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.
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