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A mother's life-lessons reach beyond the grave

by Patricia Mish | Photography by Jonathan Tramontana
Kerry DeGraaf would not ordinarily describe herself as a morning person. However, on the morning of her mother’s visitation she awoke early to a brilliant red sunrise streaming through her bedroom window. “I went outside and stood there in my yard, just admiring the beauty of it. I was thinking ‘Thank you for this Lord’. I knew it was a sign from God that everything was going to be okay.” As she turned to go inside, she saw a rainbow over her Coopersville house.
“A rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise, and this was a sign from God and my mom telling me ‘I’m here. I’m in heaven. He keeps his promises, and he is all good,” says Kerry. The image remains with Kerry as she approaches the one-year anniversary of her mother’s passing, a reminder of the lessons her mother taught her in her life, in her illness and in her death. As she continues to grieve, Kerry feels blessed to have been able to be at her mother’s side during her final months. She was cared for by the sisters and staff at Emmanuel Hospice, part of St. Ann’s Home on the northwest side of Grand Rapids.
“Emmanuel Hospice was wonderful,” says Kerry. “It’s one thing to be cared for; it’s another thing to be cared about. Emmanuel Hospice very much did that for her. They cared about her as a person.”
Judith Flynn Missad was born March 18, 1935. She married a military man, and they had three daughters: Katy, Kelly and Kerry. The family moved frequently. Kerry does not sugar coat those years; she describes her father as an alcoholic who abused her mother frequently during their 30 years of marriage. They divorced, and Judith married Gene Missad, a man of kindness and integrity, who was a wonderful husband to Judith and a second father to Kerry. The two retired to a mobile home on Lake Hamlin in Ludington. In Ludington, Judith attended daily Mass at St. Simon Catholic Church, where she was known as a “prayer warrior” for others. She also helped at the parish food pantry, was a member of the Catholic Daughters, and was involved in Respect Life.
Those were happy years for Judith, who had been a registered nurse for nearly 50 years. “My mom was the kind of person that loved the finer parts of life. She loved to socialize, she loved to talk, she loved to go to the beach,” recalls Kerry. “She loved food. She loved to cook.”
In her later years, Judith faced much personal loss. Her husband Gene died in December of 2003. The next year in May, her daughter Kelly Forth lost her battle with breast cancer at age 42. Judith’s first husband died in 2002. Through it all, Judith remained faithful.
“She prayed her rosary at least once a day,” says Kerry. “She was always praying for all her family members that had passed.”
Hers was not an easy life, but Judith never lost faith. “I never once for even a second saw her have any doubt in God or, in prayer, or in religion or her faith,” recalls Kerry. “She would ask for understanding. But there was never any doubt. That was definitely something I learned from her.”
Judith loved Ludington, but decided to move to Coopersville when it became too difficult to manage Michigan winters. About three to four years ago, at the urging of Kerry and husband Richard, Judith moved into a senior apartment less than two minutes from her daughter’s home.
Judith had long battled diabetes, and her health worsened. She had frequent falls. One day in June 2013 she called Kerry because she was having difficulty breathing. The emergency-room doctors determined Judith had congestive heart failure. However, additional scans revealed Stage 4 cancer throughout her body. She was given less than six months to live. “Of course I bawled like a baby and she just took it,” says Kerry. “Any sort of challenges God put in front of her … she never really questioned. She wasn’t a `Why me, Lord?’ person.”
Instead, she would ask God “What do you want me to do about this?” Judith had long insisted that her daughters place her in a nursing home should her health fail. Judith’s mother had spent her last years at St. Ann’s Home, but that option was beyond Judith’s budget. Judith was able to move to St. Ann’s for a rehabilitation stay because of her congestive heart failure. The family learned that St. Ann’s was starting Emmanuel Hospice, and Judith was admitted. For Kerry, the way it worked out was nothing short of “divine intervention.” “She was so faithful,” says Kerry of her mother. “She did everything he asked her. And now he is showing her: OK, I promised you I would take care of you. And he did.”
Sister M. Gabriela, assistant director of St. Ann’s, knew Judith and frequently prayed the rosary with her. The sisters made sure that she received the Eucharist regularly.
“Having the sisters there really brought to light how important sharing faith and fellowship with God is, especially at the end of life,” says Kerry. “When your faith reaches out to people beyond your immediate family, it’s a special experience.”
Kerry was about to sit down to breakfast with a friend when she received a call from Hospice that her mother was “actively dying.” She called her sister Katy, who lives in New York City. “I went there and told my mom she was not allowed to die until my sister got there,” she recalls. Family members came to say good-bye, and Judith held on until Katy arrived. Then Lorraine Forth, Kelly’s mother-in-law, joined them at her bedside. She asked Kerry and Katy if it would be OK to pray the same chaplet rosary she and Judith had prayed over Kelly at her passing. An hour later, on Sept. 14, 2014, Judith died.
“She wanted that rosary before she passed. It was the same rosary that was said over her daughter,” says Kerry. “I believe in all those spiritual things. It’s almost like because our sister Kelly could not be here, she sent her other mom to be with us. That was her way of being there for me, my sister and my mother.”
Even in her dying, Kerry’s mother thought of others. She would offer up her suffering for her grandchildren. “You think of this person as being so incapacitated,” says Kerry. “Even in that state, she found a way to help. And to teach.”
The biggest lesson that Kerry learned from her mother is trust in God. “You could plainly see God and his love and his faithfulness to her. Now whenever I have something I’m concerned about or worried about, I try to remind myself not to worry. I try to remind myself to trust in God. That God is faithful.”
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