Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Last Letter

My mom would have been ninety-one today.  I composed a letter to her last year for her ninetieth,  one I wished I'd written while she was still living.  That's because my mom was a letter person.  One of my most vivid memories is of her sitting on the living room couch in the evening after supper with her writing pad.  I would be the recipient of many of those hand-written epistles over the years.  I have hundreds of them, most of which are stored in my attic.  

When my mother knew that she could no longer fight the cancer,  she very practically set about the task of getting things in order before she died.  She met with her pastor, planned the funeral, and did what was so characteristic of her.  She wrote a letter to be read at the service. But she wasn't done yet. There were things yet to be said, and naturally some of those things could be spoken verbally.  But she was a letter writer,  and so not long before she was too weak to do anything else, she wrote letters to those of us who were closest to her.  

Her letter to me was hand-written on an ordinary piece of paper.  It was short, more like a post script than anything, as if to say that she didn't have a lot of time but wanted to tell me just one more thing.   She was proud of me, I had pleased her.  And then she ended with this.  "You are pretty."  I was both surprised and pleased.  She'd never said that to me before, I don't even remember her saying those words to me on my wedding day.  So why in her last letter to me?  I'm not sure.  But I know it made me feel really good.  My mother thought I was pretty!  

It's been more than seventeen years since she wrote that last letter.  This morning as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, applying a bit of concealer, trying as best I could to cover the age spots that have taken up residence on my face, I remembered that it was her birthday.  And my thoughts went to that last letter and what she had written.  "Oh mom," I was talking to her in my head.  "I'm fighting a losing battle here!  It's getting harder and harder to stay pretty."  

I could almost hear her say as if she were peering into that mirror, looking beyond the imperfections of the temporal.  "Oh Marcy, that was just for a moment.  Why is that important to you now when there's so much more?"

A few months before my mother left for good, I flew out of Montgomery, Alabama to spend a couple weeks with her in New York.  My Aunt Ann had arrived from North Carolina a few days earlier.   Those days were to become wonderful for all three of us.  Of course we cried.  Some. We knew why we had come.  But we also laughed.  A lot.  The best memories I have of my mother and her siblings together are of incessant talking and wonderful laughter.  So even on this occasion, with the shadow of death hovering nearby, the humor and joy found in our storytelling could not be stopped.

My mother felt well during those two weeks, as if the cancer had decided to go on leave.  So while she had the strength, there were more serious things she also wanted to say.  Her faith was paramount, so naturally she talked about what she was most looking forward to, especially seeing those of her family and friends who had gone on ahead. But she also spoke honestly of those things she was not eager to let go.  She had loved her life and she had lived each day completely.  She saw each one as a gift and rejoiced in the years that God had given her.  But more than anything, she had loved people.  Was it so wrong that she struggled with leaving, that a part of her didn't want to say goodbye? 

Cancer ravages.  I would see her one last time, just a few weeks before she would quietly step from this temporal to the permanent.  She asked me if I would help her get into the shower.  I think it was intentional that she should ask me.  Perhaps she wanted to remind me that these bodies are simply on loan, that eventually they will succumb to the inevitable and we're not to get too attached to them.

So once again as I peer into the mirror and grapple with what I see, I am reminded of what is so aptly written in Proverbs, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting."  Even if  I had lots of money at my disposal and could do what I wanted to prolong the process, the inevitable would still happen.   "Marcy,  don't strive for pretty.  Go for beautiful."  Today, on her birthday, her life still speaks to me, a reminder of  that which remains permanent, set in eternity.  For the proverb concludes, "but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised."  That was my mother.  Truly beautiful.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Gift

Larry did a funeral this week for someone that we'd never met and at the last minute I decided to go along.  I'm glad I did.

The crowd was small, maybe thirty people or so had gathered there in the small chapel.   I was immediately introduced to one of the sons who in turn introduced me to his wife and two daughters.  I chatted for a moment and then asked a bit about his mother and if she had been ill for long.  "Ten years," he responded.  "She had Alzheimer's."

Alzheimer's.  My heart felt for this man and his family.  They'd not said their goodbyes just recently, they had lost her ten years ago. 

Right inside the doors of the chapel stood two easels displaying photos, a montage of this woman's life.  Some were just of her, one a black and white of a little girl in a short dress and another as a college graduate.  And family shots of course, several of them.  The son pointed out one in particular.  It was his mother just out of school,  standing with another young woman of about the same age.  "My mother decided she wanted to see the country, so she hitchhiked across the country with this college friend right after graduation."   I could still hear the pride there, sixty some years after the fact.  His mother, Lois the Brave, had trekked across the entire continental United States simply because she wanted to. 

The service was about to begin and I took my seat in one of the chairs off to the side.  After the opening prayer and scripture had been read, Larry asked if anyone had something they'd like to say.  Immediately a woman, casually dressed and sitting by herself in the back row, stood.   She introduced herself and fighting tears told her story.  Several years earlier her life was a mess and she had no place to go.  The woman being remembered that day in that little funeral chapel had taken her in, given her a place to live.  "I stayed there for the next six years,"  she continued.  "She was nothing but kind to me,  and I will always be grateful to her for what she did for me."  She could no longer hold the tears back. "I will always hold her dear in my heart." 

I was moved by the words of the grateful woman who had been so deeply impacted by the kindness of another. I looked for her after the service ended, but she was already gone.  An hour earlier I had known nothing of the lady whose funeral I was attending except that she and her husband had once owned a bicycle shop across from the church that Larry now pastored.  But the woman in the back row had given me another glimpse of who she had been, someone I would have felt privileged to have known. How difficult it must have been for the family, especially for the three sons that she raised, to see their strong, adventuress mother fading away.

But there is a bit more to this story that I was privileged to hear.  Three years before her death, seven years after the onset of the disease, this brave, kind woman wandered away from the facility where she was living, walking through an unlocked door into a frigid night.  They found her the next day, the harsh weather had taken quite a toll on her.  But ironically, during the next three days she was herself again.  She knew her family, calling each of them by name, remembered events and was aware of the happenings around her.  It was an amazing, joyful time for them all, something they hadn't anticipated.  And then suddenly she was gone, disappearing once again into that world that had been her companion for the last seven years.   "It was a gift," Larry said.  The son smiled.  "Yes. A Gift."