Saturday, March 15, 2014

Three Years Ago Today

Three years ago today my mom died.  I got the news whilst giving a lecture to my Modern Theology class in downtown Nairobi.  My students refused to let me continue and sent me home.  To help me process my grief, this is what I wrote:

My Mom Died Yesterday

My sister called me with the news just as I was about to begin a lecture on some forgettable aspect of contemporary theology.  It is striking how quickly such things become trivial when the subject changes suddenly to matters of real life and real death.

My mom’s death was not unexpected.  Several years of alarming decline punctuated by a Christmastime illness from which she never recovered, instead dwindling into a fragile shell of the woman we knew.  And when the final infection struck on Sunday, there was nothing left with which to fight back.  Her exhausted body was undone in a matter of hours.  It says something profound about what we were meant to be that death, what it is and what it does, seems so outrageous, so unnatural, this destruction of our bodies, this severing of all ties with loved ones, this removal from the stage of the living.  We recoil from death, we shrink from dying.  And rightly so.  Those who argue that death is just a natural part of life must not be acquainted with death.  Death takes a human life, something that was created good and made in the image of the Holy Trinity, death destroys that life.  Death takes a person, capable of love, capable of good, capable of astonishing acts of fantastic cooking (!), death reduces that person to nothing.  Death erases, so that she who once was so alive and so present and so here, she is now no more.  The voice that called or laughed or sung is silenced.  The hand that helped or touched or caressed moves no more.  The eyes that looked in wonder or wept tears of sadness or crinkled in a smile are closed never to open again.  Death has taken my mom.  Her voice I’ll never hear again.  Her hand I’ll never hold.  Her eyes I’ll never look into and wonder what she’s thinking.

I am finding that my mom’s death is an invitation to remember.  And remembering her I find is the same as remembering myself.  My mind sparks with fifty years of flashbacks. 

My mom was married at sixteen and a mother a seventeen.  She helped get my father through college and medical school.  By the time I came along, my parents were on the cusp of living the American Dream.  It took me many years to realize it, but I was born into immense privilege.  As I was growing up, this, of course, just seemed normal.

My mom was always driving me places.  In a massive station wagon.  Always smoking cigarettes.  Even as a little boy I remember plastering my face as close as I could get to the inch or two opening in the window so I could breathe.  I have my mother to thank that I was never tempted to take up smoking when teenager rebellion kicked in!  I just never saw the attraction in choking and pretending it was somehow cool. 

But my mom endured the kindergarten runs, the baseball practice runs, the music lesson runs, the basketball practice runs.  She had famous brothers who excelled at basketball and football at the University of Kentucky.  But if it ever bothered her that own her son was completely unlike her brothers, so ungifted in the athletic arts as to be doomed to be the last one chosen for whatever team, she in her mother’s love never let on.  But if such things are awarded in heaven, I am sure she will get a medal, not just for insisting that I practice playing the viola, but then enduring the consequences.  Daily.  I don’t know, maybe she had invested in ear plugs.

There were wonderful, happy days.  I would hear my mom laugh.  We would go out to the lakehouse for the hot South Carolina summer, and of course we kids would live in the water.  But it was always special when mom would decide to get in her floating chair with the special built-in Styrofoam beer can holder (before such things became standard in all South Carolina boats and cars) and float out into the cove while the rest of us swam and dove and splashed .  All was right with the world. 

There were a few secret blackberry patches that I’m sure nobody in the world but me knew about.  And with great anticipation I would wait until just the right time in June when I knew they were getting ripe.  And I would head out with my bucket and bare feet and pick blackberries until the bucket overflowed (which took longer than it might otherwise because I probably ate one for every two that ended up in the pail).  The picking was fun (even more so because the chances of coming across a black snake were significant), but the real reason to pick blackberries was because mom would then feel obligated to make a blackberry cobbler.  Oh my goodness, need I say more?

My mom could cook!  She excelled at southern comfort food, or what I later learned is called White Trash Cooking.  Of course, for me, it was just supper.  One of my favorite growing-up meals was meatloaf on which I would put ketchup and one of those individually wrapped Kraft cheese slices, which of course would not actually melt.  It’s debatable if such ‘cheese’ was even digestible.  But I love my mom, because she would buy me Krispy Krème donuts, and she kept me fed.  And if anyone has ever been responsible for feeding teenage boys, you will know that that is no small accomplishment.

