By Pamay Bassey
On a Sunny Sunday afternoon, about six months after my dad passed away, my sisters and I piled in a car with my mom and headed to a church that was right around the corner from our high school, The Westminster Schools, in Atlanta’s Buckhead community.
This church was not there when we were all Westminster Wildcats – I don’t even remember what was present where this enormous church now stands. But it was a familiar drive to a church that we thought might be a new church home for a woman who was determining how to create a life without the man she had been in partnership with for 50 years. My mother.
My mom and dad met when my mom was an 18 year old finishing up her first round of schooling, and my father was a pharmacist in Benin, Nigeria. As the story goes, my mom had a botany project (no kidding) that was due upon returning to school after Easter Break. My mom procrastinated, and as Easter approached, realized that she was going to need some help for the project. She approached her friend, appropriately named Grace, and Grace let her know that she should go and ask the “Safeway Chemist” – my dad, who apparently was well known not only for his good looks, but also his intelligence. He helped her, and when their tutoring session was over, my mom knew that she had met the man that would be her husband, and went home to tell her mother as much. Her mother told her to keep it to herself, as they both knew that if her grandmother found out, all game would be squashed. Apparently her grandmother, my great grandmother was well known for letting the boys in the neighborhood know that her granddaughter was not to be messed with. My mom told us stories that as she and her friends went to school, her grandmother would follow her with a pail of water. If any boy should be so bold as to whistle, or even call out to my mom, her grandmother would throw the pail of water on them, thus, ending that attempt at a love connection.
So, she did not tell her grandmother she had met her husband to be. What she also didn’t do, apparently, was thank my father for his help, even though she ended up getting a good grade on the project. My dad told their mutual friend Grace that “that girl,” my mom, had not been considerate enough to follow up and thank him, or even let him know how the project went. He asked Grace for my mom’s contact information (which was probably more the point, methinks), wrote my mom at the Catholic girl’s boarding school where she lived, and that is how correspondence started. My mom told me how she had to provide him with an address outside of the boarding school, so that they could communicate without concern that the nuns would read the letters. (I guess the girls at the school had this all figured out.). Once the correspondence began, my mom and dad began “courting”. When my father found out that he would be leaving Nigeria to go to Germany for medical school, there began their long, long-distance relationship. They dated over continents – from Africa, to Europe, married, came to the United States, and built a life together and a family.
My mom dated no one else, from the age of 18, my father was her companion, and then later, her husband. And now, fifty years later, she was faced with the prospect of life without my dad; and we were left to help her try and determine “What Now?”.
In trying to help my mother transition from a life as a wife to a life as a widow, we considered moving her from the “big house” to a condo. In considering neighborhoods, we considered the one near the school where we spend a good chunk of our childhood. We chose to visit the church to see if it could be part of a community where my mother could feel at home and at peace as she figured out what the new normal would be.
The energy of the church was familiar – there was a great deal of movement, from figuring out how to park the car, to figuring out how to navigate from the parking garage to the sanctuary. There were greeters welcoming us, a place for us to get our “visitor” nametags, and a distinct feeling like we knew the language of this community, of achievement, and wealth, and the fact to whom much is given, much is expected.
We sat in the large sanctuary, and settled in to listen to the message. Believe it or not, the sermon for the day was very family-focused. He talked about how family was the primary congregation, and the importance of taking care of family. In emphasizing the importance, biblically and culturally of taking care of elders, the pastor mentioned how Jesus wanted to take care of his mother from the cross – that even when he knew he could not take care of her, he wanted her to be taken care of. Quite relevant given that by even visiting this church, we wanted to make sure our mother was taken care of.
A few other topics that also resonated with me were:
1) The topic of forgiveness. In continuing to talk about Jesus’ last moment on the cross, he mentioned the scripture – “Father forgive them because they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
2) He also talked about the human propensity, to make promises, then get busy breaking those promises. He mentioned that it was time to stop running from God – stop running from making a commitment, and stop making and breaking promises. Given the amount of bargaining that I did as it became clear that my father was dying, or that my relationship was ending, this held special significance for me.
