My phone rang day before yesterday and brought the voice of a dear old friend through my ear and straight to my heart.
“Ilene”, I said, “How are you?” But almost simultaneously I knew that something was not right because of the pitch of her voice and the slight quiver when she said my name.
“Are you ok?” I asked. And the answer was a quick ‘Yes,” followed immediately by…”No, I guess not.”
“My mom is dying.”
It’s not a sentence you hear every day.
Indeed, her mother passed away yesterday morning.
They knew it was coming. She was 92 years old and had not been able to eat for so long she was down to 78 pounds.
Our logic sits all smug in our brains and matter of factly states that this is natural and to be expected. And the syrupy sweet voice of our good girl angel cocks her head slightly to the right and nods, reminding us in that whiny condescending way that this is for the best and we are eternal beings and she is much happier where she is anyway.
But the child inside, the one who feels vulnerable at cocktail parties and gets really excited when she’s not on a diet and gets to eat a vegetable bowl sundae with lots and lots of fudge sauce and whipped cream, and who gets homesick at Christmastime even if she’s home…that child gets a big knot in her stomach and opens her mouth to scream but nothing comes out. She shivers and wants to be enfolded in something and a blanket is not enough. That child longs for her mother’s arms and feels so sorrowfully exposed because they are not there.
So that night Dave and I sat on the couch at my mom’s place. Mom, Libby and Sherry in their comfy chairs. We watched a show on TV. Nothing all that exciting, really. But as I sat there, that conversation I had had with Ilene kept rising to the top of my brain and my eyes kept shifting from the television over to my mom, nestled in her deep red recliner, a warm blanket tucked under her feet and stretched over her body and then tucked in at the other end beneath her chin. I just kept thinking that we were so blessed to be here in the family room, a nicely dancing fire in the fireplace, a familiar show on TV, and my mother was in her comfortable spot, her soft white hair looking so beautiful against the red leather of her recliner. She sat there with her hand cupped over her nose.
“Your nose cold, Mom?” I giggled.
And she nodded…”I guess so.”
She guesses about most of her life lately. Happy guesses, usually. She chooses to live in the happy peaceful place, even if she doesn’t always know where she is or what’s going on. She just doesn’t want to miss and is so happy to be included. She doesn’t even realize she is central.
I kept thinking over and over that we were here simply watching a show together, like we do most other nights, and at the very same time not too far away Ilene was walking her mother to the deepest part of the Veil we humans are allowed to go, hoping that her dad was just right there on the other side of seeing; hoping , for her mother’s sake, that there was just a flash of a moment between letting go of her daughter’s hand and grabbing on to her husband’s.
I sat there with the tight tummy I get when I feel tears starting to squeeze out, not wanting to disturb the simplicity of the moment, not wanting to make a deal out of how incredibly wonderful it was to just sit there and be. Together.
Just to hear her breathe. To see her eyes flutter with life. Or to watch her chest rise and fall as she dozed off, her hand still cradling her chilly nose. I made my mind form the words and plant them in my heart where I knew God would find them.
“Thank you for this woman, who approximately half a century ago this day felt the cramping tightness in her belly, the aching in her back, the exhaustion of full labor without any pain relief, just so I could exist on this earth. Thank you for her ability to love me without condition, and yet steer me with serious discipline. Some people just grow up. Some are raised. We were raised."
I watched her that whole evening, silently, and when it was time to go I lifted myself from the couch and bent over her to kiss her, her cold nose touching mine.
“I love you, Mom. So much.”
“I love you too, Doll.”
And I know she does.
My sorrow for Ilene’s loss is deepened by my feelings for my own mother. I know life is eternal. Ilene does, too. She will see her mom again, and she is sincerely comforted knowing her mom is with people she dearly loved and has missed for many years. It’s just that the waiting space seems so vast. That large hollow space between now and then.
I remember the day when my oldest, John, was in high school. He was reading Our Town for one of his classes, and he brought it up to the family room to share a portion of it with me. We sat there and for some reason I read the whole rest of the play out loud, just him and me. Emily, in the play, is given the chance to go back to visit one day in her mortal life, after she has passed away. She chose a sort of ordinary day, though she determined she wanted it to be somewhat special so she could be sure to see everyone she loved. So I think she chose her 12th birthday.
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.John and I sat there, pinned to Thornton Wilder’s words like they were air and we were breathless. He spoke our hearts. John was on the threshold of leaving home and we felt the rising tension of change, like the tide at dusk, and try as we might we knew we had no power over it. The dialogue and images of Wilder’s play gave form to our feelings and by the end I struggled between sobs to read the words out loud. John smiled, his eyes planted on the floor, and did not move until I had read the last word.
I cherish that shared moment with my son. Like I cherished that really rather average evening sitting next to my mom and sisters and my husband on a typical weeknight. The immense beauty in the ordinaryness came to light against the sorrowful news of Ilene’s mother’s journey through the Veil.
We were reminded, on this ordinary evening at the end of an ordinary day, in our typical places in that familiar space, that we humans constantly struggle to realize that the eternal exists even within ordinary events.
I realized, as I glanced over at my mother, that it just isn’t our turn yet. Thankfully. We all get our turns. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But how magical is the regular old night when it’s not our turn to deal with tragedy or adjust to change or struggle with a bleeding heart.
When I was sick, dealing with paralysis, and we spent a week at the U of U hospital doing test after test, from spinal taps to EMG’s to MRI’s and so forth, the most amazing thing to me in the end was not so much that they finally found the diagnosis of Guillain Barre Syndrome. The most amazing thing to me was the two full pages, single spaced, double columned, with a list of maladies I did not have. Things they tested me for which came out negative. With so much that could go wrong, we should all be dead!
But we’re not. Such a gift when you realize the possibilities.
That night, lying in my bed, pondering the day, I searched my brain for the words from Our Town…the words from one whose turn had come early, and who was given the chance to go back just one day. Looking back on the sweetness of her ordinary day, she calls to all of us:
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
To lighten my heart I found this picture of a couple Christmases ago when Kate made mom a nose muff for her chilly nose.
Funny Kate. Funny Gram.