In April while keeping vigil over our mom in her last days, my siblings and I sang hymns, and I listened—really listened—to the lyrics, which is to say that I heard the hymns anew.
“Mom, this one is so you,” I remember saying as she lay blanketed and still, eyes closed, mouth occasionally rising toward a smile.
She whispered, “I like that one.” A whisper was all the voice she had left.
“Really, Mom,” I pressed. “I mean, have you ever thought about the meaning here? It says God is in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. And this line: ’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee. He’s saying light keeps us from seeing the spiritual realm. That is so interesting. Clearly, the guy who wrote this—Walter Smith—this guy had a lot of questions about God, and his questions sound like your questions, Mom. He wrote this in 1867. Isn’t it something to think that here we are, more than a hundred years later, still with these same questions?”
“Yes,” Mom whispered. “Yes, it is.”
“Yeah, that one really sounds like you,” I said as I turned pages, glancing at dates, looking for oldies—for hymns she’d know best. Singing gentle hymns was a lovely way to pass a day.
Three days, actually. I probably sang twenty different hymns. Maybe thirty. I don’t know. Along the way, two hymns resonated so deeply with me, I paused to talk about them. The first was the one I mentioned above, and the second was “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” The lyrics blew me away.
“These words are beautiful,” I gushed. “Have you ever thought about this hymn, Mom? I mean, like, really thought about it? You know, I read better than I sing, so I’m going to read this one, okay?”
From her chair on the other side of the bed, my sister waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, read it,” she said. “Just read.” She was tired of my singing.
I read the four stanzas in the loveliest poetry-reading voice I could muster. (I’ve put the text below.) My sister agreed that the lyrics were stunning. Pure poetry.
That evening, with a sudden burst of intensity, Mom opened her eyes and asked if we were going to be okay. We assured her that yes, we would.
She repeated her question.
“Yes, Mom. Yes! We are going to be okay.”
She settled her head back against the pillow, closed her eyes, and didn’t open them again. Ever.
The next day we went looking for notes she said she’d written—notes about what she wanted in her memorial service. It took us a while to find them, and when we did, my sister exclaimed, “No way!”
Turns out, two of the hymns Mom wanted sung were the very two that had made me pause. “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise” and “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
Since that time, I’ve mentioned this coincidence to a few folks, and for the most part they’ve said things like, “Wow, you really knew your mom.” While that might be true, I’ve suspected something more than mere knowledge at work. During the hours beside Mom’s bed, my sister and I sensed—well, what to call it? It was sort of like… I don’t know. A hum beneath the surface. Something in the shadows, in the slanted way sunlight entered at the window and criss-crossed the room. Something holy. Sacred. And while singing and talking about those two hymns, I felt the presence of… angels? That’s what my sister said. Angels. Surrounding us. And I want to believe her.
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe
that in thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.
O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day may brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.
George Matheson, 1881
I’m grateful to be a member of a church that invites me to put into writing a remembrance like this one. Thank you, GPPC.
Anne is serving on our Session, where she leads the Faith Formation team. She has been active with Coming Together Virginia for some years, and writes and publishes fiction as A.B. Westrick. Her four adult children came up through GPPC. Please ask her for the exact count on her grandchildren.