(Written November 1, 2013)
For the last two years I have not preached on All Saints Sunday so being in the pulpit this coming Sunday feels like a big deal. Two years ago on All Saints my mother had just died – I was in Minnesota preparing for her funeral the next day. Then, last year at this time I took a trip to Nebraska to see friends because I knew I could not lead worship or preach on the first anniversary of her death. Instead, my friends and I stayed up late drinking wine and talking, we got some new tattoos, took the kiddos to a movie, bought shoes, and ate good food. That time together with them was good medicine for me.
And now, in just hours, it will be two whole years since mom died. Even now there is a part of me that would happily never talk or write about anything other than her and how bad I feel without her. No one tells you that grief makes you terribly boring and interested in little aside from what you have lost.
I suppose I am getting better. I imagine with every day that goes by I am still gaining some strength, some perspective. But there is a part of me that hates that. The feverish little mess I was in the first months after her death was my proof that no one else loved their mother as much as I loved mine! I was the winner in the loss category.
But the sun keeps rising and setting and rising again. I can either keep adding onto my monument of pain and loss or I can live. I’ve always known I would choose to live –and yet I have been surprised at how comfortable I have grown with grieving. The sorrow has very nearly become a pillow I rest on, a familiar place for my heart to go. I know what to expect there – a canvas painted with pictures of how she looked and the things that filled her last days and months: pale arms resting on a prayer shawl, a fingertip with a heart monitor clipped to it, a spider web of tubes connected to her veins, sad-blue hospital gowns, and her weary visage. She was so deeply and truly tired at the end. Her heart had been sliced open and stitched back together twice, her liver mostly useless – I shouldn’t have been surprised she could die and yet her death was the great surprise of my life.
I’ve written so much about her these last couple years. I’ve filled notebooks and journals, countless status updates on Facebook, church newsletter articles and sermons, I keep spewing out volumes about how I felt then and how I feel now and documenting every move we made in those final months – as if I think that if I write it all down clearly and with enough depth I might be able to rewrite how it ended. I keep lining up words, stacking sentences one on top of another thinking perhaps if there are enough of them I can fill in the empty part of my heart. But there just aren’t enough words. That is what I have found in two years of missing my mother. There will never be enough words to describe how it is.
I have lost her. Surely I will always have things that will connect me to her – her wedding ring I will never take off, her china closet filled with the cups and dishes she loved, even looking in the mirror I see a bit of her staring back at me. And my voice – the sound of her voice has always come out of my own throat, too.
But she is gone. And there are no words. It’s taken me two trips around the sun to realize it.
I write sermons a lot and a good rule of thumb in writing a sermon is that it needs to end with the gospel, not the law. Even if the rest of the sermon is entirely depressing with talk about our sinful natures and the multitude of ways we have failed in life – at the end, the Christian sermon always points back to what Jesus has done for us and that there is hope. It’s what Christians believe – the end of the story is always one of hope.
However, what my mother’s death has taught me is that even though I have great hope and joy in God’s promise that I will see her again someday, there is still a sorrow I’ll carry now as long as I live. Grief is not an event but a journey. It is exhausting and ongoing and travels a path that makes no sense whatsoever. It sucks.
And I’ve also learned I have a lot of company on this path. At my church, the cemetery is filled with stories of loss. I’ve presided at some of those funerals as we said “goodbye” to the parent, spouse, friend, sibling, or child. So many tears have soaked into that ground. Over the years my parishioners have stood together over the graves of the people they loved, over and over again. They have become well-seasoned at grieving and at helping one another to weather the seasons of loss. They help their pastor, too. When my voice cracks, when the tears well, even if I’m all the way up in the pulpit, they look at me only with compassion and understanding. They know this path I’m on, they have walked it, too – and now we’ll journey it together.
So, anyway. Two years. An eternity. A moment. She was pretty great. Her name was Betty and I will not forget her. She liked to sit outside and enjoy the quiet. She loved sweets. She kept a little notebook where she wrote down every penny she spent. She always wore a scarf (or “kerchief” as she called it) on her head when she left the house. She was tall, like me. She was kind and loved a good Hallmark channel movie or a game of Scrabble. She took care of my dad even when he became very sick and not very nice. She always had time to talk to me when I called. I think I miss that the most – just hearing her say “hello” when I dialed her number from wherever I was.
Blessed be the memory of all the saints in light.