The Beauty That Remains

My thanks to my good friend, Sherry Peterson, for this photo,
which she took as she was walking by us at The Samarkand. Sherry is lead chaplain there,
and mom told me she preached a powerful sermon this morning! 

We take the walker everywhere now;
her balance isn’t what it once was,
and we all feel just a bit more secure,
knowing she’s got support when she walks.

On Wednesdays, I join her for lunch.
And while the weather is as glorious
as it is right now,
we’re choosing to eat that lunch outdoors.

There’s a small cafe near the community swimming pool.
Sandwiches, salads, occasionally soup
and a hot choice.
And a small freezer full of ice cream delights. 

We don our pink hats, steer that walker towards the outdoors,
and wend our way over to the beautiful place,

the space where the sun shines and the breezes blow,
where we can talk if we wish,
or just sit and enjoy the distant mountain view.

We share a bottled Diet Coke
and laugh about the tickle-fizz of it,
and the sharp taste as it slides down our throats.
She always asks how my kids are doing.
And I say, “They’re doing just fine, Mom. Just fine.”

Conversation is harder to come by these days,
but we are relaxed about it.
She often surprises me with a small joke,
usually one that is self-deprecating.
We both laugh.

Sometimes, she seems aware of things
happening outside her increasingly small world.
We’ll touch on it gently,
and then she’ll say,
“Well, if they’d only ask us,
we could solve all the world’s problems, couldn’t we?”

That was a favorite line between us for years,
a sentiment that one or the other of us offered
whenever we spent any time lamenting
the current state of affairs in the world.

Somehow, it was a way to close off
that section of the conversation,
to move away from what sometimes
began to feel like constant complaining.

Neither of us can sit in complaint for long. 

This week she asked me something
that felt a bit as though it came from out of the blue.
I’m learning that things seldom are as random
as they might feel in this strange, half-lit world of dementia.

“Do you know this song?” she asked me.
“It’s been going through my head
 all the time lately.
It’s called, ‘Life Is Like a Mountain Railroad.’

“Nope, Mom. Never heard of it. Tell me how it goes.”

She’s a bit embarrassed to sing,
her once lovely alto quavery and weak
 these days.
She is 92 years old, I gently remind her,

and eventually, the words come out.

Life is like a mountain railroad,
with an engineer that’s brave;

We must make the run successful,
from the cradle to the grave;

Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels;
never falter, never fail;

Keep your hand upon the throttle,
and your eye upon the rail.

Bless’d Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.

You will roll up grades of trial;
you will cross the bridge of strife;

See that Christ is your Conductor
on this lightning train of life;

Always mindful of obstruction,
do your duty, never fail;

Keep your hand upon the throttle,
and your eye upon the rail.


You will often find obstructions;
look for storms of wind and rain;

On a fill, or curve, or trestle,
they will almost ditch your train;

Put your trust alone in Jesus;
never falter, never fail;

Keep your hand upon the throttle,
and your eye upon the rail.


As you roll across the trestle,
spanning Jordan’s swelling tide,

You behold the Union Depot
into which your train will glide;

There you’ll meet the Superintendent,
God the Father, God the Son,

With the hearty, joyous, plaudit,
“Weary pilgrim, welcome home!”


–M.E. Abbey & Charles Davis Tillman

The words are close to kitsch
and they make me smile.

My momma remembers one verse and the chorus,
and I pull out my iPhone and find the rest
on Google, astounded as always,
by what you can find in 30 seconds
in this internet world.

Hearing it sung helps me to see
the church into which I was born,
the one where my mom and dad met and married.
That old brownstone in downtown Los Angeles,
whose nooks and crannies were as familiar
to me as my own home.
That place where I learned sometimes bad theology,
but a lot of absolutely magnificent ecclesiology,
where church was welcoming, warm,
even fun from time to time.
Where I went forward to receive communion
at the rail, while my dad played the piano,
and my mom sang in the choir.
That place where Jesus was near.

We never sang that song while I went there.
Oh, we sang lots of gospel music,
a gift for which I am deeply grateful.
But never this one.

Somehow, it feels perfect for this summer luncheon,
perfect for this old saint and her old daughter.
Thank God for the brave engineer,
the One who will carry her safe-home.

And me, too. 

Here is a link to Johnny Cash, the Carter Family and Earl Scruggs (among others) recording two verses of this old chestnut. (They use ‘railway’ rather than ‘railroad.’)

It’s perfect. 

“Life is Like a Mountain Railway”

Joining this one with all my friends on this lovely Sunday evening. Most of my writing efforts this week will be directed toward a small sermon, to be preached next Sunday in my mom’s ‘church,’ the chapel she can walk to from her room.

