Twenty years ago today Mom died. She was 57, and in excellent health -- all except the tiny aneurysm in her coronary artery that let go that early September afternoon. She began having chest pains and went to see the nurse at the school where she worked. She died on the ambulance ride to the hospital. Dad called me that evening -- I knew something was terribly wrong when it was Dad's voice on the phone -- and his first words were, "The world ended today."
I think about some of the things that have happened in the last twenty years and I often wonder what Mom would have thought.
I know she would have loved seeing her grandkids grow up. She was well on her way to being a fabulous grandmother already when she died. I grieve that my kids never got to know her well. She loved nothing better than sitting with a child reading a book and introducing that little one to the world of words and stories and imagination.
Had she lived, she would doubtless have continued to be the glue that held her family — immediate and extended — together. She wrote scads of letters to each of her kids, making sure we knew what the others were doing. She kept us well informed about the doings around home — weather, crops, neighbors, church, school.
All the bits and pieces of church leadership I’ve done in the last twenty years would have fascinated her. She had such a heart for the church to be strong and healthy and Jesus-focused. She gave her time to teach, to lead, to serve. She had strong opinions about and strong love for her church, both the local congregation and the wider church.
She would have loved the relationship I built with my dad in the last few years of his life. She would have been so excited for the conversations we had in the last couple years before he died -- conversations when I asked question after question about his younger days, about my own memories and struggles from my childhood, about stories he remembered from his ancestors. She would have just glowed to hear some of those conversations.
But then I think, so much of what has happened was only made possible by Mom’s death.
My younger daughter, for example, was named partly to honor my mom. Who would she be today if her name was different, and if she didn’t have that story about the reason for her name? Hard to say.
Because Mom was not present to be the glue that held us all together, my brothers and I started hunting together each fall. We haven’t always been able to make that work, but those annual hunting trips were an intentional way to stay close in spite of Mom’s absence. Similarly, with all my siblings we’ve tried to be intentional about staying in touch on our own. Without Mom to provide communication, we’ve learned — however poorly — to stay connected.
As far as church leadership, Mom’s death was one of the factors that moved me to attend seminary. In part, it was that sudden, jarring loss that moved me to yearn to be back in the midwest instead of living near Seattle, and seminary seemed like a natural next step. What would my career path have looked like if Mom was still living? Hard to say. What’s more, it was Mom’s sudden death and the powerful experience of community that supported us through it (many thanks to the saints at Elim Lutheran Church in Port Orchard, WA from those days!) that profoundly shaped my own understandings of Christian community that have become such a vital part of my ministry today.
If Mom had still been living, neither Dad nor I would have gone out of our way to have those hard conversations. We were both good at letting Mom be the relationship-builder, the story-teller. Mom’s absence forced us to figure out how to talk about things beyond the weather and the crops and the neighbors.
A verse from the Psalms I’ve returned to again and again over the last few years says, “Precious in the Lord’s sight is the death of his holy ones” (Psalm 116:15). I don’t think God plays dice with us, but rather I believe that if tragedy strikes, God’s promise is that he is using that tragedy for great good. He knows the pain of grief, the pain of loss, the pain of separation. He does not put us through pain needlessly.
So today, twenty years later, I choose to be thankful for my mom — for her faith, her love, her joy, her hard work and her sense of humor and her faults, all wrapped up in an amazing woman. I choose to focus on the goodness of God who has used long years of grief to fulfill his promises. I choose to be amazed by the good things — the powerful good things — that have come about in part, at least, because of Mom’s death. She would expect nothing less. Thanks, Mom.