RUSH OF GRIEF, TOUCH OF HOPE
The rush of grief catches me by surprise. My 94 year old Mom’s struggle--nine years of progressive dementia—is over. Her effort to recognize our faces. To hear much less understand our conversation. To chew, to stand up, to dress herself. Ordinary things. My Mom’s struggle at last is over. It was the long goodbye, and I thought it was over before it came. The last visit was tough. Was her face showing impatience, or was it frustration, or discomfort? I couldn’t tell.
But I did get to marvel one last time at her soft, shining eyes. Sometimes bright blue, sometimes, gray--this time they matched the light teal she was wearing. And stroke those once sturdy work worn hands, now so fragile, so easily bruised, tissue thin skin barely veiling blue veins. The hands that once gently tugged childish brown curls behind my ear as I lay, head in her lap, secure in the cocoon of her embrace. One of my earliest memories, and to this day when someone runs their fingers through my hair, the warm glow of being cherished settles over me. And there was that sudden burst of laughter, her whole face lit up with the childlike delight of unexpected pleasure when I sang one of her favorite hymns. For a fleeting moment she seemed to recognize my voice.
Throughout the long goodbye the losses mounted up. Macular degeneration and glaucoma stole her lifelong love of reading and bird watching (almost every bird on her life list was checked off.) Gone were the succinct comments peppered with words I’d never heard of. Advice and encouragement. Reminders of her prayers. Gone the late night phone calls, sharing with her the joys and challenges of child-rearing and marriage. Hearing with pride about her day. Her gardening, her volunteer work, driving the elderly to appointments, baking cookies for the firemen, cooking meals at church. Continuing the work of the non-profit she and Dad helped found, to aid the homeless and elderly. Mini-strokes, accidents--a cascade of dependency wore away the Mom I knew.
It is real loss, and so little is left of the Mom I remember, it feels as if she is gone before I get the call from the hospice nurse. The time is near. They had prepared us for this. Her brain no longer signals her body to perform that last life giving function of chewing and swallowing. I am calm. I am ready. Happy for Mom, whose faith in Jesus and his resurrection promises her a beautiful future, her broken body and mind at last whole and beautiful. Then why the tears when I get the call on Thanksgiving day from my sister Georgiana? Why the heaviness?
I am so bound to this earth. My mother’s eyes, the lilting sound of her voice, her weathered hands, her fine, soft white curls, her touch. These for me are inextricably bound up with the essence of who she is, with her spirit. No wonder God condescended to send his express image, his Son, the only begotten of the Father, in human form. How else could I get it? "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life." His disciple John needed it. I need it.
The tears are a gift. In that unbidden place of sorrow, memories are released. They reassure me how fiercely I love not only the Mom she was, but the Mom she became. The Mom who faced adversity with graciousness, courage and tenacity. She never lost heart. Though outwardly she was wasting away, inwardly she was being renewed day by day. Memories... Like the last time I brought her to church. There’d been the difficulty maneuvering her wheelchair. Did she know who I was or where we were going? With one hand on the steering wheel, I stretched out the other to touch hers. Clasping my hand between hers, she stroked it, ever so tenderly. Her native language of love didn’t fail her, even when other familiar signposts did. The determined way she straightened the spine in her 90-some pound frame, reaching her feet down to maneuver the wheelchair. Tenacity. The look of “inward gathering,” eyes closed, that I caught on her face just two weeks before she died. Quiet dignity and strength, familiar to me throughout her life, with her to the end. Courage. As she accepted each new constraint, her graciousness a gift to her caretakers. We were grateful for their kindness to her, but no wonder. If only through the tenderness of her gaze, she continued to reward those who cared for her. Treasures snatched gleaming from the wreckage of her decline. Not unlike in my son Jonathan, qualities sparkling like precious gemstones, the more beautiful for their singularity.
Then why this disquiet, this lingering uneasiness in my soul? Because she is gone. The final physical reminder of all I love and treasure. Burned to ashes. The pottery urn lovingly prepared by my brother Eddie lies covered with soil. In a very small hole in the ground. Is this all that is left of her? I have to reckon the resurrection with the worn, veined hand I can no longer stroke and eyes that match whatever blue she wears, shut forever. It feels like performance anxiety--like forgetting what key the music’s in, or my first line in a play. This concept of the spirit no longer tied to the body is the stuff of philosophers, not this lowly mortal.
The first few days feel a bit like free fall. Or being lost in a fog. Everything I believe as a Christian depends on the resurrection. If it’s not true, the Apostle Paul says we are most pitied of all. Worse yet, where does that put my mother? The intellectual arguments for the resurrection are solid. I know them. But right now, they bring neither comfort nor reassurance. When I finally have the time and energy after Thanksgiving, I get the word out. Messages and cards of comfort and prayer pour in. A comforting call from Pastor Doug.
On the wings of those prayers (certainly not my own strength) the Spirit whispers a scripture. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus’ words go straight to my heart. I am struck by his tenderness, his compassion palpable. He understands my inability to grasp this, and reassures me, oh so gently. I look up the rest of the verse. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in Me as well. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and welcome you into My presence, so that you also may be where I am.”
“ If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” Jesus could have rebuked the disciples but here he simply reminds them of His truthfulness and faithfulness. He cites his track record. After all, when has Jesus ever betrayed my trust? In this light, the intellectual arguments for the resurrection take on new life. Just as he has demonstrated his miraculous power to me in answered prayer, comfort, and new life in Him, He did the same for the disciples. He healed the sick, raised the dead, fed the hungry in the sight of multiple witnesses, the eyewitness accounts validated by more ancient manuscripts than any of the other ancient books whose authorship and validity we take for granted, combined. Jesus’ words and those that followed predicting his death and resurrection, were fulfilled. His resurrection was witnessed by over 500, referred to by secular historians, and testified unto death by his disciples.
In the end, though, it is His love that bridges the gap between heart and mind for me. His reliable love, proven over and over, helps me to trust him for the journey I’ll never completely understand as long as my feet are planted on this ground. A journey Mom will take, when Jesus returns as promised, to take her to a beautiful place he’s prepared especially for her. A room where He promises to welcome her into His presence. Forever. And in that magnificent heaven she envisioned years ago shortly before Dad died, those beautiful eyes of hers will light up again as Jesus’ gaze, most beautiful of all, meets hers. I can just hear the surprised delight of her laughter now.