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  1. This one made me cry for all sorts of reasons – the love still between the two of you, the ache for what has been lost, and the faithfulness of God who is still guiding and loving on your mom, even through the fogs of Alzheimers.
    Thank you for sharing this with us 🙂

  2. Oh Diana, so, so beautiful. I have a big, big lump in my throat. Love your mama and I love your love for her.

  3. Such a sweet and surprising gift to receive from your cute momma.


    • That’s exactly what it was, Glenda – a sweet and surprising gift. One of the loveliest days I’ve spent with her, one that will linger long.

  4. Ro Elliott says

    This is just full of sweetness … I love the picture…. What a treasure. My freind’s parents both could not remember much but when they sang hymns… They could do that!!!! It was a sweet way for them to connect with them. You are on quite the journey….. Blessings and grace as you walk alongside your momma~

  5. smiling through tears
    feeling your heart
    walking beside you

  6. I really enjoyed reading about your mom and found it encouraging to find another blogger who’s just a ‘little’ older 😉

    Dropping over from Michele DeRusha’s blog today.

  7. Hello from Zurich! I love this post for many reasons. First, my family has always appreciated old gospel songs, while at the same time loving the new stuff too. While reading the lyrics, I could just imagine Johnny Cash singing them, so was smiling when you linked him up. It’s morning over here, so I’ll wait a bit to tune him in.

    Also, I am about to leave for a visit home to the States, home including my home state of Alaska. I’ll be spending lots of time with my dear father, and also as much time as I can with my dear mother at her nursing home. She has advanced Alzheimers and is totally dependent (and cannot speak anymore either). Bless her, she still loves music. My brother often plays lovely worship and hymn music for her on his smart phone. Technology can be such a blessing (and a challenge).

    all in all, thanks for this post and God bless. AND gotta love that photo by the pool 🙂

    • Good morning, Susan. I had no clue you were from Alaska – do you follow Leslie Leyland Fields wonderful blog? She writes from there (and has authored lots of books, too). And yes, technology is a blessings and a challenge. For me personally, the blessing part far outweighs the challenge part and for that I’m grateful.

      • Hello Diana, I am up at dark-thirty — all ready for my cab to take me to the airport. Just popped in here briefly while I wait. Hmmm, I don’t know Leslie Leyland Fields but will look for her. Thanks for the tip 🙂

        I was born in Anchorage before Statehood – I’m almost 55 years young. It’s a great place to live and grow up.

        • Safe travels, Susan. I think you’ll enjoy Leslie’s blog – she’s funny and thoughtful and takes great pictures of their wild-and-crazy life. (Fish camp on Kodiak all summer, every summer. Not for the faint of heart, and most definitely not for me.) Here’s a link – latest post is a bit atypical but funny (about the outhouse on Kodiak, of all things)

  8. Reading this and then many of the comments… there is just a sea of us living these same experiences. My Mama too, well into the years that Alzheimer’s rage, responded to hymns. What joy that blessing brought to the long good by.

    • “A sea of us” is an apt description, Lisa. And that sea is going to get larger and larger over the next 20-30 years as boomers age. We’ve found so many ways to extend our lives physically, but not so many mentally. These dear old moms of ours (both my husband and I have moms in the same memory loss unit) have bodies that are amazingly healthy for 92 and 97, but their minds could not keep up. And we are thankful that music still reaches them both. Thanks for coming by today – nice to meet you!

  9. Well, you know me. I’m a sucker for old-timey Gospel music. And, believe it or not, I may have actually sung this one a time or two in a church where I knew every nook and cranny, sometimes learned bad theology, but where I was brought near to Jesus by dear saints. Or maybe I just remember hearing it sung. My daddy was quite the fan of Johnny Cash and the Carter family.

    In any case, I’m sitting here on the other side of this screen just covered in goosebumps, thinking about that engineer who will carry us home. Your post reminded me of these lines from another favorite hymn:

    E’en down to old age all My people shall prove
    My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
    And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
    Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

    Love the hats. Love this. You are so right–in this fallen old work, clouded by suffering, sickness, and sin, beauty remains. Thanks be to God!

    • I have another friend who posted on FB that she and her family sang this one, too. I didn’t know it and I don’t know the one you’ve listed here, either. (whose sentiments I clearly love, being covered with hoary hairs!!) Clearly, I have some holes in my gospel-song education! I am grateful for the beauties that remain – it’s how I get through most of life, actually. Thanks for coming by, my friend.

  10. Perfectly delightful, Diana. Beautiful memory you’re making here, my friend. And that song…oh my! It was recorded for one of my husband’s favorite albums. Love, love, love this.

