As I explained in today’s sermon, last week was a heavy week—not bad, just heavy. Among other things, a clergy acquaintance, a classmate from seminary who is a few years younger than I am, dropped dead of a heart attack. I went to his funeral on Tuesday. This week also marks the fourth anniversary of my mom’s death. The following is one of my most widely read blog posts, which I wrote after seeing Mom for the last time.
This post was originally published on February 13, 2012.
I said goodbye to Mom for what might be the last time on Saturday. She’s dying. She could live days or weeks—no one knows. But I’m about 10 hours away from her now, so when that moment comes, I will likely miss it.
It’s different from when Dad died. He had terminal cancer, but at least he died at home. As the end was approaching I didn’t have to leave his bedside—at least not for long.
So Saturday was the most difficult day of my life. As if someone were scripting an old-fashioned Hollywood tear-jerker, it was also Mom’s 81st birthday. We brought flowers, cake, and balloons. We sang “Happy Birthday.” Or I should say the rest of my family sang. I couldn’t get the words out. In fact, I could hardly speak at all without the waterworks. I had to leave her hospital room a few times to cry in the restroom across the hall.
Mom was mostly lucid on Saturday—at times, painfully so. She asked Lisa, my wife, and me when she was going to die. “No one knows. Only God knows,” we told her. She suspected we were hiding the bad news from her. We weren’t. I was only hiding my grief. Or trying to.
After I said goodbye—and Mom said, “Y’all come back and see me, you hear?”—I didn’t make it to the hallway before breaking down. God bless the nurse who walked by to hand me a box of Kleenex. How many times has she done that?
Damn these tears!
Believe it or not, I went to the hospital on Saturday morning intending to be a pastor to Mom. Her church family and pastor are in northeast Atlanta. So I thought I could fill that role. I brought my Bible. I was going to read some scripture. Maybe gather the family for prayer at her bedside. Yeah, right! I was a wreck.
At least I understand the meaning of that scripture in John 11 when Jesus is overwhelmed with tears. Verse 33 says, “When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled.” And again in verse 38, he was “greatly disturbed.” Bible scholars puzzle over the meaning of these words—”What does it mean that Jesus was so bothered?”
If I didn’t know before, I know now. It’s hard to do ministry when tears get in the way. Pastors need pastors when their moms are dying.
But I did sense the love, support, and prayers of friends, especially among my church family. You know who you are. So, thank you. On Friday night, I texted one of my best friends, Andy, who grew up with me and knew Mom well. I wanted him to know. He shared a deeply personal reminiscence of Mom and said, “I will say a prayer for you and your family tonight.”
For some reason, that meant a lot. As Stephy Drury points out, we Christians say the words “I’m praying for you” so often that they can sometimes feel glib. But Andy made an appointment to pray one specific prayer for me that night. And I’m sure he did.
Praying is not nothing. And I was so grief-stricken I couldn’t pray for myself. Not really. We need others to pray for us. Again, thank you.
I saw a World War II movie many years ago called U-571. There’s a scene in which our heroes have to find out if their rusty old submarine is seaworthy. As they go deeper underwater and the pressure builds, rivets start popping off and the sub springs leaks everywhere. It looks bad to me. Submarines aren’t supposed to do that, right? Finally, the captain declares, “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.” And they proceed with their mission.
My Christian faith is like that. “She’s leaky, but she’ll hold.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not happy. I’m probably angry at God that Mom is dying 600 miles away, and I can’t be with her. I can’t find any consolation right now that takes the sting out of death. But I do have a gut-level belief or intuition or feeling that I’ll see Mom in resurrection, even if I don’t see her again in this life. And this belief doesn’t quite feel like wishful thinking or escapism.
I also believe that even now, as Mom makes this transition, Jesus is comforting her, encouraging her, and giving her grace upon grace at every moment. Inasmuch as I am praying, that is my prayer.
When I got home late Saturday night, my two boys were sleeping. I climbed in their bunk bed, hugged them, and told them that I loved them. What else could I do?
The truth is that whenever we say goodbye to anyone, it might be for the last time. We should live our lives like we know that.