My Mom is dead.
How do I even wrap my mind, my heart around that statement?
Every day of my life, my Mom has been there. She may have been miles away, but was always somewhere. Alive. Available.
It took me 50 years to become an orphan, but I am one now. I’m not a vulnerable child with an unformed personality, but I am now a man who cannot reach out to his mother. The world has changed.
Death is a thief. And I’m discovering how much has been stolen.
For the past four years, my parents have lived next door to my family and me. So, after many years of living in different cities and states, I’ve seen my parents almost every day for these past 50 months. The rhythms of our lives have grown back together.
Our interactions increased when as my Mom’s need for care increased. Although another care giver has helped out immensely, I was glad (mostly!) to take responsibility for the rest. And so, the mother who diapered and cleaned me became the mother I dressed and undressed and took care of toilet needs for.
It was humbling for me, but it was even more so for her. When I was a baby and needed these things attended to, I didn’t know anything different. But she had to submit to it as someone who had spent so many years as a self-sufficient adult. There were so many times when she apologized that I had to deal with her toilet needs. I always said, “This is why we live next door to each other; so we can help each other out.”
So, who was my Mom?
She was a strange mix of someone who longed for mastery, for self-sufficiency, for control and of someone who embraced her weakness, her sin, her inabilities.
My Mom longed to be wise. She wanted to master the Scriptures and the spiritual life. She wanted to be a woman of deep prayer and intimacy with God. She wanted to be a mentor and a spiritual guide to others. And so she was part of the initial group that founded Bible Study Fellowship with Mrs. Johnson and she wrote study guides for the Gospel of John and Psalms.
She had definite ideas of what she wanted around the house and had no trouble telling my Dad what to do. In fact, I worry for him without her. I don’t know if he’ll know what to do with himself. She didn’t just make decisions about things around the house; she was the real decision maker when it came to jobs he took.
She was always on the run. There was always a meeting to go to, a person to counsel. Her need to be needed. I have so many memories of running to catch up with her, because she was speed walking to her next destination. And I have even more memories of eating meals with some part of it burned because she was distracted by a phone call or ineffective multitasking. She was late so often picking me up from school that we made a deal: She’d buy me a pack of Star Wars collector’s cards for every five minutes she was late. I had a massive pile of Star Wars cards before I knew it.
After her second of three bouts with cancer, she began to embrace her weaknesses. Her body had attacked itself. That’s what cancer is: self-destruction. It’s actually a form of self-control gone bad, as hyperactive cells take over. It was a metaphor for her over-active spirituality and she knew it.
And then on the heels of her third cancer surgery, she had a massive stroke which completely changed her life. Just two days after her big 60th birthday celebration, she had surgery at UCLA and just hours later, her stroke.
She was hospitalized for months afterward. For half a year, people from our small church brought meals almost every night for Dad and me. And when my Mom returned home, she was depressed, as might be expected. The stroke had left her with only gross motor control of the left side of her body.
And it stole her singing voice. Mom used to sing far too loudly for my tastes. But now it was gone and I wished I’d never complained about it.
Four years after her 60th birthday, my wife and I were married. So, Charlene never met my pre-stoke mother. All she knew was the broken version. But that’s the way of life, right?
When our first child was born, my parents came to visit us in our tiny apartment in Vancouver, BC. Emett was just two weeks old, but I was already struggling with lack of sleep and not knowing what to do with a baby. So, I asked Mom, “What did you learn after raising the five of us kids?”
I had grown used to her operating out of her weaknesses and wanted to hear her speak out of her strength.
She said, “What I learned is that you five were all so different I never figured it out.”
That wasn’t the wisdom I was hoping for. But it was wisdom nonetheless. She spoke the truth so many parents are afraid to acknowledge: She wasn’t the Mom she’d hoped to be. That honesty gave Charlene and me a lot of freedom in our own not-figuring-it-out.
About nine months later, we entered into another not-knowing. The youngest of my four sisters, Joy, was killed by a kid who’d been drinking with his friends. There’s so much I could write about how that experience has shaped me over the past 20 years, but this is about my Mom, not me.
Mom never recovered from Joy’s death. Neither did my Dad. I don’t know that any parent really recovers from the death of a child. That’s just not supposed to be a part of our life experience. Parents are supposed to die first. But Joy was snatched away.
After that, pictures of Joy and knickknacks with the word JOY on them festooned my parents’ home. They choked up at the mention of her name. That’s never changed. If anything, my Mom’s death has finally ended her sorrow over Joy.
Mom, I miss you. Thank you for sharing your strengths. Thank you even more for sharing your weaknesses.