The longer I live, the more I think life boils down to two things: strength of character and love.
We lost our Mom suddenly and unexpectedly this past week, and more than anyone I have ever met; Sharon Skaggs exemplified these two things. Her strong character meant that she was exactly who you thought she was, and who she said she was. There was no disparity between the public Sharon and the private Sharon. The kind, graceful, gracious, smiling Sharon that you saw in public, was exactly who she was behind closed doors. And as far as love is concerned, she had no enemies and showed love to all equally regardless of their status. Sharon, unlike most of us, was who she needed to be every day in the exact same way.
Although she was a baby-boomer, born in 1947, she was really more like someone from “the Greatest Generation.” She shunned showiness, she cared not for material things, she prized loyalty and consistency, and she didn’t know “rock” from “roll.” She missed Woodstock, but she was born on a different farm in South Dakota to very godly Germanic farmers who believed in hard work, godliness, and keeping true to your word. There was no bragging or pursuing success for personal gain; it was all about serving others and doing it with a smile.
Sharon’s smile may be the thing most remembered about her. She was always smiling to everyone equally. It was a big, beautiful smile that her daughter Jamie inherited. The above picture (taken by Keli Oldham on Sharon’s last trip to Egypt) is perhaps one of the only photos you can find where she was not smiling. She never complained about anything, including the loss of her husband to cancer in 1993, and she was always an optimist. That optimism would serve her well working with troubled youth in Washington State at a ranch, or as a missionary for 10 years in Cairo, Egypt enduring the chaos of the Sadat assassination in 1981 and many other trials that would come her family’s way. She raised two children, Byron and Jamie, to have the highest moral integrity, and she blessed people throughout the five continents that she traveled and worked in throughout her life.
She was an administrative genius. She was great with numbers and excellent at administration—especially dealing with complicated, detailed issues. These skills helped her rise in the Church of God mission-agency to the highest levels where she worked until she retired. Sharon was a wealth of knowledge on extremely complicated matters having to do with the CHOG’s international work. There were complicated histories, numerous policies, the challenges of dealing with different governments and red tape, and yes; an infinite amount of church politics to navigate. In addition to that, there were lots of numbers and accounts to master and difficult people to work with. The reality of all of that was hidden behind the warm smile and the unflappable external demeanor. The amount of knowledge regarding the Church of God’s international efforts that has now passed away along with Sharon is staggering. It is lost knowledge and it is not replaceable. She knew THAT much! One of the most knowledgeable people on the subject of the International Church of God just passed away and she was so humble, some think she was never anything more than an administrator.
I honestly do not believe the mission-agency would exist if it were not for Sharon Skaggs. There were years upon years in which she put in infinitely long work-days beginning at 5:00AM and leaving at 12AM. For years, she was the first to arrive and the last to leave the office. We worried that she was literally working herself to death. We had to beg her to slow down for fear of losing her. The stress was extremely intense, in what is already one of the most stressful jobs in the world. Very few people knew about all she endured and the amount of time and effort she made to keep things running in difficult times. It was often a very thankless job, but she never expressed bitterness or sought recognition. When she was finally honored upon her retirement, she had to be tricked into it and was surprised to find both Jamie and Byron there to celebrate her decades of hard-work. How much did those years of extreme stress age her body, I now wonder? And how many said “thanks?”
Perhaps it’s a moot point, because Sharon could never take a compliment. Like her parents, you did what you had to do, and you didn’t seek recognition. But she certainly could give compliments. From troubled youth, to hurting widows, to everyone in between—Sharon was a smile, a friend, a non-judgmental comforter. She was drawn to service, even in retirement. At Children of Promise, she was an administrative miracle worker—as always. She loved to volunteer at the Park Place Church of God food pantry, and upon moving back to the Pacific Northwest, she was already getting put on mission-committees and finding places to help others. She couldn’t sit still. She had to help others and be useful.
Fortunately, she made some key international trips in her final couple of years. We were able to spend two holidays with her: one in Ireland and one in the Greek Isles. Both times, she loved being able to sit back and let us do all the planning and work. She deserved it. Little did we know that this would be our last time with her on holiday. She also was able to see Byron and his family in Egypt as well as visit her dearest friends in Cairo. Once again, who knew that it was a farewell?