Southern cooking is all about casseroles, and my mom mastered the art of the southern casserole.  My mouth waters just thinking about it.  She and her friends contributed recipes to a cookbook that remains sought-after to this day (Carolina Cuisine).  Her Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas dinners were exquisite.  Her oyster pie and sweet potato casserole and pecan pie and cranberry and crème cheese strawberry jello salad… oh my.

Mothers are goddesses to their children and can do no wrong.  But as we grow older, we realize that our mothers are real people.  The transition can be disorienting.  When the transition is accompanied by trauma, it can be devastating.

My parents separated when I was fourteen and divorced when I was fifteen.  Our family was shattered.  Everybody hurt.  But my mom somehow managed to keep our day to day lives as normal and stable as she could.  She tried to keep home a safe place for us.  Somehow, she managed to hold us all together.  Those years were unspeakably hard.  All of us were wounded and scarred.  But I am convinced that I and my sisters have been able to accomplish what we have done because our mom held the center of our family together.  For our most important years, mom was ‘home’.  I told my mom thank you for this when I saw her for the last time in January.  I’m so glad I did.

Mom became a Christian shortly after the divorce.  She had been a long-time church-goer.  But something happened that suddenly made Jesus and forgiveness and a new life real for her.  She would tell whoever asked the right question that this was the most important decision of her life.  Since that time, I never knew her not involved in a church.  Whenever she moved, her first priority was to find a church to join and hopefully a small group bible study to be a part of.  In Anderson, SC, it was Central Presbyterian, in Lexington, KY, there was first a Methodist church, and then a Presbyterian church.  In Cleveland Heights, OH, it was a Baptist Church.  And in Watkinsville, GA, it was the Baptist church just down the street.  Mom was never pushy about religion.  But if anyone took five minutes to get to know her, it would become obvious that she took Jesus very seriously, which means she took Jesus’ promises seriously.  For all her faults, and she had her share, she never wanted to impose her suffering on anybody else.  I used to think she was just being stoic.  But now I see that mom was actually trusting that God would do what he promised to do.  God promises to save us from our sin and from the consequences of our sin.  Mom trusted that God will keep his promise.  God promises to transform our self-centered character into a character that demonstrates Jesus’ love.  Mom trusted that God will keep his promise.  God promises to raise us from the dead and give us a new body to live in his new creation that is free from sin and death.  Mom trusted that God will keep his promise.  I know because we talked about these things, back in 1976, and two months ago this past January.  My mom will not make sense unless you are willing to hear her out on what she thought was the most important thing.

All of my sisters I know have their own stories and could write their own additions.  We all left home and went to college.  I married Stephanie and we began our own life and family together.  And so our lives grow apart.  Phone calls on special days.  Packing up children for the long drive to Grandma Donna’s house for Thanksgiving.  And then for us, moves overseas, first to the UK, then to Ethiopia and now to Kenya, with our own children growing up and heading off to college.  And the cycle continues.

But at some point, health challenges start to mount.  And, gosh, mom looks older.  Surgery follows surgery, and the recovery is never as robust as one might hope.  And as her body fails, her world begins to shrink.  And so the long slow decline begins.

My mom died yesterday.  Just another name on the nursing home records.  Just another paragraph in the local paper’s obituaries.  Just another number for the insurance company.  Just another little old lady slowly pushing a cart at Kroger.  A nobody according to the way our world measures somebodies.  Who came into this world with nothing, and left with the same.

No monuments.  No highways named after her.  No books or scholarly papers to achieve immortality in libraries and online databases.  No companies that bear her name.

The only thing my mom appears to have left behind are a few lives, lives whose hearts have been touched, lives whose character has been influenced, lives who shared a laugh or enjoyed a meal or experienced something good.  But given the fact that monuments will crumble, and accumulated treasure will waste away, given that nothing most people pour themselves into will last or be remembered, it could be that touching a few lives may turn out to be by far the most important thing.  Thanks, mom.  Memory eternal.

Mom, from the 1970s, when I was a teenager.

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