February 2nd ~ A few days after hearing of my Mom’s worsening condition.
Call. Nods. Staring through the floor. Really? I understand. Sooner than we thought. My throat starts to tighten involuntarily, tears stubbornly held back. Deep breath.
Behind a frowning providence, a smile I know there is. Never do I doubt it, assured that I am his. But through this thick confusion, and through this steady rain, I sit in inner darkness repeating this refrain:
Source de vie, de paix, d’amour,
Vers toi je cri, la nuit le jour.
Entends ma plainte, soit mon soutien,
Calme ma crainte, toi mon seul bien.
Sometimes in a moment of bright resolve, I set myself to come before him and pour out my heart to him as I used to do upon my bed, on lonely walks, in quiet corners, in the car along the way. But in the fleeting moment between the resolve and the fulfillment of my vow, a swift grayness steals my breath, like a cold breeze that comes in from behind and just off to the side and ekes in through the crannies of your clothing and you hunch your shoulders sharply in defense, and I hang my head and turn back to whatever dullness I was numbing myself with at the time. And as the deflated and stolen breath leaves me, I whisper “Abba, Father,” remembering that The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
At other times, unexpectedly, a chink in my armor turns into a crack in my wall which turns into a fissure in my dam and great heaving sobs pour out onto the ground leaving me embarrassingly exposed and relieved. But they don’t last long enough to empty the reserve for full relief, so quick am I, not even consciously, because consciously I am fighting to keep the blessed tears coming, to fill the fissure and repair the crack and patch the chink. And then, as one tends to quickly ignore an unforeseen moment of public vulnerability, it is gone. A suspicious wrinkle in my facade flattened by nervous hands.
My mother is dying. The life in her, that mysterious ambiguous energy that makes her her, is slowly being snuffed out. Where does this life abide in us? A heart can stop beating for a few minutes, but apparently life was still there because a good jolt can bring the heart back to work and the life is there just waiting to lighten up the eyes and animate the limbs again. I guess it’s in the brain somewhere, if it’s anywhere. But somehow that seems too crude. It’s not just sitting in the brain, some liquid or molecule or enzyme. No, life is still a mystery. Death on the other hand is not as much a mystery as an ugly certainty, a thief and a cheat.
It’s not easy watching the life slip out of a person. You can see it, in the skin, in the eyes, in the posture. And in the voice, whether silent, or slowed, or whispered; the voice is never the same. It’s been happening for months now, and at first I wasn’t sure if that’s what I was seeing, but now looking back I realize that of course it was. The life was just beginning to leak out. Now it’s almost gone, and her body is left like a dry husk, where the true substance, the life, is elsewhere. That elsewhere is a blessed consolation, though one that in my present state hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind. The elsewhere is the presence of the One I haven’t heard from or seen in quite some time. But that’s alright, there’s no bad blood between us. That elsewhere is a grand consolation, a very great balm for the sharp ache I anticipate in my chest, one that will no doubt grow duller and duller with time, until only a pleasant glow of cherished memories is left. At first though, it will take all the weight and glory of 1 Corinthians 15 to ease the burning loss, the scandalous absence, the haunting emptiness in the halls and at the breakfast table.
To have someone taken from you unexpectedly is different from the slow ebbing out of personhood that happens through deterioration. The stab in the sudden loss is not having the chance to say good-bye, not seeing the fulfillment of their life, of lost potential, and sometimes the open and never to be closed wound of being unreconciled, although the lingering memory is still of undiminished clarity and brilliance. With a disease like cancer, death takes its time, and the stab is followed by a slow twisting of the knife. This is terrible.
