To my sweet Mama,
It’s been four years since we last shared a Mother’s Day together in person. This time four years ago you were in the middle of a rigorous series of chemo treatments–treatments we discovered the following July had worked. That fall, your walking became more careful, more intentional. You had to focus on writing with clean strokes. Something was wrong. That’s when we discovered that one tiny piece lodged somewhere in your brain–that one piece that started to spread and as it did slowly took your away your motor skills. So you began another round of treatments. This time it was radiation. And we thought that had worked. But then came the night you fell. And that was the beginning of the end.
But Mom, that’s not how I remember you. What I remember is a woman who’s strength in the face of uncertainty was inspiring. I don’t remember the fragile-too-early 63 year old. I remember you like this:
There are so many good memories I want to remind you about. You were always worried that there wouldn’t be enough. But Mom, don’t worry. There are. I remember our trip to New York, all the trips to the mountains to see the fall leaves, the season passes to Six Flags. I remember cleaning my condo bright and early the morning after we closed the sale. I remember you and I picking out my pretty, little cat and bringing her to her new home.
But over these last four and a half years that you’ve been gone the thing that I’m most worried about is forgetting the little things that we shared.
When I moved to Connecticut (more on that in a second), I brought your cookbooks with me. And sometimes, when I miss you the most, I open your favorites and flip through the pages. I search for your notes–little bits of conversation that I savor like the last few bites of a meal you only get to eat once. You listed your adjustments, noted when you made that particular recipe and for whom. And, of course, the teacher in you left a grade for most of them. Never a letter grade–mostly a rating. A “fair” here. A “superb” there.
But truth be told, what fills my soul with the deepest relief is when I flip through those pages and I see your notes, I realize that I can still recognize your handwriting. I can’t remember your voice much beyond an out-of-focus memory, but I see those notes and I can remember the handwriting that listed out math problems on construction paper cut into seasonal shapes for me to do on the car ride home from school. It’s the handwriting that wrote notes to the school office, signed all those permission slips, and helped me keep track of who all to invite to graduations. Later, it was that handwriting that launched a birthday card campaign that yielded nearly 60 birthday cards the semester I studied in Copenhagen.
A lot has happened in those four and a half years. I graduated from seminary. I was ordained and became a pastor, a goal you remembered me setting when I was 8. I moved to Connecticut. You’d love the fall up here. It’s beautiful. Really.
I work for an historic congregation in a lovely, old building that is classic New England. It’s a charming place. The best part are the people–kind and gracious, they’re nothing like the Yankees I heard about at home. The worst part is the distance from home, from Dad, and from G.
That’s something else that’s happened: I met and fell in love with my dear G.–a man who holds my heart. He’s tall and funny and Southern. You’d like him, Mom–he’s a Methodist. AND a musician. And Lord, he can play the piano. Early when we were first dating, I was listening to him play hymns and I asked him to play one of your favorites.
I asked him to play There’s Within My Heart a Melody. He flipped right to it and started to play. I started to sing. Then I said, “play it like mama.” And without me even telling him what that meant, he got his left hand going back and forth just like you would’ve played it. And mama, we sang. It was a song of praise, but also a song that I could almost hear you sing with us. So be happy, Mama. I found someone to love and be loved by. And I’ll always have a pianist!
I remember you calling me one day telling me that a usually kind church friend turned into a jerk in the middle of meeting about what kind of pastor the church wanted. He said he was fine with anyone as long as they weren’t a woman or gay. You told me how your mind was racing through the whole rest of that meeting. And then you told me how you confronted him in the parking lot through your tears and fears. You stood up for me. And I want you to know that I’m grateful for that–for that act of love and strength. It was worth it.
Your beloved sister, Virginia, died. And I want you to know (although I’m pretty sure you already do) that I was in the room with her and Nelanie and Jeff when she passed. I was holding her hand just like I think you would’ve wanted me to. We all were. And we cried. I cried for Aunt Virginia. She was a woman who had so much love and faced so much hardship. But selfishly I cried for myself–for the loss of a woman who could tell me the stories about the two of you growing up, who could remind me when I needed to hear it the most that you would’ve been proud of me–of my decisions, of the man I’ve become.
I’ll be honest, Mom. I really hate Mother’s day. I can make it through your birthday. I can even make it through the anniversary of your death. But this day–Mother’s Day–it’s the toughest. A day when everyone celebrates their moms–who by and large are alive–and little inner Jon wants to stamp his feet and scream that it’s not fair. Because, it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that I had to write your obituary at 23. It isn’t fair that Dad’s alone. It isn’t fair that you aren’t here.
But in the midst of my internal tantrum, I can hear your voice. “Now, Jonathan.” And I remind myself of all the gifts you and Dad gave me: a love of music, your sense of humor. You would be such a Southern lady, then you would come out with a joke that would leave the people around the table rolling on the floor. Let’s face it: you were funny.
Even when you died, you left your humor behind. Your funeral plans are a perfect example–remember, those? At the top of the page, in big bold print: “GET THE CAR WASHED. WHICHEVER CAR YOU WILL DRIVE IN THE PROCESSIONAL–WASH IT.” Don’t worry. We did. Then, at the end, you wrote this: “Finally, I would like to buried naked. I came into this world naked and I want to go out naked.” Directly beneath that you added “The above is a joke. Please put clothes on me.”
Of course, the greatest gift you gave me was your love. And not just your love, but the knowledge of your love. It wasn’t until I was in seminary and more recently beginning my career that I realized how rare it is for kids to know without a shadow of a doubt that they are loved–that their parents are proud of them. I never questioned that Mom. Thanks.
I miss you, Mama. I miss you everyday. I remember sitting in the den while you cooked supper and I’d hear you sigh “Oh, I love you, Mama.” You were talking to your own mother, calling out to her. I didn’t understand it then. I knew what the words meant, but I couldn’t comprehend the sigh.
But now I do. And I find myself slicing up my Tombstone pizza some nights and sighing the same way. “Oh, I love you, Mama.” And I find comfort in saying it–in speaking your name into the world–into this world. There are times when I have these dreams that you and I are having conversations. And I wake up and could swear that you were just with me, that we were just talking. And honestly, I think they are real. And they bring me such comfort. So thanks–for showing up however and whenever you do.
One final thing: I would never say that God makes shitty things happen so that He can redeem it. But I do believe that God can make really beautiful things come out of really shitty situations. (I know–you’re probably a little mortified that I just used the word ‘shitty’ publicly twice–well, three times. Let’s be honest–You could be a little colorful,too, no?)
Anyway, one of the beautiful things that’s blossomed in the last four years is a genuine friendship between Dad and me. Honestly, he’s my best friend. You chose right. And let me tell you, he’s been one hell of a Dad and Mom these last four years.
Wish you were here (and I know, somehow, you are),