Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ever-present Absence

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a few minutes lying in the hammock while Adam jumped on the trampoline. It soothed me to look up into the crystal-clear blue skies through the colorful leaves hanging precariously on the trees above me. I was practicing the art of emptying my mind so that I could hear God’s message to me more clearly. I’m not sure it worked, but it did lead to an interesting conversation with Adam.

“How would you feel if I died, Adam? I mean, other than sad, how would you feel?”

He thought for a bit, then said, “Well, how did you die?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just say…cancer.”

“I’d probably be mad, but then I’d eventually be okay. Why?”

What I was trying to figure out was that if this “missing a mother” thing that I still feel every single day is universal, in general, or if it depends on the age and stage a person is when a mother dies. In other words, all other factors being as equal as possible, does the heart-hole or life-hole that is left when one’s mother dies vary in size, shape, closure (?) time depending on how old a person is when her mother dies? Or is it consistent despite the contributing factors of age and stage in life? Why do I think about things like this? I don’t know, really. But I do know that even now, some 415 days or so past Mom’s death, not a single day goes by that I don’t think about her. Not a single day goes by that I don’t miss her. Most days, I miss her in that bittersweet way that leaves me smiling and warm inside. Some days, I miss her in the heart-wrenching, damn you cancer kind of way that leaves me feeling too vulnerable and too raw.

It’s not that I didn’t expect to outlive Mom. Of course I knew that I would very likely outlive her. But I did not expect to be totally blindsided by her death either. Yes, we had four months to prepare for her death. We were able to walk slowly toward her death, knowing that it was looming. But we were all totally blindsided by her diagnosis. We were all totally blindsided by the reality that she would not live to the ripe old age of 90, as her mother did, or even to the age of 88 as her less healthy sister did. I think we all fully expected to have Mom by our sides when Dad died, and I guess I always thought that somehow, that would make her ultimate death easier. But it was not to be.

This morning, I reached into the coat closet and pulled out a jacket that was Mom's. As I stuck my hands in the pockets and pulled out a glove and a wadded up tissue from each one, I felt that lump rise up in my throat. "Damn--it's one of those days again," I thought. On my way to work, I called Calli and we talked a bit about Thanksgiving and Christmas plans. Towards the end of the conversation, as we both realized that our holiday plans just don’t seem to matter that much to Dad, we both entered a space of missing the presence of Mom’s opinions and excitement about having us all together. Truthfully, they probably don’t matter too much to him because they mattered so much to Mom that he learned to just ride the waves of her twirling and her excitement. Honestly, no one will ever be as excited as she was to have us all in one place—because the hum of family resonance that is almost always present at any family gathering since the beginning of time often overshadows any excitement that any of us might feel for very long. Don’t get me wrong--we all love each other. And we get along better than many families that I know. But we’re all opinionated. We’re all strong-willed. And we all have our own way of doing things. So it can get a bit dicey at times.

But I digress. Calli & I entered that space of the mutual ever-present absence of Mom and we both teared up.

“I love you , Sister.” I said.

“Love you too. Bye.”

As I settled myself in the church space for the morning, I wandered past the two-year-old room. It was just past drop-off time, and the hustle and bustle of activity was beginning to wane as the children settled into their school morning. But there was one little boy who was still quietly sobbing.

“Would you like to play with the truck, Noah?” his teacher asked.

“No, I want my mama,” he cried quietly.

“Would you like to read a book?” she asked.

“No, I want my mama,” he cried quietly.

“We’re going to feather paint today. Do you want to feather paint with us?”

“No, I want my mama,” he cried quietly.

I stood at the door and watched, his tear-filled eyes meeting mine every few seconds until he finally inserted his right thumb in his mouth and started twirling a bit of hair with his left hand. I was taken back to the days when I would drop two-year-old Adam off at Little Folks of Fourth in Greenville. After a few tear-filled drop-off days, his own little soothing routine was to remind both of us that “mommies all call back,” Adam-speak for “Mommies always come back.”

And I always did.