3) He discussed the two natures of humankind – that we are both divine and human. And that we should draw strength from the fact that we are fully God and fully man at the same time.
4) He discussed the concept of the “man being the spiritual head of the household.” Given that I am not married, but would like to be someday, this was also interesting to me. I have several family members and friends who have marriages that appear to work (from the outside, as of course, no one can know what is really going on in someone’s house, relationship, or marriage), who have shared with me that this is how their house is run. Every conversation I have had about this has been intriguing, as was the pastor’s discussion of the concept during his sermon.
Once again, there was a “coincidence” where the pastor shared that his favorite song is “It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Spafford, which is another song that was sung at my father’s funeral. The pastor shared the story of the song, which my Uncle Fred also shared at my father’s funeral.
The lyrics of the song are:
- When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
- Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
- My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
- For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
- But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
- And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
The story of the song is equally as inspiring as the words of the song. As the Job-like story goes:
“Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was a wealthy Chicago lawyer with a thriving legal practice, a beautiful home, a wife, four daughters and a son. He was also a devout Christian and faithful student of the Scriptures. His circle of friends included Dwight L. Moody, Ira Sankey and various other well-known Christians of the day.
At the very height of his financial and professional success, Horatio and his wife Anna suffered the tragic loss of their young son. Shortly thereafter on October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed almost every real estate investment that Spafford had.
In 1873, Spafford scheduled a boat trip to Europe in order to give his wife and daughters a much needed vacation and time to recover from the tragedy. He also went to join Moody and Sankey on an evangelistic campaign in England. Spafford sent his wife and daughters ahead of him while he remained in Chicago to take care of some unexpected last minute business. Several days later he received notice that his family’s ship had encountered a collision. All four of his daughters drowned; only his wife had survived.
With a heavy heart, Spafford boarded a boat that would take him to his grieving Anna in England. It was on this trip that he penned those now famous words, When sorrow like sea billows roll; it is well, it is well with my soul..
Philip Bliss (1838-1876), composer of many songs including Hold the Fort, Let the Lower Lights be Burning, and Jesus Loves Even Me, was so impressed with Spafford’s life and the words of his hymn that he composed a beautiful piece of music to accompany the lyrics. The song was published by Bliss and Sankey, in 1876.
For more than a century, the tragic story of one man has given hope to countless thousands who have lifted their voices to sing, It Is Well With My Soul.”
I was touched by the pastor’s message for the Sunday, and the message from the song. The pastor talked about submitting to the will of God even though you may not understand it, and talked about times in when you may be puzzled at circumstances in your life. He talked about developing “the ability to trust the Lord when it costs so dearly.” He mentioned that there will be times in your life when you feel like you are going uphill and the wind is blowing in your face, but that you should remember that “…all things work together for good to them that love God…” (Romans 8:28, KJV)
Given all that we had been through as a family in 2009, with the loss of key family members, this message was relevant. And, being in the midst of processing the loss of a relationship that I really did think would be a lifelong connection, this was additionally relevant. Thoughts of what I thought my family would look like, and how those images were no longer going to come to pass brought tears to my eyes. Figuring out how to let go of those who are gone, for whatever, reason, is not easy.
After the service was over, there was a visitor reception and we fellowshipped with those who were in what appeared to be a meet and greet ministry. We talked, played the do you know game – “Oh yeah, I went to Westminster…so did my daughter/son/son in law/brother/wife/etc” and discovered a new location where perhaps a little peace and familiarity could serve as a new home for our mother.
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this brought tears to my eyes! I pray that the Lord gives me 50 years with my hubby and that, should the Lord take him home, my children will take care of me in the same thoughtful way!!!
Thanks so much for the feedback! Your words are so kind. I learned so much from watching my parent’s marriage; I am learning additional lessons as we try to make sure my mom is taken care of, as my father requested before he passed. Love to you!