My mother was two months shy of her 80th birthday when she died last Wednesday. She lived almost exactly a decade longer than my father, though she was never quite the same after cancer and its complications claimed his life. She gradually faded into the fog of dementia, though—gratefully—she still recognized her loved ones’ faces and voices.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote:
To live in the world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go (From “In Blackwater Woods”)
Love what is mortal: our deepest and truest loves are for flesh and blood—for family and friends and neighbors—which means that we love what is always dying. From the moment we take our first breaths, we are moving toward our last.
We love what is mortal, and we hold it against our bones knowing our own life depends on it. That’s true, certainly, for my sister, Pam, and me. Our very biological lives depended on her; and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren—Amy, Ezra, Lydia, Amanda, and Eliot, also carry something of her in their bones and blood.
We are not the only ones who depended on Nancy. There’s a wide circle of people from Huntington, WV to Golden Crest in Stockbridge, GA and myriad places in between who leaned on her and on whom she leaned. It’s a family, not of heredity and DNA, but of love and laughter, tears and understanding, of people who leaned on her and on whom she leaned.
We love the mortal ones, the living-dying ones. Our lives depend on them. Then, when the time comes, we let them go.
Letting go is difficult. It helps to know that her mind is whole and her body well, that she is free from pain and limitation, and that she is united fully with Love. It helps, but the letting go is still hard.
When I think of my mother, I see:
A child in her lap, snuggling and maybe sleeping against her chest.
A teenager—a kid from the First Baptist Church of Conley youth group—plopped onto the sofa in her and Dad’s living-room, pouring out her broken heart to Miss Nancy.
Kindergarteners circled around her as she reads to them.
A jigsaw puzzle on the card table where she sat for hours fitting the pieces together.
A plate of fudge on her kitchen table or a pot of chili on her stove or a pan of nachos coming out of the oven (in our family, food was often the language of love).
A bright smile spreading across her face and then laughter rising up in her,
Her sparkling eyes on Christmas morning.
A gentle stream of tears over someone else’s pain, and, occasionally her own, flowing down her cheek.
All across their married lives, Nancy and Guy, Sr., grew in their love for each other and for God. They took quite a journey together. When he was a boy, Dad had caddied for people at the country club; his last house was on a golf course. When they married, he was a shift-worker at Owens Illinois, punching a clock, listening for the whistle; he was proud that, in his last jobs, he could set his own schedule. Nancy didn’t know how to drive when they began their life together; and she understood why, late in his life, it was important for him to buy for her a bigger car than she really wanted.
As they rose from just-barely-getting-by to comfortable, she was at his side, encouraging, supporting, and helping. When he was sick, she took care of him.
Mom she taught us her faith, summed up in the apparently simple—but only apparently–songs which she often taught children: “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World.”
Jesus love me: To trust that we are held in a love like we see and hear in the life of Jesus is to experience a welcome which overcomes shame, a grace which overwhelms guilt, and a joy which outlasts sadness.
Jesus loves the little children: We all begin that way, you know?, as little children. To live in the conviction that God loves us all and them all– is an idea more radical than we yet realize.
I am grateful for the love and faith in which Nancy lived and which she freely shared.
Rest and peace to you, Mom.