Odds are pretty good that Noah is now happily playing with his friends, and that his mom will come back time and time again, too.

What is it about this thing called mother-love? When we are tiny and vulnerable, it is a mom’s presence that anchors us and helps us feel secure, so when she's not physically present, we are sad. We feel vulnerable and alone. And as we grow, it’s as if we want to resist with everything we have being dependent on that one person who wouldn’t dream of abandoning us. The ever-present presence of a mother can often feel stifling, even controlling or oppressive at times. One of my Emory students even laughed and said, “Well, you can’t have ‘smother’ without ‘mother’!” But when it’s only there in your memory, never again to be felt in the warmth of a hug, the taste of a favorite meal, or the excitement of a request to “tell me all about your (fill in the blank…day, trip, dinner, etc.)!” knowing that she really and truly does want to know all about it, it is the most pervasive, ever-present absence that I have ever felt. And why did I not realize how much I would miss it?

This is life today. If only I could suck my thumb and twirl my hair while I remind myself that mommies always come back, perhaps I would feel better. But alas...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Musings on a Calling

So this is what I worked for over the span of four years during my graduate studies at Columbia Theological Seminary? This is why I slaved and fretted over ordination exams and MCA’s and CPM paperwork? This is why I juggle two jobs, three sons, and an exponential number of schedules from mid-August to mid-May? To dress up as a witch and go Trick-or-Treating at age 44? To spend a weekend away from my family with 50+ folks (most of whom I don’t know) who hover unpredictably & precariously between adolescence and adulthood? To schlep dinner for twelve up two flights of stairs in the Glenn Education Building and listen to the highs and lows of a very high and low bunch of folks…every week? To plan activities and opportunities for worship, study, or service never knowing who, if anyone, will show up? To work to drum up enough financial support to get us through each year, and to never be sure from one year to the next if the funds will be granted for my own salary? To pay through the nose for parking at Emory, only to walk another “fer piece” to my on-campus office (which is up the aforementioned two flights of stairs, I might add…)? To pick up the tab for anywhere from two to twelve people at Yogurt Tap, Willy’s, Panera, or ChocoLate at any given moment?

You bet it’s what I worked for. It’s why I sat not once (for polity and worship and sacraments), not twice (for polity, theology, and exegesis), but three (for polity alone) times. (Notice a pattern here? Damn you, polity ord!) It’s why I juggle the many aspects of my life so that I can be pastor (and yes, sometimes mother, sometimes sister, sometimes friend) to a group of the greatest young people that I know. To walk with these students on this journey we call life for these precious four years is a gift and a blessing. They challenge me. They support me. They laugh with me…and at me. They are wonderful and amazing. They are inquisitive, they are faithful, and they are committed to finding and following God’s call on their lives. They are respectful of each other, yet hold each other accountable when needed. They are the future. And I promise you, despite all the things that point to the contrary, they will be ready and capable when it’s time to step up to the proverbial plate. Yes they’re still being formed—and there are days when I am grateful that God’s not done with ‘em yet, for sure--but then again, aren’t we all a beautiful, wonderful, work in progress?

Thank you God for calling me to this work of Christian formation. And thank you for the daily reminders that it is all of us—not just our children, youth, and young adults—whom you are forming, shaping, molding to be/come the people you have called us to be.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More Wisdom from Attee

I have so many blog topics on my list, but in the craziness that is my life, I simply can't find the right combination of time AND creative energy to write them down. Theological musings like "If we believe God is always present, why do we ask God to comfort people and / or be with people in our prayers?" and "Sins of Omission and Sins of Comission--which do you tend to focus on and why?" And another one came to me yesterday, but I have already forgotten it. Perhaps it will return.

But alas, today is not the day when creativity and time have met, so instead, I give you more snippets from Mom's life, this time from her Bible, where I found this little gem tucked. It's from an old "These Days" devotional, dated Sunday, April 30. The referenced scripture is Luke's version of The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37.

