How My Mother’s Life Interprets Mine

The following is an excerpt from a longer talk, titled “We’re All Absalom: Emerging Into Adulthood Alongside Our Parents,” which can be heard on Ancient Faith Radio. I delivered the talk at the 2017 Antiochian Archdiocese Convention for the Young Adult Ministry.

The photo above is of my mother on her wedding day in 1972.

Her name was Sandy, and my mother was always there. I think there is something about motherhood that anchors a child in this earth. While dad provides more having to do with how we understand and respond to the world, mom keeps us in the world and keeps us in the knowledge that we are real.

I remember my mother being there in those long months when my father was away on long cruises for the Navy, eventually during those times taking care of three children by herself once my little sister came along five years after me. She came from long-suffering stock that often accepted difficulty rather than fight against it.

That trait I’ve found in myself, too, though it can be a double-edged sword. The good edge is when it means enduring problems that cannot be addressed by me. The bad edge is when it means enduring problems that could be addressed by me. The trick is to realize when that basic feeling is appropriately followed and when it has to be set aside. I’ve found that the difference usually lies in learning whether I am really the one responsible.

My mother was always far more the “spiritual” person in the family in the sense of being dedicated to daily prayer and Bible reading, to trusting that God will see things through even when life is hard, to seeking out how God shows Himself in both little and big moments. I have to admit that I don’t feel like I measure up to all that. I struggle to find daily time for private prayer, but I still remember seeing my mother sitting in her chair, well-worn Bible open.

I also remember well her sense that God will speak to you on the really big things. When I was in the process of becoming an Orthodox Christian, I told her about it and about how it made total sense to me. Even though she was not on the same journey, she said to me, “If you know that you cannot live without this, then this is what you have to do, because this is what God is showing you.” I wouldn’t universalize that advice, but it makes sense in certain situations. And I saw how she lived that way, too, because she knew God from long experience of being with Him.

When my mother was 14 years old, while at a summer church camp, she decided that she would someday be a missionary, that her life would be dedicated to bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. When she met my father, she told him that he would have to be on board with that at some point. It took about ten years after they got married, but it happened.

That sense of mission and even almost destiny has both haunted and inspired me. On the one hand, I have a sense that I’m supposed to be doing something, that I’m meant to do something. But on the other hand, I sometimes wonder if I miss what God wants me to be doing, if I have some big blind spot because I’m not working on what He wants me to do.

It is not surprising, then, that among my mother’s last words to me were “God has something for you to do, but you have to listen to Him.”

On Pentecost of 2014, my parish was celebrating the feast with a parish picnic at a park in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. My phone rang. It was my father calling me. But he was calling me from South Africa, where he and my mother were visiting on business, as well as doing some sightseeing. Mom started having severe headaches, and she was in the hospital. Something was found in her brain, and it was removed—it was believed to be an infectious mass. Everything looked like it might eventually be okay for a while, but towards the end of that July, after she and my father had returned to the US, it was discovered that she had a class 4 glioblastoma, a fast-growing, deadly brain cancer.

The family began making plans to go visit her in Colorado, where my parents lived. My wife and I stuffed the three children we had at the time in the back of my Prius and drove the 1,700 miles to Colorado Springs in three days. When we arrived, I went to see my mother in the hospice unit where she was. Within a day or two, she asked all of our immediate family to come see her together—my father, my brother, my sister and me.

In succession, each of us spoke with her, and she said this to me, “The love of God is immeasurable. I have been so blessed in my life. God has something for you to do, but you have to listen to Him.” And she prayed for me, holding my head in her hands. She did this with each of us.

The next morning, I visited her alone. While visiting, I remembered all the times when I was a teenager or in my early twenties when I had argued with her and my father. I remembered the pain in her eyes when she said to me the one time, “Just because you can talk faster doesn’t make you right.” And I asked her to forgive me for all the trouble I gave them as I emerged into young adulthood, asking all those questions about just who it is I am. She nodded. Words weren’t coming to her that easily.

Later in the week, she was moved home. As she arrived, she said, “I know what I’m here to do.” They put her in her bed. We visited daily. I went in to see her a few more times. I felt like everything had been said. And so I decided to try to join her in some small way in the thing that for me most typified who she was—I began reading to her:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

We had to go home. We didn’t know how much time she had left. She died about three weeks later, on August 24, 2014, living just past her sixty-first birthday. When I came back for her funeral, I spoke as one of the various members of my family, and recalling my mother’s longing to see her Lord, here is some of what I said:

This is what life—and death—are really about, a longing to see the Son of God. It is what gave my mother joy and peace as she began her own passage from this life. One might say that she stared death in its face, but really, she had no time for that—she was looking into the Face of Christ. We long to see her now, to wish that this all had never happened. But no matter what happens, we shall all someday die, as well, should the Lord tarry a few more years. But the direction we all must aim for is this same one.

That direction is the great and holy hope of Christians, the hope of the resurrection of all. For just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall all likewise be raised. And rising, our song shall be:

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave! For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen” (Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom).

The day we buried her was my birthday. I had family come up to me and say they were sorry it had to be that day. There was of course no party, no cake, no presents that year. But I was not sorry. I saw the anniversary of the day that my mother was in labor with me and brought me into the world as now about her own birth into the life of the world to come.

So I learned that I not only could interpret my life in the light of hers, but I also could interpret her life according to my own experiences.

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