There is a segment of Chandler author Lynne Hartke’s new book where she writes about her mother’s final weeks in terms of a relay race.
“Mom’s job will be to place the baton in my outstretched fingers,” the Chandler author writes. “In that moment, her race will be done.”
“Mom has been preparing me for this moment my entire life – to run my race with God’s strength, choosing family and faith as my feet hit the ground in practiced rhythm.”
Hartke, the wife of Chandler pastor and Vice Mayor Kevin Hartke for 35 years, never counted on cancer playing such a huge role in the “race.”
As a daughter, the disease deeply affected her relationship with her parents – both of whom were fighting cancer at the same time. But it had a particularly profound impact on her during her mother’s final years.
And as a mother, the disease has affected Hartke’s relationship with her four children, especially her two daughters, because she herself had just finished her own battle with breast cancer when her parents were diagnosed.
Hence, “Mother’s Day is complicated.”
“It’s still hard to walk past the Mother’s Day cards in the supermarket,” said Hartke, whose mother died three years ago at age 78 – roughly two years after her father succumbed to the disease.
She aches for her daughters in the wake of her own bout with cancer.
“They can no longer check ‘no’ at the doctor’s office” when a form asks if there’s a history of cancer in her family, she said.
“I’m concerned for their future,” added Hartke, noting that until she developed cancer, there had been no history of the disease in her family.
Hartke’s book focuses on cancer’s devastating impact on her as a daughter.
While doing what she could to make her parents’ final years comfortable and as vibrant as she could amid the ravages of an unrelenting disease, Hartke also found a deeper relationship with God.
Bible passages are used to illuminate her childhood memories of her parents and her interactions with them in their final years. Her book, “Under a Desert Sky,” started “as a way of processing my mother’s death” and ended as a testament to the power of her Christian faith.
Hartke was particularly close to her mother, whom she cared for daily during her final four months after moving her from her native Minnesota to Chandler.
“Under a Desert Sky” chronicles how near-constant heartbreak and despair brought her to a deeper understanding of the Bible and its message.
That’s why the book is subtitled “Redefining Hope, Beauty and Faith in the Hardest Places.”
Hartke started the book three years ago, shortly after her mother died.
“I had no intention of writing a book,” she said. “I didn’t consider myself an expert on anything.”
“I wrote the book for myself as a way of processing the death of my mother,” Hartke explained, adding she wanted “to find out where God had been” during her parents’ ordeal.
“I wrote 90 percent of that book in three months, starting it May 1 and ending Aug. 1. The words were in my brain and I had to get them on paper. Then I had the hard work of editing” and finding an agent and publisher over the subsequent three years.
The book is not only an extended meditation on finding God at the moments of greatest despair, but also an encouragement to readers.
“We live in a world where everyone is waiting for the dust to settle,” she writes, adding that “this season of cancer has taught me this truth: The dust never settles.”
That lesson, she said, underscores the importance of “embracing normal life, the beauty that’s found in the ordinary.”
Her journey left her “realizing the legacy my parents left me. I want to leave that for my kids,” she said.
Hartke said her parents each had left her their own legacy as well as one they jointly imparted.
“I didn’t realize until writing this book the legacy of storytelling I had from my dad,” she said, recalling how her father, an English teacher, would correct the letters she sent home from summer camp as a little girl.
“My mom was entirely the organized, behind-the-scenes person,” Hartke said.
And when her mother’s memory started to fray and her body would no longer let her tend to all the details of life, Hartke said, “What she was left with was this queenly graciousness. She would welcome doctors into their own exam room during appointments.
“I remember a receptionist at a clinic who told me, ‘I used to be very angry with God and I have watched your mom and how she has dealt with what God has dealt her and I have to revisit my anger issues.’”
Her parents’ joint legacy has been the strong sense of family and a deep faith in God.
“My father always said, ‘I’m going to live until I die and then my real life will begin,’” Hartke recalled.
Likewise, even though she struggled with unbearable pain, her mother often tried to comfort Hartke as she as she tried to understand why God would allow such a good woman to suffer so terribly.
One of the more comforting moments came when Hartke discovered how “fanatical” her mother was about lipstick – even at the hospital.
Hartke realized the lipstick in her mother’s final months was an affirmation that “cancer was not so powerful after all.”
“Cancer cannot strip away femininity.
“Cancer cannot erase God-given purpose and destiny.
“Cancer cannot steal beauty.
“Mom proves it over and over again – every time she grabs her lipstick.”