Be A Jumper Cable

On one of those frantic, tightly scheduled days, when others were depending on my punctuality all day, the battery in my car barely sparked the engine to start. In haste, I risked continuing. Later, far from home, as I turned the ignition key again, one last, weak, grunt sounded. The battery was dead. I felt like a dead battery, too!

Almost immediately a young "Good Samaritan" stopped to offer help--he even had a jumper cable! As soon as the jumper cable brought power, my car started: the energy transferred enabled my car to go.

I thought of all those people in the world who act as jumper cables--conveying energy, bringing help, carrying services, transferring love, making connections. Try it now; stop a moment and remember kindness people have done for you, those who have served as links between you and a need. Then, think of the times you have been a jumper cable for others, a Good Samaritan--the example immortalized by Jesus of one forever nameless but forever named, a symbol of a person who responde to human need. Good Samaritans are jumper cables, bridging human need!

Prayer: All powerful (God), without you we are as dead batteries. Help us to stay connected with you and to transfer to others your love and energy. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Granted, the metaphor is a bit cheesy, but it does so personify our mother. So my prayer for you this day and always, with a nod to our dear, sweet Attee is this: May each of you BE jumper cables when you are given the chance to be, and may you FIND someone who is jumper cables when you need a bit of energy.

Amen. :-)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

For Michael Thomas

In going through my files on my computer, I came upon this poem that I wrote for our youngest son Michael when he was three. It was just a few months before we moved to Decatur for seminary...

Your Passion
For Michael Thomas, with love from Mom
April 18. 2002

You're the hardest part of my day, yet the joy of my life.
The delicate balance between ecstasy and utter frustration.
From the first stirrings of you in my body...even your conception.
I've felt it from the start, your eagerness, need, to live with passion.

They said that you couldn't was too soon.
But I knew better, as all mothers do. You were there, sure & strong.
Even at eight weeks, your beating heart was screaming for life.
A Soul that you had already claimed, passionately staked for your own.

It was as if you'd picked up the remaining pieces of the one before you,
The one who had not been, whose body was no longer there.
Perhaps there were bits of soul still present, begging for a life.
And like a good brother, you gathered them in, sharing yourself.

You were the hardest to carry, for both body & mind were weary.
And I had little time to rest, as there were other young demands.
Needs to be met, incessant and necessary.
But you were there always, reminding me of your presence.

So eager you were to join our lives that you couldn't wait 'til your time.
Your brothers were late, but were three days ahead of yourself.
Always ahead of yourself, or so you thought. So you think.
You're only three, a mere speck in the hourglass of life.

I wrestle with you, with who you are and the roller coaster you ride.
Up one minute, then plummeting down the next, with no warning, none.
I hurt for you, for the emotions you feel so strongly yet cannot name.
But we're both's just that there are so many, and it's so hard!

You're only three, too little for reasoning, for big words, or big feelings.
But your feelings ARE big, and they resonate loud & long.
Even when you are back up and the world is good again,
Your frustration, your hurtful actions, linger in my mind, heart, and memory.

Time will help, I tell myself. You'll grow out of it.
But do I want you to? That passion you have, good or bad
Is passion nonetheless. It's a depth of feeling that not everyone has.
But I know you have it because I see myself in your depths.

We'll get through this, you & me, and be better for it.
Your feelings WILL always resonate loud & long for me.
As mine will for you, one of these days. And I will remind you.
Of the days, not so very long ago, when you were my hardest part.

More musings from Mom

I remember...

...not long after my Grandpa died, I remember an Indian suit I got for Christmas--feathered headdress and all! And it was very special, I thought!

...waking up on cold winter mornings and seeing Daddy light the heaters before the family got up.

...having "tickling fights" with Daddy on Sunday mornings in bed! I LOVED that! And one Sunday morning by the bed there was a new pocket watch somebody had given my daddy and it had writing on the back.

...the stairway in the big old house with a landing where it turned directions. One day I fell from the top step to the landing and I remember being GLAD that stairway turned directions! Just like times when I've been glad when life "turned directions," you know!

I'm grateful for her memories, her voice in my head, even still. But there are still times when all I really want is to feel her arms around my neck and hear her tell me that she loves me.


