(This post was begun in September and completed in November. Mention of my mother’s passing refers to September.)
Looking out the back window just now, I was surprised to see dry brown autumn leaves already scattered on the ground under the pecan tree. The grass was mown only last weekend, so these have fallen since then. In time, the trees will be afire with scarlet and golden leaves, and I will appreciate their beauty on my morning drive into work, but that is later. It is not now. On this day, I am reminded that the year is drawing to a close. I want to pull into myself and be quiet and alone.
Five years ago this week, my mother died suddenly of a massive stroke. A few months ago, a treasured colleague (my “work husband”, we joked) succumbed to cancer. And just this past Friday, a dear friend on the other side of the world passed away just as unexpectedly. I hate death. I want it conquered. I don’t want to hear anyone say, “How sad for us, but how happy for them. They are in heaven now.” I don’t want them to be in heaven. I want them here. I walk around the house with clenched fists, angry and helpless to reverse what has happened. I grasp at the formless air, but draw nothing back in my hands.
I could understand death more when it was my mother. Not that I was ready for her to go, but she was eighty-two years old and beginning to slow down. I know all about the great “circle of life”; I walked around in a daze at her funeral, repeating that phrase over and over to various comforters. Forgive me for quoting The Lion King. I was beside myself with shock.
In the weeks following her death, I felt untethered, as though I were a lost balloon drifting about in the sky, not belonging to anyone, with nowhere to go. I cried, not knowing what to do with the deep heartache I felt. I slept to shut out the hurt, but woke every time to the new reality that I was motherless. My dear, dear Papa, who had been married to Mom for only two years, was heartbroken as well. He was eighty-four then and more precious to me than I can describe. I remember phoning him one afternoon, prepared to have our usual weekly conversation, and then collapsing into wild, desperate sobs. I was so afraid of losing him too, afraid he would disappear back into his original family and leave us behind when we needed him and loved him so much. His gentle, fatherly love held me, listened to me, understood and comforted me. He told me that when he and Mom married, he got four new children and that he would always be our Papa.
I thought about how Mom had tried to prepare me, prepare all of us, for her eventual passing, and how we didn’t want to hear. It was inconceivable that she would not always be a drive or a phone call away, laughing, cooking, serving, encouraging, loving, always sunny, always trying something new.
The first holidays were the worst. By then, their house had been sold, and Papa had moved in with his daughter’s family. I was single at the time, and my children and I had always gone to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Where would we go now? I felt the crushing panic all over again as I cast about for a place to anchor. How could we get through this without her? I was fifty years old, but felt as orphaned as a little child.
In my desperate floundering, I stumbled across the only thing that made me feel closer to her. I dug out the recipes I had inherited from her over the years, laid them all out on the counter, and determined that I would make every single one. Turkey, dressing, gravy, ham, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, deviled eggs, cranberry relish, yeast rolls, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie. I invited another single mother over, and together we recreated the sort of Thanksgiving dinner that even God would be proud of. As we worked, I felt my mother’s presence in the kitchen, looking over my shoulder, smiling with pleasure and approval. She was there with me, somehow telling me that life goes on, that I would not be destroyed.
Then, because the amount of food was turning out to be somewhat overwhelming, we invited a few others, including a youngish single man and his elderly mother. After we finished the meal, his tiny, feeble mama, who had taken nearly two hours to eat and could barely speak, sang for us His Eye is on the Sparrow. It was a precious time.
Christmas, only a month later, did not go quite as well. I drove to Birmingham where I have siblings but decided we would stay in a hotel rather than try to squeeze into the mix of all their extended families. Bad idea. We had Christmas dinner with everyone, but my two boys and I spent Christmas Eve night alone in a rundown hotel that smelled like dogs and old shag carpet. God, it was depressing.
My Papa, my sister, and her husband are all gone now. Each loss was a shock and an occasion for grief and heartbreak. Did it matter that all of them were old and ready to go or else in terrible, long-term physical suffering? Yes, a little, I think. I don’t want those I love to be in agony, so maybe it was easier to open my hands.
But my work friend whose cancer claimed his life was just forty-three years old. And my friend who died last Friday evening was only sixty-eight, healthy, vibrant, young, and with many more productive years ahead of him. I am not railing at God, although I probably would be if I had lost a child. Still, I am angry at the universe for the terrible loss of these good, kind men who were so loved by so many.
I want to kill death. I want to take it by its wretched, deformed throat and shake it until it is no more. It is not a beautiful thing. It is ugly and grotesque and unnatural and wrong. There is no excuse for it. It is not God’s will. It cannot be dressed up to look respectable. It is the enemy. It is separation and loss and pain beyond belief. I hate its every form.
I know that as I grow older, I am bound to lose more people. Many relatives and friends have already made their final crossing. I miss the laughter, the affection, the conversations, the warmth, the greatness, the poignancy, the tender mercies. I wonder what else they had planned to do that will never be done in this world now. I wonder how any of us will live without them, although I know we will. We will put our feet on the floor every morning and keep moving.
I’d like to tie these random thoughts together with orange and red and yellow ribbon, throw in a few flowers, make them all fit nicely into a Thanksgiving basket, and philosophize about how grateful we should be to have love in our lives, even when we must eventually say goodbye, but I can’t. Of course I am thankful. Yes, I know I have been amazingly blessed. But the pain of loss is real, and I am unwilling to buy into clichés. I’m angry at death, I miss people, I can’t make them come back, and I don’t want to let go of anyone else.
In the face of loss and grief, the only option that makes sense to me is to hold onto God because only then am I not alone. Although it may not feel true at the time of my most acute pain, I know that the resurrection of Christ has destroyed death’s power once and for all. Life will return, and there will be joy again. From the books of Romans and I Corinthians:
We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?