Letting Go of a Preacher’s Wife

On October 22, 1966, my mother’s life ended.

At just forty years old, aggressive melanoma had invaded her body and within a year she was gone, leaving behind a husband and five children, one of whom was only eleven months old.


Jean Anderson Fenner, 1926-1966

She also left behind a life riddled with the scars created by pervasive mental illness. Periodic episodes of bipolar psychosis (at the time diagnosed as schizophrenia), required that this dynamic, socially energetic minister’s wife spend time in a sanitarium until her mood stabilized.

Fortunately, there was a congregation of some of the most supportive people in the world who stood by our family and helped shepherd us through these crises, people who showed up each Sunday to learn how to love others in the very way they were doing with us. You might think my dad had set this up as a test to see if they were ready. They passed with flying colors.

In a letter to this congregation, my dad, a proud, strong man who lived to help others, poured out the details of that difficult period:

My Dear Friends,

There is so much that I want to say to you, but suddenly, if you can believe it, I find myself struggling for words. We have confided in each other so much over the years. I have shared many of my innermost thoughts with you and have laid my soul bare for your understanding on many an occasion. Now, memories and events are flooding in on me so fast and furiously that I find it difficult to give expression to my present feelings. Bear with me if you will as I try to say what fills all my thoughts today.

Last night, at about eight o’clock, my Jean died. Death came like a welcome breath of fresh air, blowing away all the months of unbelievable pain and agony that she had suffered. At last she is at rest, freed of the frightful struggle through which she went so uncomplainingly and with courage and faith such as I have never seen before.

Jean was the most remarkable person I have ever known and to know her was to love her. She had a warmth and a capacity for understanding which was rare. Her insights into people and events were always a source of wonder to me. People were drawn to her as to a magnet.┬áDuring her prolonged illness so many people came to see her to offer their help and concern and went away knowing that she had done for them far more than they ever could for her. She had a capacity for concern that often put people off balance. She had a fantastic memory for recalling people’s needs and problems, all about their families and their aspirations.

Despite her frequent illnesses over the years, she was the strong rock for her children and an inexhaustible source of wisdom to them. She loved them so much and it was heartbreaking to see her looking at them from her bed, knowing that she would not be here to see them to adulthood. But she gave them something that twice her forty years might not have been able to accomplish. She gave them a portion of that amazing courage which welled up inside her and showed through that smile which was hers until the end.

A year ago she was given only three to six months to live, but she had a job to finish and so she stayed on to see it through. Her new and beautiful home was a shining dream that had to be realized. She planned it all and watched it take shape. I can see her now, in great pain, struggling with her walker or her wheelchair to get to the builder’s office or the paint store to see to it that all would be done right for her family. And then, when it was ready, we moved in and she asked to have her bed put in the dining room where she could be in the center of things as a good mother should be. After that she let go a little and gradually she slipped downhill.

She was so grateful to all of those who remembered her with visits or with a card or letter. It meant so much to her to know that she was not forgotten. She cannot thank you, but I can, from the bottom of my heart.

I am much relieved now, for I know that she no longer hurts, that the long hard fight is over. I would not call her back even for a moment, even though I am experiencing such a great sense of emptiness and loneliness. She is free. We last spoke together on Saturday afternoon. We repeated the funny little litany that we had used for so long. As I put my hand on her burning forehead above the oxygen mask, I said, as I had said countless times before, “You’re awfully sweet.” Gasping and slowly she replied, “You’re awfully sweeter.” And perhaps I am, because I shared seventeen years of her life.

Ray Fenner

Religion will take its share of ridicule when it steps beyond its bounds, but believing that this example is what was intended by the commandment that we love one another, I take comfort that the majority of those who endeavor to follow in the footsteps of Jesus know that this is what He was talking about.


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