Friday, June 11, 2010

I Remember...

More from Mom's "Recollections"

"I remember when Grandpa died and I smiled at people as they went in to pay respects to someone in the downstairs bedroom--was it Nana? I'm not sure, but I know it seemed important for me to smile and be happy because everyone looked so sad!"

May we all be beacons of happiness today for those in our midst who are sad!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Memories from Attee

I've not had the creative urge to blog much these past few months, but I don't want to just let it go unattended either. Therefore, I've decided to resurrect some of Mom's writings that I have found as we've gone through her things this past year and put them out there for whatever readers I may still have left to enjoy.

I'm not exactly sure the nature of these writings. I suppose she wanted to write things down "for posterity," so that he stories and memories would live on even when she had moved on. There is a yellow legal pad with memories jotted down and dated in the mid- to late-70's, then another notebook that is entitled "My Journal about Hunter" begun in June of 1992, right about the time we found out he was HIV+. That one is a treasure, and I hope to share it in its full form at some point.

I should have posted this one on Tuesday of this week, which would have been Mom & Dad's 60th wedding anniversary, but I had forgotten about this particular entry. The entry is dated 9/6/79, just a few weeks before my sister Calli married her first husband Steve. Since Mom did not title it, I'll do that for her.

How Well I Remember

"How well I remember the day I married Tommy. As usual at 628, there was lots of confusion and much coming and going. That morning a friend brought a box filled with freshly cut gardenias from her garden and said, with a smile, "Happy the bride the sun shines on!" and it was indeed a glorious summer day! I remember th eneed to get away from all the confusion, so I went across the Janye's to rest, but instead of resting, I had a good cry and a heart-to-heart talk with Janye. Only then did she tell me Med had always hoped I'd marry Mem! But then she reassured me and said it was natural to get nervous at the last minute.

"Then as I was dressing to go to the church, I got sick at my stomach just before putting on my wedding gown. But I finally got myself together and with my daddy's help I made it down the aisle. Everyone said the way that Tommy looked at me as I came down the aisle was all the decoration that we needed for the wedding! I've always wished someone had snapped a picture because that would have been so special to keep."

It always troubled me that Mom and Dad's wedding day was so stressful for her. Since her death, I've read some of the letters that she and Dad exchanged in the months leading up to the wedding (which she, by the way, intentionally kept, but also intentionally kept FROM me until "the day she died," as she used to say), and there's no doubt that the love and certainty were there, but I guess as was often the case with Mom, her nervousness outweighed any other emotions that might have been present as well. I know their life together, while filled with ups and downs, was good, and that she had little, if any, regrets about the path their life together took for those fifty-nine years.

As Joel and I approach our 20th anniversary in less than two weeks (June 23rd), I wonder what our lives will look like when the year 2050 rolls around. If we are still on this earth, I will be 84 and he will be 81, very close to Mom's age when she died, and Dad's age now. What hardships will we have endured by then? What celebrations will we have shared together? Will our boys rest in the knowledge that I had little, if any, regrets about the path our life together took?

On these summer days that seem so very full for me, I hope to keep my wits about me and remember that it's no so much about the destination, but about the journey along the way. I'm a pretty good trip planner, but I'm not so sure how good I am as a traveling companion. I think perhaps I'll work on that a bit in the days and weeks ahead...

Monday, April 05, 2010

Full Circle

For over a year now, I’ve blogged mostly about Mom—her diagnosis and journey to death, and the after effects with which that all left me. But here, on this side of the reality of life without my mother’s hugs, I have been blessed these past few months to be reminded of just what a gift I have in dad. Calli & I have both commented in these recent months that it’s been a joy to re-define our relationship with Dad. Surely those of you that knew our mom have some idea what we mean when we say that. It’s not that Mom hoarded or controlled either of us or our relationship with Dad, but she was so very present in their marriage. She was the personality of their partnership. It’s not that Dad doesn’t HAVE personality, but Mom just had so much, so Dad eventually just let her be the relationship manager. She managed their social life, their family life, and their day-to-day life—just as any good “housewife” of her generation did. And it was all well and good with them. That was their dance for many years, and they had learned to dance it beautifully. But now Dad is without his dancing partner, and so he’s having to learn his own steps. And doing quite well, I have to say.

