When a Mother Has to Say Goodbye to Her Children

(photo: Register Files)

The Easter Vigil of March 26, 2005, was  a night of strong and conflicting emotions for me. While praying earnestly for Pope John Paul II, whose life was hanging by a thread, I had the privilege of becoming the godmother to my dear friend Lizz Lovett as she entered the Church. 

Raised a Buddhist in Japan, with a Chinese mother and an American father, Lizz was an unusual convert. First she met Ryan Lovett, and then she met Jesus Christ. But many years before meeting them, a friend pressed a scapular into her hand and told her to always keep it with her and she would be safe; and she did. 

Lizz’s conversion was not a smooth one – there were many dark days and doubts and concerns that she was doing it just for her fiancé Ryan. Searching for clarity, the couple went to the cathedral of the Arlington Diocese and knelt before the statue of Our Lady. 

Worn out by the struggle, Lizz asked Mary silently, but directly, “Should I become a Catholic?” The answer came back, “Yes.” A new joy and peace flooded her soul, as tears ran down her face. Looking over at Ryan, she saw that he too was crying, but she waited until they left the church a half hour later to ask what he was crying about. “I asked Mary if you should become a Catholic,” he relayed to her. “She said, ‘Yes.’”

Ryan and I were friends first, but when Lizz and I met we had an instant bond. Despite the distance that separated us geographically,  our sisterly affection allowed up to always pick up where we left off months before. She started having children before I did, so she was my go to for talking about mommy issues. Eventually we found ourselves with four children a piece.  

And then the back pain and other odd symptoms arrived, pointing to a problem with one of Lizz’s kidneys. “My surgery is next week, and I should have a clean bill of health by Good Friday,” Lizz told me early in Lent 2014. That clean bill of health never arrived. Lizz’s surgery revealed what was well beyond anyone’s worse case scenario: inoperable stage four kidney cancer and a probable two-year window left to live.

“At 33, young, vibrant, lively, lovely, how could this be? How could Lizz have cancer?” These were the lingering question in everyone’s mind (and they still are).

To be near family, the Lovetts packed up their life in Kentucky and moved back to their hometown of Portland, Oregon. Though not optimistic about the long-term prognosis, Lizz’s new oncologist put her on a type of therapy to stop the cancer’s growth. It worked for a while. It also meant that she didn't look like a cancer patient because she never lost her hair and that in many ways, despite the surgeries and weekly struggles, she could still be a mom to her children, a wife to her husband.

During this time Chris Stefanick of Real Life Catholic, a long time friend of the Lovetts, produced this video about Lizz, seeing her as a foil against Brittany Maynard who had just taken her life in Oregon where euthanasia is legal. I watched it for the first time it in the pick-up line at my daughter’s kindergarten. “Oh, I’m fine,” I said unconvincingly to the teacher who saw the tears run down my cheeks. “I’m fine.”

The publicity generated by the video meant that Lizz had radio shows to do. I became her unofficial coach. It was a joy to just be present with her via skype as she talked her way through the first one. Later that day, I sent her a text: “You are my hero.” And she sent one back: “And you are mine!” We were both so grateful for whatever amounts of time we got to be together, even if it was just a phone call.

And then last fall the treatment stopped working. Lizz’s health spiraled. 

In late December, I flew to Oregon with my toddler son, her godson, to see the Lovetts. Like every other time we had spent time together since having children, we were busy about other things. Lizz and Ryan were moving their family into a new home and had enough work for a small army. So we gathered a tiny army and got to work, talking when we could, but focusing on the real goal – to get the house ready to live in. There were no teary goodbyes because who knew what the future might hold? Privately, Ryan told me that the next few months were going to be tough.

Speaking with Lizz this week, she broke the news to me that the doctors have told her that she has very little time left. Nothing is working. The cancer is running amok. 

“What have you told the children?” I reluctantly asked. “Nothing yet. But we have to soon,” was the heartbreaking reply. 

And that is the hardest nut of all. How can a mother say goodbye to her children when the oldest is hardly at an age to understand and the youngest just wants his mommy? I know what it is like to tear myself away from four small children just to go to the grocery store, but the thought of saying goodbye to them until we all meet again is just too much for most mothers to process. It is remarkable to consider how different Lizz’s preparation for death would be if she didn’t have to leave those little ones and their father who still need her so much. And yet, this is what God in his perfect will is asking her to do. To say goodbye.

Lizz confided to me at a very rough moment that she just wants to be a “normal mom” without all the problems and complications, without cancer. How I wish I could give her some normalcy again. To let her make dinner in her new kitchen, while Ryan cracks jokes, their children up to mischief, with laughter and loud child-made sounds reverberating throughout the house.

But Lizz hasn’t let her physical pain, struggle and the sadness of leaving her children fully determine her life. She often reminds her husband that there is no shame in suffering and that it too is a gift. 

The last two years have taught her how to make sense of her suffering by uniting it with Christ’s Cross daily. Every ache, struggle, setback, heartbreak, she offers up for others, especially for priests. In this, she has found great joy in the midst of great suffering. Ryan told me that as odd as it sounds, they have come to love the very thing they wish the most had not happened.

Please pray for them.

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