Monday, December 2, 2013

The Most Beautiful Sunset

The Most Beautiful Sunset

Throughout my life I have had the privilege of traveling all over the world both for pleasure and for business. Of all the varied landscapes I have seen, no place I have visited feels so much like home to me than the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Year after year I keep going back and discovering new hidden views and delights, often in a place I have driven by dozens of times before. Photography has been my hobby for many years now, and I will often take a quick trip into the mountains to see what I can find. Sometimes it’s a grand view of a new sunrise or sunset. Other times it’s a tiny unexpected flower or insect, and often it is a waterfall that cascades in a way that is different from the last time. It is not so much the pursuit of a photograph as it is a journey of discovery. It forces me to slow down and see beyond the glance, to walk around something and see if from different angles, and to find curves and see how light falls. If I happen to be able to capture what I find with my camera, then it’s a bonus. Coming home after a day of discovery with no photographs is not a failed trip, because the process is what is rejuvenating.
Sunset on the Blue Ridge Parkway - September 2013
This past summer I drove up into the mountains on one of these journeys of discovery, hoping to find a sunset. It was a short trip, and late in the afternoon. I wound my way up the smooth curves of the Blue Ridge Parkway to a few places where I knew I could see the sunset, but the closer I got, the more the day turned cloudy and hazy. I was in the right place, but as darkness fell it became obvious that this was not going to be a day for sunset pictures. “That’s ok.”, I told myself, “Not all sunsets are beautiful.”

My beautiful and sweet mother, Jean Coleman, has cancer. She was diagnosed in 2006 with Lichen Planus, a form of oral cancer. All cancers are awful, but hers has been a particularly brutal form. Normally this kind of cancer is associated with habits like smoking, drinking alcohol, or chewing tobacco. Not only did Mom not do any of these things, she has probably lived the purest life of anyone I know. She and my Dad spent their lives serving other people, often to great personal sacrifice. They lived and worked in Brazil since the early 1960’s helping the poor and hungry learn to care for small herds of cows, plant gardens, understand nutrition, and learn skills to build a sustainable life. Their last few years were in the Amazon, on the banks of the Xingu River in a remote town called Altamira. They worked along the Trans-Amazon Highway with dozens of families. It was a dangerous and dusty place, far from family, health care, and most luxuries.
My Dad (left) and one of the families my parents worked with in Brazil

In September of 2006, she had radical surgery to remove her palate and much of the structure of her mouth. She had an amazing surgeon who was able to take a section of her arm and graft it into a new palate. She was never able to eat solid foods again, but being cheerful and resourceful, she quickly crafted recipes for herself that were nutritious and tasty. When we would go out to eat, she would bring her food in a kit and the restaurants were always accommodating. Sometimes, they would make something special just for her that she was able to eat. Mom viewed the extra time she had been given as an opportunity to lift others up, and to share God’s love wherever she went. She kept lists of people’s birthdays, and sent out cards for every occasion, always with an encouraging note and often some special surprise inside. She lived her life as if nothing was wrong, and worked every day not to be a burden to anyone.
Adventure on the Segway at The Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC

Over the next 6 years, the cancer returned twice and her surgeon was able to remove the affected areas, and after a brief period of recovery she would be back to her cheerful and independent self. After Dad passed away in 2007, we were able to move her close to our home and enjoy her company and attend church with her every week. Following each of her surgeries, her surgeon would remind us that it was very likely that her cancer would return at some point with a vengeance. In July of 2013, it did. She had another major surgery that removed all the original graft, plus as much cancer as they could, leaving her with no palate and her upper jaw gone. The cancer had invaded her bone, and so she was out of options for more surgery. Radiation was an option, but only as a palliative measure that would delay the invasion of cancer into her mouth. Over the last several weeks, the tumors have grown faster and faster, limiting what she is able to eat and causing misery that nobody should ever experience. She has kept her cheerful spirit most of the time, but the toll of years of cancer made her weary and it was sometimes overwhelming. She is in constant pain, a constant state of change, losing control of her body, and there are no options for treatment that are not miserable. Radiation might temporarily help, but it would burn the inside of her mouth and her face, and no treatment means waiting until the tumors take over everything. It would be easy to conclude that hers is not a beautiful sunset.
Jean Coleman

Not long ago I took a flight in the late in the afternoon. It was a dreary drizzling day. “No chance of a sunset as we climb out today”, I thought. As we passed through ten thousand feet I saw a few bursts of blue sky between the tops of the clouds. Suddenly, we popped out of the top and I saw a beautiful sunset ducking behind the horizon. The clouds looked like a bed of pink cotton and the sky above was bright blue. As the light rays bent with the setting sun, the hues changed from blue to orange to pink, and finally everything settled into the deep blue evening star-filled sky. It’s not that there wasn’t a beautiful sunset that night. The problem was that my perspective under the clouds kept me from seeing it. When I was able to rise above the clouds, rain, and haze that obstructed my view not only was the sunset stunning, it was even more beautiful than I could have ever seen even on a clear day from the ground.

Mom’s sunset is full of rain, clouds, haze, and all kinds of other obstacles that could make us sadly shrug our shoulders and wish her sunset could be beautiful. Over the last 7 years, and especially over the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of witnessing her example of strength, cheerfulness, selflessness, and encouragement that one by one have lifted my perspective to a higher plane. Each time she worked through her list of people to pray for, each time I heard her singing a hymn with difficulty, each time she kept writing cards to family and friends, and each time she worked so hard to do something for herself so we would not have to, I was able to see those glimpses of blue sky and began to see the fullness of her beautiful sunset. Each morning that I was able to walk into her bedroom and caress her face and she would wake up with those beautiful smiling eyes lifted me higher. Recent days have been more difficult, and as I sit now by her bedside in the hospital I am able to see beyond her broken body and gaze not at an ordinary sunset, but the most beautiful sunset. One of God’s children who has devoted her whole life to serving others is rising above the clouds and pains of this world, and as she nears her eternal welcome the rays of heavenly light open their arms wide to welcome her home to a perfect rest. What to us now seems like a beautiful sunset will be for her be the dawn of a perfect heaven.
Sunrise on the Blue Ridge Parkway - October, 2013


  1. Querido Mike, maravilhoso texto, consolador e cheio de esperança... sua mãe é uma inspiração e uma vida que verdadeiramente glorifica a Deus! Estamos orando por ela e por todos voces, um dia tudo isso vai passar e estaremos junto para sempre com nosso amado Salvador. Abraços, Pr. Josafá e Gracinha

    1. Obrigado Pastor! Um abraco forte da nossa família para sua. Obrigado por suas palavras encorajadoras.

  2. Michael, It is truly a blessing to read this. And even more of a blessing to know your mom and dad. You have said it very well. There are few people that I look to more for how I want to live and end my life than your parents. May God bless you even in your pain and sorrow.


  3. Mike, this is Rick Sawyer..wanted to say that I remember your folks with much fondness and, like you, await her meeting your dad, my dad, and all the saints...They finished well, my brother. May that be said of us.. let's stay in touch...

    grace & peace,