But I’m chasing a rabbit here. Let me back up. So my musings have been mostly about Mom—the things she taught me, the things she did for me, the ways she mothered me. I know how very blessed the four of us were to have had her as our mother. But we’re fortunate too, to have the father that we have as well. No, neither of them were perfect by any means, but both did the best they knew how to do, and that was pretty darn good.

As I pushed the lawn mower down the street yesterday to mow Dad’s overgrown yard--for some reason, the lawn service had been delayed and it was looking scruffy--I spent some time really thinking about the kind of father that he has been. And I realized that there are things that I know how to do that I am quite sure that Mom did not teach me. Things like how to change a tire or how to check my oil. Things like how to turn a screwdriver or hammer a nail. Things like how to balance a chemical equation or solve for x in a linear one. Things like how to make hummingbird food, or where to put a bluebird house. Things like how to start a lawnmower and how to mow a straight path. As I walked back and forth, back and forth in Dad’s front yard, making sure the tire of the mower was just inside the most recently-mowed strip so I wouldn’t leave any unmowed stalks of grass, I remembered him standing on the curb at 1409 watching me mow the lawn for the first time. He would turn me around after each pass and let me see my weaving path, encouraging me until I could mow a strip as straight as an arrow.

Mom always found it very odd that I love mowing the lawn. It was certainly not a “ladylike” thing to do, and most definitely not anything she had taught me to love. And yet I’ve always enjoyed doing it. True, there is a part of me that likes to do it because, well…because unlike laundry, it stays “done” for a few days. But I think there is also a part of me that has always like it because it makes me feel connected to Dad in some way.

Yesterday, when I had finished mowing, I went inside to get a glass of ice cold water. I sat down on the sofa next to Dad in his chair and together, we watched a few golf holes. I smiled as I remembered the times not too long ago when he would come in after working in the yard and sit down next to me to sip his glass of ice cold water while we watched a golf hole or two together as Mom cooked dinner.

Dad & I never really talked much prior to Mom’s death, and we don’t talk that much now, really. Sure, I see him almost every day, and we talk some, but when we do, it’s usually about when I’m picking him up for a Publix run or a visit to the doctor. He’s never been one for small talk, and that has only been compounded by his difficulty hearing. But no longer do I let the lack of words passing between the two of us disturb me or make me feel like we don’t “have much of a relationship.” We have the kind of relationship that many fathers of his generation had with their children…one formed around shared tasks, understood feelings that need not be spoken, and mutual satisfaction with a job well done.

It’s hard to watch your parents age and die. But as hard as it is, there is a rightness about going full circle that reminds me that it’s the way life was meant to be. My prayer is that I am blessed with many more “full circle” opportunities with my daddy before he, too, leaves this world for the next.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

So every year, almost without exception, on the eve of my birthday, Mom would retell the story of my birth. It went something like this:

"Well, you were supposed to be delivered by C-section a week or so later, but as you know, you came into this world saying 'I'd rather do it myself, Mama!' It became pretty clear that you were about to make your appearance earlier than we'd planned, and on the night of March 3rd, 1966, it was storming and flooding all over middle Georgia! But we knew we had to get to Macon where my doctor was, so we called Mrs. Kay to come stay with the "big kids," and Barbara and George Spicer got in the car with us and we headed up the road. There was no I-16 then, so the typical route to Macon was up Hwy 80, but it was UNDER WATER in places, so we had to go a roundabout way to get there, and Barbara was just sure she was going to have to deliver you in the back seat of the car! But we finally made it there, and you made your appearance at 7:12 the next morning, 'all by yourself.' What a gift you have been, my precious Jill!"

