So…today I’ve put a moratorium on “your mom” jokes.
My mom has always been a source of gentle humor in our family. A southern woman with naturally blonde hair teased out big, she always sounded like a female version of Hank Hill from the cartoon “King of the Hill”. Over the years, I developed a dead-on impersonation of her, including her infamous whooping crane noise.
Let me explain. Whenever she got amazed or exasperated by something, Mom would try to say “well..”, probably meaning to eventually say “well, I never” or some equivalent.
Instead, all that came out was a “wuh” noise. Then she would say it repeatedly, in a sort of cadence that got louder as she further grasped her own amazement: “wuh….wuh…Wuh…WUH…!” Thus the “Nana whooping crane noise” became the running gag in our home for expressing mock amazement.
But for now, we can’t joke about mom. At least not for a while…
I was in the midst of a rehearsal one Saturday a couple of months ago when my Dad called. Hearing his voice cracked as he said hello, I knew it was over. Mom’s breathing had slowed that morning, and by that afternoon around 1 pm, she was gone.
The next 24 hours was a blur.
It was Saturday, so that meant I had to preach on Sunday and put my emotions and feelings on hold. I’m a guy, so we tend to do that much of the time anyway.
I make it through the Sunday morning church service and Sunday afternoon orchestra performance, and start packing for the trip. Since we have two babies, the best way to travel the 14 hours to northern Alabama is at night while they’re sleeping. So I won’t get any sleep this evening as I drive through the night.
We survived the funeral service in my home church well enough. The music was a throwback to the old school way of leading worship. Piano and organ playing a prelude, hymns led by a music minister standing behind the pulpit, my daughter singing a more contemporary chorus that I accompany. My parent’s pastor delivered a good message of hope in the resurrection won by Christ, nothing surprising. In fact, the predictability and vintage feel of the proceedings bring a level of comfort.
Tradition is good for making traumas like death feel more like the expected part of life they should be. I’m not normally a fan of too much tradition in worship. But in death, it reminds us this is a path all before us have taken, and that we will walk as well.
After the burial and a meal back at the house, my wife takes the kids back to the hotel. I decided to stay with my Dad at his house instead of with my family during this trip. I think he might need the company, and it would give me the night to reminisce in my childhood home again.
That evening, my dad sat in his chair and talked with me about the day, and about mom. Even with her obvious deterioration over the past years, he still wasn’t ready for her death. I know that sounds predictable, but for me, it was a little surprising for one reason.
I thought he’d be relieved she was gone.
As I type those words, I realize how harsh they sound. I almost want to backspace over them, because they seem naked and cruel. But there’s a truth in them we don’t often have the courage to acknowledge after someone dies.
My mom had been incredibly hard to live with in her latter years. As people do when they get sick, she became more irritable. The past several months in particular had been spent in much complaining, bickering, and blaming of my dad on her part.
I suppose she was realizing her life was ending, and my dad and a cat looked like all she had to show for it. And then, she lost the cat. To her in those final years, life was cruel and unfair. She hadn’t had her fair shot at happiness. And now she was physically miserable, in continual pain, and nothing much comforted her anymore.
So like many people in her boat, she took it all out on her spouse.
Before you think I’m trying to get back at her by writing this, let me assure you I have no motives in that direction. My relationship with her was fine and she never attacked me.
But every family is dysfunctional. Some just camouflage it better than others.
THE BEAUTY IN THE ASHES
In my heart, while I was sad she was gone, I was happy for my dad. It bothered me the way she often talked to him, and the things she said questioning his love for her. Her bitterness over the past several years had tarnished the few good memories we’d had as a family now.
Honestly, I’d rather my dad be allowed to live his last few years in peace. He’d spent too long as a caregiver and punching bag. Now maybe he could enjoy himself
But now as I sit next to my dad’s chair and listen to him talk on and on about her, I realize just how despondent he is that she’s gone. He’s desperately sad that a person who tortured him the past several years is no longer there to continue it. He racks his brain for what he might have done to head off the stroke before it had happened. What were the warning signs, if any, he missed? If only he had more time with her…
How completely unreasonable and unexpected love is. How indestructible and resilient.
Where years of arguing had caused him to question God’s plan in bringing them together, now with mom’s absence he dumbfounds me by proclaiming, “I know she was the one I was supposed to marry. I was so lucky to have her.”
He brings out their wedding pictures and marvels at her beauty and how she would have chosen him. He describes her in ideal terms, conveniently forgetting most of the past 10 years. He’s not just trying to “speak well of the dead” – he really means what he’s saying. It’s not that he’s avoiding the truth. It’s simply that his love makes him not care anymore about all the pain she caused him.
It’s not that he’s avoiding the truth. It’s simply that his love makes him not care anymore about all the pain she caused him.
He’s now suddenly completely and utterly focused on his love for her: a love which seems to have unexpectedly tapped him on the shoulder again, reminding him of its presence now at her passing. The same voice I heard arguing with her on the phone two months before now quivers every time he mentions her.
It’s like the old joke where the pastor gives a glowing eulogy of the town scoundrel, only to have the scoundrel’s family walk up during the message to make sure it was their family member in the coffin the pastor was describing. I sat into the late evening and listened as Dad described a woman she had not truly been now in around 10 years, while completely ignoring the one he’d endured ever day of that final decade.
This is the beauty of love and the miracle of marriage. It is a commitment which endures when feelings fade, and withstands all the onslaughts of its very object.
My generation can continue to go to our marriage retreats and workshops, and read up on all the latest tips to having perfect relationships. But in the end, it all comes down to this:
Our relationships will remain imperfect no matter how hard we try to fix them. But they will endure based on how much love we are willing to dispense and how much pain we are willing to absorb.
My dad fell asleep in his chair that night, as he usually does. Oddly enough, he no longer sleeps in his bed. I believe he’d started spending his evenings in that chair because it was next to her bedroom. Though her pain meant they could no longer sleep in the same bed, he remained stationed outside her door like a sentry. As I went to bed that evening, I got the feeling he wouldn’t be sleeping in bed anymore, even now that my mom was no longer in the room next door.
By the time I’d left my hometown that week, I realized my dad had taught me a great lesson about love. As we drove home, I listened to my wife groan as the babies refused to sleep. I watched her overreact to our teenagers in the car with us, then I caught myself overreacting with frustration as well.
No one who’d eavesdropped on our conversations during that long trip would be lining up for marriage advice from me. After 14 excruciating hours, we were home again, back to “our lives”. And now I’m reminded it’s my turn to deal with the joys and disappointments – the reality – of this life, just like my parents had.
I believe I’m happy to give up my illusions of a perfect marriage. Despite all the handy tips from “experts”, I don’t believe perfection was ever supposed to be the goal anyway.
What I’m left with is an example and a promise from the example of my dad. By watching his reaction to my mom’s death, I see that after years of frustration and pain, the power of love can push our bad memories back into some musty closet just like the ones in my parents deteriorating old home.
Finally, I pray I’m lucky like my dad. My hope is that in spite of many years of imperfection, all that will be left after my own funeral is an indestructible, gracious beauty still smoldering somehow there within the ashes.