For us, the loss is huge. Sharon was the fourth member of our family. No matter where we lived: Hong Kong, New Haven, Berlin, the Black Forest—she found a way to be there. Every birthday and anniversary remembered, every accomplishment celebrated, every grandkid loved to the extreme. She was our biggest fan; providing the unconditional love that children need from their parents. After her husband Russ died, she poured her life into work, but it was always her family that mattered most. Her parents, her in-laws, her brothers and sisters, her kids and grandkids—she would drop everything to tend to their needs. They were her pride and joy. Her last Facebook post was of her grandkids. How very appropriate and unsurprising.
I noticed that it’s hard for anyone to talk about Sharon without talking about themselves. That's because she always made the conversation about you, your accomplishments, what made you special. She was the embodiment of humility. But to say she was a simple farm girl misses the complicated life that she led. It was her strength of character and her love that made it all seem so simple, so modest, so humble. Only those who knew her very well knew the extent of her experience, talents and genius. It was not a theoretical knowledge which can easily be gained from books: it was concrete knowledge borne from massive international experience.
That knowledge was most apparent when she helped hurting missionaries—which was her true passion. Book knowledge and academic knowledge were nothing compared to the intimate knowledge that Sharon brought regarding life on the mission-field—the way it actually is, not the way we imagine it to be. Many deeply wounded people found their healing in conversations with Sharon. Whether it was the pain of losing a parent while serving overseas, or having problems adjusting to a difficult foreign culture, or missing your favorite American food—nothing was belittled by Sharon. Yes, she knew the intricacies and complications of mission-fields, but she will be most remembered for understanding the intricacies and complicated lives of missionaries and those who live and work overseas. Yet another treasure of hers that we have now lost, and will not easily be replaced.
I’ll never forget when I first met Sharon. She was intimidating, believe it or not. Her husband Russ was in the final stages of cancer and Sharon was dealing with it all with such dignity, class and grace I was completely stunned. There were times I would actually watch her, completely speechless, and in complete awe of her strength in that situation. I had just nursed my own mother through cancer and was reliving it through Jamie’s experience, and here was this woman, Sharon, who was completely in control. I’m sure there was, crying and breaking down—but I never saw that. I saw her 100% committed to the task at hand—carrying for her dying husband and her family. It took me years to feel comfortable around her after that impressive display. She was on another level.
Of course, in time, she did become my mother and filled that enormous hole in my life. I’m sure she knew she filled that, although we never talked about it. I liked to tease her, especially on Facebook, about her meth addiction, her penchant for cocaine, her drinking, and her stints in rehab. It was all irony, of course. She was the most controlled, disciplined person any of us had ever met. And she was the most dependable person we ever met. Mom.
We just received mail from her here in Germany. She sent it the day before she died, most likely. It was filled with things we needed, things she was helping us with, a Time Magazine for us with Angela Merkel on the cover (and a note), plus a personal card—the contents of which will remain cherished and private. That is what I will miss the most, how she was always there. How after my parents were long gone, through death or geographically removed from my life—she stepped in and became the parent I needed daily. I will miss how committed she was to her grandson and how she played the role of the only constant relative he had in his young life. I will miss how natural it felt to have her in our home, in our family, in our life. But what I will miss the most is watching her relationship with Jamie. How close they were, how much alike they are, what great girlfriends they were to each other, and how they shared the same sensibility, talents, personality, and smile . Their friendship was so much fun to watch and she was so very proud of Jamie. I cannot imagine them apart. I do not want to imagine them apart. That is what hurts me the most.
Of course, life for Sharon was never the same since Russ died. But there was never an ounce of self-pity or acting lost. My only comfort is that her separation from him no longer exists. That the stresses, trials, and disappointments of this world no longer matter. She leaves a massive hole in our lives that will never be replaced. Ever. There was only one Sharon. So graceful, so kind, so very serious, and so quick to smile. She is our beloved mother who earned that title not just biologically or through marriage, but through love and character. She lives in us and is with us always. And although she could never take a compliment, I pray that her ears are ringing today with this eternal message: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Well done, indeed. We will love you always.