The season’s first snow is falling. Surrounded by pines’ gray trunks and green needles, it is easy to imagine we are a tiny house set a-swirl in a perfectly shaken snow-globe scene. Given the events of the day it is equally easy to believe we are all held by a Hand unimaginably capable of holding us all, with a compassion equally beyond full reckoning.
I have been watching my mother’s health fade over the last five years; in the last five months, the fade has become more dramatic, almost a freefall. Monday her doctor suggested hospice, and by this morning all the arrangements were in place. The only task remaining was to communicate the positives of this idea to Mom, and hope she felt as we do, that hospice will add to the care she receives in a necessary and appropriate way. By grace and all that is good, this is how the conversation went. The road will continue to bend and twist in the days and months ahead, but I have every hope for greater quality in each day remaining to her, and I purely hope she will stop judging herself so harshly for what she regards as her own failure. This approaching death is certainly not her fault; there is a tumor on her spine, causing pain, mobility difficulties and other problems, and it has the potential to be the death of her. But she still has the athlete’s mindset, that any physical failing can be overcome, and not overcoming is not acceptable.
This mindset made my father’s death more difficult, honestly; she kept driving him and his doctors to do all they could to return him to being the man he was before the aneurysm blew in his brain. It was a hard mercy, those last six weeks, when he hung on for no good reason other than to give her a chance to adjust to the fact that he was going on down the road ahead of her. But the way he loved her, that hard mercy was no surprise.
Now she’s coming around a bend on that same road. And so it is that – although her death is not imminent – I am having Easter feelings at Christmastime. When death blossoms in the midst of life, there is so much unknown and so much we do not understand. There’s a sudden sense that all you know and all you rely on is disrupted, upended. Reality is torn; another side of life presents itself and you know the learning curve will be steep, and the loving curve even steeper.
With birth, with Christmas, something arrives that wasn’t here before. The evidence that the world has changed lies right in front of us, crying and helpless and we cannot help but care. For those of us who are women and who have given birth, we know how the world shrinks down to twelve inches: the distance between eyes and breast and face. A new reality is right there, and has taken hold of our bodies, has taken root in our hearts, and we know will never let us go.
With death, on the other hand, something that was here before isn’t now. The world has changed, and yet not in an evidentiary way. There is absence. You reach out for the hand that was there, and it is not. And there is no new image, no new reality to gaze upon for reassurance that this change is for the better.
Comprehensible, well-timed and well-prepared for deaths are too rare, both because we as a society do not prepare ourselves well for the knowns of the end, because of our discomfort or outright fear of the unknowns, and because of the messiness and complexity of life itself. My relationship with my Mom is complex and messy (as – I suspect – are most daughters’). That complexity doesn’t disappear when I think of her passing. We did have the blessing a few years ago to go through a great transition and clarification in our relationship, as part of my coming-out process; what actually transpired there should remain private, but suffice it to say that that process produced as much grace and release for her as it did acceptance and reassurance for me. So, it’s not like there’s a lot left unsaid.
It’s just … complicated. [Shrug.]
And I know those complications will be years in the unwinding; and they’ll crop up again and again, because the door remains open on the questions and challenges that go this deep into the roots of a life.
With all that Christianity does not accomplish, and with all that it has done wrong, it does give us good language and things to remember, when death sends advance notice.
The confusion and dark incontrovertible simplicity in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death reflects our own human experience.
But we also have advance notice from the One who went on before that death does not have the final word, and that emptiness is not all there is.
My mother is here today, to be loved as best we can imperfectly love her. And when she is gone into what looks like emptiness, we will remember that that is not all there is.
The road goes on. This is just a bend along the way. As mysterious as a manger; as inarguable as an empty tomb.