My mother is a strong, confident, beautiful, wise woman; a wife, mother, teacher, writer, author, editor, artist, and traveller. Yet in her current state, many of those things are already but memories. And still that isn’t quite right either. She hasn’t ceased to be any of those things, but every one of those wonderful aspects of her personhood, of what makes her, her, has been terribly muted. It’s like listening to a favorite and beloved song, but the volume is being slowly decreased, until some parts of the instrumentation are no longer audible, even though you know they are there, and the whole experience is so impoverished, so dissatisfying. You can’t help thinking that the song isn’t meant to be heard at this volume. It’s meant to be loud and glorious and subtle and appreciated in all of its nuance and beauty. Precisely.
It is a cruel thing that her weakest moment will be the last memory I have of her. But there is mercy in this too. And with time the memories will not be of hospital beds and of needles and tubes and frail arms, but of her as she really was, painting another beautiful pastel, glowing with warmth in her skin and her deep, caring smile. She will be remembered vividly with her gentle but knowing wisdom, her hugs, kisses, and overflowing love for her three guys, and her able mind full of places to travel to, articles to write and edit, lyrics to translate, and books to read. This will be dawn, but now it is dusk, and night is coming.
I am torn. I expect to grieve deeply and fully, but might that in some way belittle the glory, joy, and fulfillment I believe will then be hers? How can I grieve fully but not as those who have no hope? My hope is real. But so is my sense that this is much too soon. My hope is real. But so is my pain and loss. Might I not just as easily belittle the humanness of suffering and death and love and life that we all share in if I pretend like peace, joy, and hope are all that I feel? If I know myself at all, I know that my tendency is to be a cyborg rather than a human. To grieve and mourn is to embrace my humanity, and therefore to share in the deep kinship I have with all my fellow image-bearer. I know the hope that I have for my mother, the hope she has for herself, and I know it deeply to the very core of my being. What I struggle with is knowing how to walk this valley, the same valley that Adam and Eve first wept through when their beloved son Abel was taken, the valley that nearly everyone since then has had to walk also.
Life and death, like ying and yang, are intermingling in my life. New life is bubbling up beautifully in giggles, smiles, and wide-eyed discovery, just as death closes its inevitable grip and pulls steadily down. Tears of joy mingle with tears of agony, a storm is born, such screaming contrast. I am left in the middle of mid-air, an unstable emotional paralysis, punctuated by exclamations of joy and bouts of grief, but somewhat numb the rest of the time. For me the only thing to do is to give words to these things, like giving birds to these wings, and hope that therein lies the way forward. Full of hope, of death, of life.
* March 13th ~ 4 days after Mom’s death
If behind a frowning providence, God can hide a smiling face, then perhaps behind the weakness of death he hides the finishing steps of a winning race. I still can’t believe she’s gone. I keep on having to realize it over and over, realize that it isn’t some story I heard about someone else. It’s me this time, it was my Mom this time.
It was so hard to see her like that at the end. Just a frail trace of her former self. In life she was strong, courageous, and beautiful. And really, before it weakened her completely, the disease actually amplified those qualities. Before she faced cancer, she didn’t need to be so strong, or courageous, or filled with faith, but the adversity revealed the quality of the inner character, yes and even strengthened it. She was more beautiful for having faced this trial, even as it ravaged and destroyed her body.
As the end drew near and her body slowly surrendered to death – trusting she could still hear us – we sang softly to her the song she sang over me a thousand times for a thousand bedtimes.
Oh, que ta main paternelle
Me bénisse à mon coucher,
Et que ce soit sous ton aile
que je dorme ô mon Berger,
que je dorme ô mon Berger.
They were some of the last words I ever spoke to her, and probably some of the first she ever spoke to me. And while those words ushered me into sleep and dreams of unreality, they ushered her into the last and final sleep, into realities more true and solid than any known here. The unseen world revealed as real.
In life she taught me to bask in God’s love like one enjoys a warm ray of sunlight, with eyes closed, a slight smile, and a deep breath. I imagine she is in the Holy One’s presence at this moment, drinking deeply of this warmth, no longer enjoying it by faith but now by sight, perfecting the life of worship she practiced on earth. She bathes in His splendor and soaks in the glory and love that sustained her and now perfects her.