The room was dim. Not a sound could be heard other than my constant sniffling. I clung to her hand and thanked God for that brief alone time, which would be our last.
My grandmother, who was also my very best friend, had come to the hospital just days before for a routine procedure. Something went horribly wrong. As the doctors opened her up the next day to fix the problem, they were surprised to discover her body was overtaken by cancer. They quickly returned from surgery and sadly reported that she would not be going home. It was only a matter of days. This was far from what we expected. Our minds couldn’t even process this information.
As the reality began to sink in, we began to realize that every minute with her was precious. In my time alone with her that day, I told her everything in my heart and all the things I was thankful for. She had been my biggest fan, my most trusted friend, and my role model. She had helped me raise my boys since the day I brought them home. I couldn’t fathom life without her.
She had been such a vital and active part in all of our lives. She attended every special event and loved watching our ballgames. She enjoyed cooking and taking care of her family as well as her community. She even had fun dressing up as Hulk and playing superheroes with my boys. She loved life and never wanted to miss a thing. As the shock of the sudden diagnosis began to sink in, she knew the God she had long-served was calling her home.
Once I finished talking, she had some things she wanted to say to me as well. She told me to get a notebook and write her instructions down. Still, in disbelief of the situation, I wrote and wept bitterly as she spoke.
“Make sure the boys get my old yellow hot chocolate pitcher.
I don’t want anyone squabbling over my belongings. You sure can’t take them with you.
I want our family to love God and each other. I want you all to get together often.
Take care of your Mama.
Make sure you keep God first in your marriage. Love Matthew even when it’s hard and you don’t want to.
Teach those precious boys the ways of the Lord and don’t let up. Keep them in church even if they don’t want to go.
Don’t ever raise your voice at children. That’s not the way God intended. A gentle answer turneth away wrath.
Remember Third Sunday in May. I want my family there. Make sure you take the boys.”
Given the dire situation, her last request seemed awfully out of place to me. Third Sunday in May was the last thing on my mind, but I wrote it down anyway.
Third Sunday in May began during the 1800s at my grandmother’s tiny country church in Choctaw County, Mississippi. Many rural churches in the South at that time celebrated “Decoration Day” one Sunday in May or June when the spring flowers were in bloom. Contrary to popular belief, this tradition actually began before the Civil War. It was a day set aside to celebrate the saints of the church who had passed on.
The week before the service was to be held, the church ladies would take their children and grandchildren to the cemetery to clean the tombstones, hoe the weeds around the graves, pick up trash, and replace old flowers with new or fresh ones.
I can remember my grandmother telling me about how important this was to her mother. I’ve also heard plenty of stories by my mother and my aunts about being taken to the cemetery to work as children. As they would move from one tombstone to the next, they would be told stories of their relatives and their resilient faith.
Since my very first year, my mother brought me to Third Sunday in May with my entire family. We no longer had to pick up trash and pull weeds. We simply congregated at the church for the traditional service of remembrance and then followed up with dinner on the grounds. It was like one big family reunion as we visited outside and all the children played. Once the food was cleared off the big concrete tables outside, families gathered to make the hot journey down the hill to the cemetery.
As I got older and brought my children with me, my grandmother, mom, and aunts would walk them around after lunch to place flowers on the tombstones while introducing them to all the loved ones who had gone on to glory. They would tell the boys the same old stories passed down of their service to God and the church and the ways they provided for and showed love to their family. The shared humorous memories as well as the ones involving hardship.
That old cemetery is filled with people who knew the value of hard work, but also heartache and loss. Many couples have multiple young children buried around them because they lived at a time without modern medicine. Soldiers graves are scattered about, several of them being very young men. But nevertheless, these men and women honored the God who saw them through trials and testing and passed their Christian values on to their children who are buried close by. My grandmother, her grandparents, her parents, and her siblings all share the same tombstone with their spouses as they honored the bond of marriage until death. These saints weren’t perfect, but most of them had an unwavering faith through the hardest times our country ever faced. They didn’t give up or give in when times were hard. They pressed on and pressed into the Savior.
As I sat in that dark, depressing hospital room and reflected on my memories of Third Sunday in May, I wanted to lash out in despair and tell her if she wasn’t there with us, there was no reason for me to go. It wouldn’t be the same without her. It would be too painful seeing her tombstone. But instead of refusing, I knew she was serious, so I promised her we’d be there.
Nearly three years later as Third Sunday in May approaches, I am filled with emotion as I read Joshua 24 and think of this conversation with my beloved grandmother. Joshua, who had lived a long, faith-filled life, was also talking to his loved ones for the last time. He reminded them of God’s goodness and mercy throughout the years. He didn’t want them to forget how God’s favor had been upon them and the many miracles he had performed for them. He urged them to serve God with sincerity and truth and never to turn to other gods. He wanted their families to continue honoring God making a firm choice to serve him only. Joshua then took a stone and set it up for them to serve as a witness. He wanted them to remember.
This was also done previously in Joshua 4 after the Israelites had passed over the Jordan River. Once safely on the other side, each tribe was to send a representative to select a stone and place it in the bed of the river as a memorial. The purpose of this was not to create a tradition of coming once a year just to admire these twelves stones, but for the Israelites to adamantly teach their children of the great things God had done for them. They did not want the work of the Lord to be forgotten throughout the generations to come. They wanted them to remember.
This was precisely why Third Sunday in May was important to my grandmother. It wasn’t about a family reunion or the act of placing flowers on familiar stones. It wasn’t about preparing countless dishes for the dinner on the grounds. The purpose was for us to pass on our spiritual heritage to future generations. She wanted us to remember.
I realized the impact this had on my children and the importance of our presence as we made that long walk to the cemetery in the scorching sun the year after her passing. Wagging their special flowers they had picked out, my three tiny boys ran straight to her grave as if it were her front door. I walked slowly and wore my huge sunglasses so they wouldn’t see me cry. As I finally caught up, they were on their knees arranging their flowers and talking to one another.
“I sure miss Mama Bobbie,” my littlest said wiping tears.
“Me, too,” comforted my oldest, “but remember she’s with Jesus and Papaw. She couldn’t wait to see her mama and daddy that are buried right over there.”
“She sure loved Jesus,” said my middle. “I loved hearing her pray and read to us out of that little Daily Bread book.”
Their conversation continued as they walked to different family members’ tombstones. I could hear them chattering and recalling the stories of faith she had impressed upon them. They remembered.
I’m so glad she wanted me to continue bringing them to Third Sunday in May. I pray they never forget the God who sustained our family through the ages. I thank God for giving me the heritage of those who fear his name (Psalm 61:5).
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching.