My family and I have been lifted up on a wave of condolences this past week. Last week I blogged about my mother Marion’s death. Today I write about her life. Next I’ll write about her suffering.
Following my mother’s death on Valentine’s day morning, I asked lynn to put a chicken and a roast in the oven - anticipating feeding my family later in the day. When I got home, I pulled the chicken from the oven to check it. Without thinking I lifted the lid with a knife and without oven mitts.
I managed to scald the back of three fingers on my right hand pretty badly. At the time I thought “this was a Marion move”. My mom was always burning herself or cutting herself in the kitchen. She was the ultimate mult-tasker – always in a rush, always juggling three things at least – one of the ways I’m like her.
The burns have been a stinging reminder this past week of her death. The pain represents not only my own pain of loss, but a reminder of the physical pain she lived with daily. The burns have been slow to heal. Each time I bump them and feel the sting – I think of mom and the fact that I won’t be seeing her eyes sparkle again, hearing her laugh, receiving her hugs and encouragements…
It’s so easy to slip back into my routine of busyness and multi-tasking and not notice the open wound of my heart. The swamp of exhaustion that I keep running into – that extra pull of gravity on my limbs – that drag on my brainpower – that empty hole in my stomach - reminds me that something is going on inside.
For the most part my emotions seem as frozen solid as the ground outside my door. Sure, tears streamed as we sang “How Great Thou Art” and prepared to take her coffin from the church. But since then – whenever I try to dig down deep – I hit frozen ground.
Two weeks ago, when my mom was still laughing and eating and heading off to church, I purchased some audio recordings of Stephen Jenkinson. On his Orphan Wisdom website, you can hear him talking about how we live in a death-phobic culture. His teachings are an attempt to unwind this death denying and devaluing culture. He leads us towards the recovery of a more natural, grounded, courageous, open-hearted approach to death and dying – and so – to living.
I know my mother was not afraid of what’s next. I’m sure she was expecting a passage and not a slipping into oblivion. The reason I know this is because of the way she lived. Heaven was not just a happy delusion to push away the fear of dying. She brought heaven into her living each day.
The first evidence I offer is the power of Joy in her life.
Her joy was both as hard as a diamond and as fluid as water.
It was the rock at the bottom of her suffering – a depth she plunged more than most of us will know. And it was what bubbled up from deep inside to reveal the beauty of her nature – her best – her truest self. This joy was in the music she played and sang and in the humour she used to face each new challenge.
Jenkinson says “to die well is to set the banqueting table - the table where the stories will spill out and be shared.”
Marion was the third of five children born to Luella MacPherson and Charlie Jay. She was their first daughter and so trained in the arts of making a home by a mother – whose talents were legendary. While her father and older brothers tested their theological skills at the dinner table, she learned to provide for the body – leaving the great work of soul-care to the men.
She found a mate who could hold his own at such a table – and they replicated the pattern ably set by the MacPherson-Jay generation.
From the choir loft, Marion seemed to pay careful attention to her father’s, her two brother’s, her husband’s, and her two son’s sermons. No – this is not the source of her suffering I referred to earlier. But you might begin to get a sense of her endurance capacities.
Marion saved her eye-rolling for dinner table. Her humour could always bring the conversation back to this world – and the matters at hand. Just recently I caught her giving my dad a run for his money with a wise-crack. And I realized “Hey – that’s where I get it from!” So, if you’re ever on the end of one of my smart-ass replies – just remember - it’s my mother’s fault.
And she would blame herself before she’d let anyone else place scorn on her offspring. She was a mother bear when it came to defending her son. Even when I knew I deserved it – she would not hear of another’s complaint against me. Thus, she modeled the unconditional love I’ve always enjoyed. The comfort of knowing there’s at least one person on this planet who loves me – who sees me as I am – and loves me still. God – for me – is a Mother.
Marion reserved the right to correct me for herself. Mom would always praise me for my efforts – then point out that if only I tried “thus or so” I might improve. I have both rebelled and responded to her constant nudges – and expect I will continue to perform for her now that she’s gone. Parents are typically our god and our judge in our childhood. But even after my parents fell from grace in my mighty adolescence – when I attained the throne– Mom and Dad held up pretty good.
If you’re going to have a inner critic – I recommend you find a kindergarten teacher. Her nudges were always gentle and given with as much warmth and encouragement as she might offer any tender-hearted four year old. Marion returned to her trade of teaching when my younger sister was old enough to be at home – after school - without her. I remember going to help her set up her kindergarten class before the school year started. It was where I gained an appreciation of the importance of a good learning environment.
She instilled and nurtured my lifelong love of learning. And while my Dad modeled the preacher and pastor for me, it was my Mom who made me a teacher and a writer.
This was another insight I gained just in these last months. My father’s influence on my life’s path has always been evident on the surface of things. I’ve followed in his profession and gained much insight into the work from his advice and counsel. But now that I’ve made the middle-aged shift from the survival dance to my soul’s dance, I see more and more of my mother’s ways emerging.
Hospitality is a role I’m coming into. For sure I’ve taken it for granted. But more and more I’m attracted to its arts.
My artistic skills are at a kindergarten level – but I value the “play” in it – and can hear my mother’s laughter and encouragements and her sense of imagination and fun in every serious effort.
Teaching is in me. But teaching done not from a book, with marks and threats to keep one grinding. But learning together, with songs and finger-paints and sand-box jostlings to get along as we explore the boundaries of a world where we seem so small and fragile. And yet - our imaginations take us to the limits of what we think we know and lift us beyond to discover small lessons with great significance.
It was over coffee this fall – practicing always the art of conversation - when I was telling her of my struggles to find my next steps. Marion said to me “You just need to follow your heart Allan.” It was as if I’d heard this advice for the first time and I realized she’d been telling me – and showing me – this all of my life.
And then I saw it! She’s the reason I’ve gotten into so much trouble over the years! With advice like that from childhood on – it’s no wonder my head has lost out so often. The choice to follow my heart has led me down many troubling ways. It has caused me to speak truth when it would have been more politic to remain quiet. It has caused me to risk greatly when a more reasoned approach was wanted. And it has provided me with the richest life I might have imagined.
To share my heart is to share what god’s given. And to share my heart is how my mother taught me to live. With heaven close and not distant. With the ancients singing in our ears and their footsteps keeping beat in our hearts. Letting the love that is abundant and true chase fear and judgment from our ways.
Jenkinson says that “death is the cradle of your love of life”. I can feel my Mother’s hand gently rocking that cradle.