She was close to death after a long life and she was on a mission. With one foot in heaven, the elderly Josephine’s mighty spirit stayed with her frail body and would not cross over until a deep wound in her family was healed. On the day of her death, she was taken off of life-support and not expected to live more than a few minutes. But hours passed. Doctors were baffled at how this tiny white-haired woman, battered by severe respiratory problems, managed to now breathe on her own.
As I said, she was on a mission. It was a mission of love.
She was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1920. She raised a family. She endured hardships and disappointments as well as the joy and satisfaction of seeing her children and grandchildren grow and thrive. I met her when I was a little girl of 4. She would sometimes watch over me while my mother worked. She made me lovely clothes. She had a daughter my age, also Josephine, and we became close friends. I called her Jo. We are close today and call each other sister. We confide often about the good and the bad in our lives, fearing no judgment from the other.
So I came to know the story of how Jo and her younger sister Debbie experienced a rift in their relationship. It was the type of rift that many families know all too well. Disagreements grew until an abyss formed. It was dark and cold, that awful abyss between sisters. Occasionally a fire would flare up inside of it, a bitter heat that only sealed the doorway that had shut tight between them.
But their mother, wheelchair-bound in her last days, was destined to blow that seared door off its hinges. Jo describes it as “divine intervention.” You see, elderly Josephine, who had requested that no extraordinary means be used to keep her alive, was herself doing something extraordinary. Not able to speak with her voice, she was working in partnership with the Holy Spirit and was not leaving this world until the job was done.
As Jo recalls: “Our family gathered at her bedside anticipating the unknown. We held hands and prayed in English and in Spanish. We sang songs. We laughed, we cried. We told funny stories about our Mother, our Grandma, our Abuelita. When the time came to withdrawal her from all life support, our family stood firm in agreement that we did not want her to be alone as she passed. The minutes turned into hours and the morning turned into afternoon. She remained alive and breathing on her own despite enough sedation, pain medication and narcotics to knock out an elephant. All but three members of our family made peace with the fact that she was ‘gone’ and left the hospital telling us to call when the moment came that she finally let go.”
Jo knew her mother as someone who did not want to be tied to machines. So what was keeping her mother from that longed-for journey to heaven? She decided to clear her mind and pray. And then she heard her mother’s words as clearly as if she had spoken them out loud. Her mother was still waiting, she whispered directly into Jo’s mind, for her daughters to forgive one another. Jo opened her eyes, stunned. How could that happen? As she told this story, she recalled what had led to this point.
“Several months ago Mom was transferred to a nursing home closer to my house so I could visit her everyday,” Jo said. “It became a routine for her and let’s be honest, a bit of a chore for me. But family was always very important to her and I wanted to make sure she saw family every day. One day I arrived and she said to me, ‘I want you and Debbie to make up.’ Mom knew that Debbie and I were not even friends, much less sisters. I completely ignored her; after all, in my mind it was never going to happen. I asked her what she had for lunch and she told me she already had lunch with ‘Mamaquira,’ my grandmother who died in 1990. So I figured this request about Debbie was the dementia talking and I continued to ignore it.
”Now, back in the hospital room, at her death bed, these words came back to me, so clear, so painful, so obvious that this is why she was hanging on. I grabbed Marlene (a dear family friend and native of Venezuela) and pulled her out into one of those consult rooms. I asked her if she believed that this was the reason for Mom still being alive. She said, ‘Oh yes, Sister Jo, you have to go now and make up with your sister.’ It took Marlene several minutes to convince me that it was the right thing to do. She asked, ‘What would Jesus do?’ I knew the answer.
“As much as I resisted, telling her that there was so much pain and hurt, she kept urging me on. She quoted Bible passages and told me the Holy Spirit was inside of me willing me to do it. I should not hold back. She finally asked me what I was afraid of. And I told her. Rejection. She said, ‘You have to try, Sister Jo.’ So she left the room to get Debbie. The whole time she was gone I was preparing myself for Debbie to tell me to take a hike! As it turns out, Debbie was in Mom’s room resisting the talk with me as much I had resisted talking to her. When she came in to the room where I waited, I explained that I knew why Mom was holding on. She was waiting for us to finally make up.”
And what did Debbie, this other sister with pain in her heart have to say? She said, “Okay. I want my sister back, Jo.” Yes, that door had been blown open. Their mother’s powerful presence was felt. They talked, clearing the air as quickly and honestly as they could. When they heard Marlene sobbing they rushed to the bedside, fearing that their mother had passed. But miraculously, she was clearly still breathing on her own.
“We realized,” Jo explained, “that the whole time we were talking in another room, Marlene was telling Mom in her native language that her daughters were doing as she asked, that we were making up. Marlene said as she was telling Mom these words, a tear came streaming down Mom’s face. It was now one of the few signs that she was still alive. I put my hand on my mother’s hand and Debbie put her hand on mine. I spoke to Mom and told her that we did as she had asked me to do so many months ago. I told her that Debbie and I were united as sisters again. Then Debbie spoke and told her that we promised to be sisters again and she thanked her for fighting so hard for us. Mom took her last breath. She survived 5 hours breathing on her own fighting for a relationship that had been strained for 13 years. Peace is a wonderful gift from the Holy Spirit. She was a good mother and we know now she did the right thing. Her faith is what kept her alive until she could be a Mom one more time and tell us what to do.”
There is a saying that no more sacred ground exists than the place in which two enemies (or angry sisters) have become friends. Debbie and Jo have made their moment of mutual forgiveness a place of sacred ground. There is no turning back to blame because the past can’t be changed. They have only the present and they plan to make the most of it.
Mission accomplished. Forgiveness between sisters has become a crowning glory for one mother who refused to give up on her girls. Rest with God, dear Josephine. And thank you. Something in me also has healed with the hearing of your story.
Photo: Jo and her mother.
Cathleen Hulbert, LCSW, is a clinical social worker in the healthcare field and a free-lance journalist with a background in newspaper reporting. She also is the author of “The First Lamp — A Story of Cosmic Illumination,” a time-travel tale about love, forgiveness and redemption. She lives in Roswell, GA. For more information about the author and the book, go to www.cathleenhulbert.com.