My mother passed from this life into eternity 14 years ago—on 1/23/00 to be exact. I knew the precise moment when she passed. I sensed a fluttering of wings around my head and in five minutes the hospital called. She had made it into the new millennium, tho I’m not sure she was aware of that fact. She spent the last four and a half years of her life in a nursing home slowly wasting away. She had a stroke in the summer of ’95 and her left side was paralyzed. However, her mind was still intact.
As nursing homes go it was a pretty good one. It was only a mile from my house and so I visited her daily. When I missed a day, I would usually go twice the following day. I brought her books from the library and pancakes from McDonalds on Saturday. The pancakes were a welcome treat–a respite from the blenderized slop they feed stroke victims. My mother didn’t watch TV and she conversed very little but she devoured three or four books every week. She had eclectic tastes in books–mysteries, historical romances, biographies, religion–and of course the Bible.
Those who know me reasonably well know that sadness is sort of my default setting. But Mother’s Day is usually a sadder day than most. A question for discussion in my home church group this morning was what word first comes to mind when you think of your mother. That threw me for a loop. I answered, “love” but in truth my first thought was, “mentally ill.” It was an unsettling question and not one that I wanted to answer truthfully or talk about at that point.
My mother was quite bipolar and over the course of her life had a dozen or more psychotic episodes and hospitalizations. However, between episodes she was a normal and loving individual. When I was 19, I was an agnostic prone to scoff at her beliefs. On one occasion she said, “God is love.” I did not know that she was quoting from First John 4, but some part deep within me knew that I had heard truth. I didn’t give her a hard time as I was wont to do and over the 23 years of my unbelief I held that thought. I also knew that she prayed for me daily and no one else did.
I am an only child, and the only child of an impaired parent usually tries to rescue them. We sense that our own survival somehow depends on it. It’s an impossible task of course–but nevertheless we persist, and when we don’t succeed what’s left is guilt and a sense of failure and our powerlessness. And of course we live out lives being rescuers and co-dependents–trying to succeed at the impossible task we failed at as children.
When my mother died I didn’t own a cell phone or a computer. The internet and its possibilities was a thing beyond my comprehension. I did not have a passport and hadn’t been on an airplane in 30 years. In the autumn of 1999, I wrote the first draft of my first book The Unwelcome Blessing on a typewriter. I was numb for several months and unable to write but I finished it in the Summer of 2000, and when the few publishers I submitted it to didn’t welcome it with open arms I threw the manuscript in a stack on a shelf where it remained for five years.
This past June I returned to New Mexico where we lived for almost a decade. I hadn’t been back in 42 years, and it was an emotional trip back in time. The years she spent in New Mexico were one of the happier times in her troubled life. She worked for the government as a clerk-typist at White Sands Missile Range. Four times in three days I drove by the little cement block house she owned. The house and the neighborhood had deteriorated terribly. I thought about asking the current residents if I could peek inside but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. She was rightfully proud of our modest little home, and it was sad to see how it had been kept. But I did attend sunday services at the Lutheran church where she taught sunday school. Afterwards, I spoke with the pastor. She mentioned that the one or two old-timers who might remember my mother were not present that day.
Over the past 14 years my life has evolved immeasurably and in ways I could never have imagined—four trips to Europe, mission trips to Latin America and ten trips to California, plus three more books published. It has been a time of incredible blessings. And yet I feel very alone and, at times, like I’m still living out my mother’s incomplete life.
e e cummings wrote: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart) i am never without it (anywhere i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing. . .”