  11. Diana,
    You capture so much beauty and emotion with your words. My heart was right there with you. These are precious moments.

  12. Beautifully told, Diana, and beautifully lived. You left me smiling.

  13. This is so deeply heart-touching. Causes me to recall the days spent with my own mother … how I do miss her.

    • Thanks so much, Susan. I know I will miss my mom when she is gone, but I’m so glad that right now, in this moment, I am more at peace with the losses already suffered. It feels a lot better inside myself not be be fighting the inevitable as hard as I was a few months ago.

  14. This is so touching. I lost my dear mother in May of this year… she was just shy of 84. So glad that you are able to recognize the gift of her presence with you, even in the midst of the rough places on the tracks…

    • Oh, Leslie, I am so sorry for your loss! And yes, I am trying to do exactly that. . . despite the rough places on the tracks. Thanks so much for coming by.

  15. Oh, wow, that song. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, do they? Thank you for sharing this bit of tenderness, Diana. Your love for your mother makes me want to breathe deep the moments–spend the love in each moment. So beautiful. And those hats are awesome 😉

    • No, they don’t make ’em like that anymore. I just loved hearing that whole group talking it through and then making such lovely music together. The hats were fun – I gave mom her hot pink visor for her birthday in July and I bought the big one to take to Hawaii last month and promptly left it on the chair in the family room! So now I wear it on Wednesdays and that works out just fine. Thanks, as always, for your words of encouragement and grace, Laura.

  16. I will listen later. If I play it now I won’t hear it over my own sobs.

    So much beauty here. And so much love.

    • Thanks for coming by, my friend. It’s a sweet old mountain song and nobody does it better than Johnny and the Carters.

  17. oh diana, this made me miss my mum so badly. what a beautiful, tender write…

  18. I’m just a puddle here. A puddle. That is all.

    • Didn’t mean to make you a puddle, dear friend! But I do know how much you miss your mom. And I’m both sorry and glad about the missing. Missing means deep love and connection and that is always a good thing, even when it comes to an end on this side of the ‘central station.’

  19. I mourn for the days when hearts were tender and melted at such songs. Such a lovely tribute to your Mother and reminder of His grace.

    • I think I know what you mean, Sandra. In some ways, we were more innocent, once-upon-a-time. But you know, there are lots of tender hearts all around us. Maybe they don’t melt at this song, but they melt at injustice and they sing songs rich in worship and praise. Each generation has its own version of tenderness, I think. Thanks so much for stopping by here today!!

  20. I’ve come back from visiting my grandmother – she’s just turned 88. Conversation is less now, but presence is still a blessing. And our relationship shifts, but in a way that is still good. There is still delight in her eyes as she watches my children. And that is enough.

  21. Diana, this is so achingly lovely. I’m sharing it with the readers at The High Calling, because I know many of them are walking their own lonely roads (or should I say, conducting their own trains) through family illnesses and struggles.

    Thank you for the way you write so freely of God’s grace during this time. I know it can’t be easy for you to share openly, but I’m glad you do.

    Love you.

    • Thank you so much, Dena. For stopping by, for leaving such kind words, and for sharing this with the THC network. Actually, this one came very easily. I knew as soon as we worked through remembering that song that I wanted to save this story. It was a very good day amongst many that are not so good and I’m just deeply grateful for the beauty I find along this road.

  22. I can tell from your mother’s smile that she’s happy and at peace. And you radiate joy, even from under the wide brim and in sunglasses! God bless you, Diana, for the caring, thoughtful daughter you are.

    • That day she was very happy and I’m grateful beyond words for happy days. She does try to make the best of a really hard situation most of the time. But there are days when she is blue and those are harder for both of us. Thanks for coming by, Nancy. I always appreciate your encouragement.

  23. Beautiful, Diana. If you ever question your writing, come back and read this.

    And I love the picture of the two of you smiling. You are a good and faithful daughter.

  24. Your Mama is still beautiful! I was especially touched by this post. The other day I drove by Mama’s house and so wanted to turn in and sit at her table just one more time. But, she’s been safely home almost three years now.

    • She is still beautiful, isn’t she? As my brother said underneath this photo when I posted it on facebook – ‘there’s my mom, still cute as a button.’ And she is. I wish you could still stop by your mama’s place, too, Elizabeth. Good mamas hold the earth together I think.

  25. Earl Skaggs. Johnny Cash. I’m digging this old-timey music. “Weary pilgrims” we all are!

    • Indeed, we all are, David. I finally got the chance to play this version for my mom today at our Wednesday lunch – she LOVED it (and she was never a country music fan). I couldn’t find anywhere on that video when it was made – gotta be a while ago, though. Thanks for coming by, my friend. I’m always glad and grateful to see you.