Also, every year, literally without fail, I would receive a birthday greeting similar to the one I got from her this time last year. This is what she wrote:

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY, my precious Jill!!!!! March 4th, 1966 was most likely the happiesst day if my life, & little did I know just how much I would come to LOVE & depend on you!!! THANK YOU FOR ALL OF THE MANY HAPPY DAYS YOU HAVE GIVEN ME...& for all the happy days we have to look forward to!! I am planning on lots of those!!! Don't ever forget that I LOVE YOU MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

But as hopeful as I was this time last year, I knew it would likely be my last birthday with her here on earth with me. So I've saved that email from March 4, 2009, and will read it every year on my birthday, because, well...because my birthday just wouldn't be the same without my Mama's birthday wishes for me.

Thank you, Mom, for having me. For loving me. For teaching me. And for making me feel so very important, on my birthday and always. I miss you lots tonight.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

At the Counter

Not a day goes by that I don't think of Mom. I guess that's "improvement" from where I was a while ago, at "not an hour goes by that I don't think of Mom." I have discovered that when I was in the "not an hour" phase, the missing was an ache, a pain that usually brought me close to tears. Now that I have "graduated" to the "not a day" phase, my thought of Mom give me more comfort than sadness, more smiles than grief.

How blessed I was to have her for my mother.

This afternoon as Michael sat at the counter doing his homework, I was in the kitchen baking cookies. And just like that, I was back...back at the counter at 1409--the 1970's aqua-colored formica counter with the ceramic square superglued to it to hide the absence-of-formica where I had let the iron warm up face down (oops!) when I was trying to be bigger than I really was. I was back on the dark wood stool that I still sit on whenever I am at my potter's wheel--because I cut the legs down to make it a just-right height since your Decatur house doesn't have a counter. I was back with you there, in the kitchen, asking me about my day and making a snack for me.

If I could sit down at the counter now, with you baking cookies all around me, I would tell you about my day, Mom.

I would tell you that yesterday was hard, but today was better.

I would tell you that Michael has been chosen to be a Board Scholar, just like Daniel was in 5th grade, and that he's also Student of the Month for January.

I would tell you that Daniel is having a harder time than I would like for him to in 7th grade, and that we are considering other options for him next year because we refuse to let Shamrock suck the excitement for school out of him.

I would tell you about how he got in the car yesterday saying he saw one of the greatest things he'd seen in a long time after school at Dad's house. "What was that?" I asked. "Well, Grandad was sitting in his chair and Boyd came up to him and put his paw on Grandad's knee. Grandad smiled the biggest smile I'd seen him smile in a long time and then let Boyd jump up in the chair with him."

I would tell you about how much better Adam is doing in school this semester, and how much better he has gotten with his driving. I would tell you what a good kid he is, and how even though his heart is wrestling with his hormones, his heart usually wins.

I would tell you that I am still madly and deeply in love with Joel, and that I would go to the ends of the earth to support him.

I would tell you how proud we all are of Dad--how he's "getting along just fine," as he so often tells folks. He is cooking for himself, cleaning for himself, and even doing his own laundry. He misses you terribly, but he is doing just fine.

I would tell you that I got an email from Sarah Alice today, and that she sounds happy.

I would tell you about my morning, and how it renewed my faith in God a tiny bit.

I would invite you to come with me to church this Sunday--Church of the New Covenant--where I will be helping with worship by presiding at the Communion Table.

I would ask you if you've talked to Tom about his trip to New York, and we could share how happy we are for him that he's getting to go.

I would talk to you about all of those things if I could sit at the counter while you bake cookies.

But I can't. And I guess that's okay. It's okay because, well...because it has to be. It has to be because today is a big-girl-britches, no-whining kind of day.

But even big girls who have outgrown whining can miss their mamas....can't they?

Can you bake cookies where you are? Are there counters where you are? I'll bet you can even eat cookie dough where you are without having to worry about salmonella, huh?

Well, say hello to folks there, and don't forget that the 4th is Mamur's 110th birthday. I hope you will enjoy being with your own mama on that day, after so many years "without her." Maybe you should bake her a cake. And maybe Hunter can sit at the counter and visit with you while you work.

I kinda like that image.