and the innocence and simplicity of little boys, and how bubble therapy is underrated.

And after a while I had to smile. Climb aboard, Mom, and enjoy the ride. You deserve it.

Mark Stewart is the father of two boys, Sean and Jeremy. He is a copy editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at [email protected]

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