The Relations We Have

My mother died this past summer. It was early in the morning on the fourth of July, and it was painless, in her sleep.

She lived in Oklahoma, and had been sliding into death for some time. Last December I had made a nostalgic trip out there to help shut down her home and move her into assisted living. So while her final passing wasn't unexpected, I had hoped that she might have at least a few more years in her new surroundings.

In fact, we had talked just days before she died about the possibility of my getting to Minneapolis where my son lives. I would take pictures of my new grand baby, I told her, and then come down and show them to her. She loved the idea and laughed a rare laugh about it.

I will miss that laugh and I will miss her. She was a dear who didn't deserve the kind of life she suffered for the past several years. In little more than a decade, she had lost her businesses, her husband, her sight, her home, and finally her health. There is, perhaps, no such thing as a "good" death, but in many cases there is at least a "sigh of relief" death, and this was one of them.

Ironically, just as we received the news about my mother, my wife and I were packing to go to Maine, to hold a memorial service and scatter the ashes of her mother who had passed away just a few weeks earlier. I had to leave my wife's emotional family gathering early to fly home for one of my own.

Back at home the next night, painfully waiting for my plane to Oklahoma, I picked up my messages and found out that I needed to call my congressman about an upcoming Congressional vote on Third World debt cancellation. A missions rally wanted me to come and speak. There were reminders for stewardship, Trustees, and counseling center meetings coming up, and several dear people in the congregation had grown ill and were needing a visit from me.

While I was receiving these messages, though, all I could really feel was fatigue. I didn't have the energy to call anybody. I didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't want to see anybody. Even a pastor gets tired on occasion. When I was younger I was either bullet proof or dishonest, but I seemed better able to handle these things.

As I've aged I've become a bleeder, and today the pain of others too easily becomes my own. It's a casualty of love, I think. Maybe longevity. Maybe both.

When I got to Oklahoma we had a lovely service out at the cemetery. It was very simple and only family and friends came. The minister said prayers and read scripture and we all wept.

Mom's dearest friend in the world was there. He owns a party store and brought balloons for each of us, which we held during the service. We tied one to the casket that held her "earthly tent," and looked at it somberly during the readings.

At one point my mother's balloon got loose from the casket and shot out from under the canopy, straight off into the distance, still visible for several minutes.

"My God," said my cousin sitting next to me. "It's your Mom. It's her spirit going off, saying goodbye."

After the service and the meal that followed, I took some time to drive by and see some friends I've known and loved for many lifetimes but too often taken for granted.

They're always down there and I'm always up here, and I've just assumed that they would always be around. But one day they won't be, and this may have been the last time I could just drive by and say hello. We hugged and cried and shared old stories.

There was something mysteriously redemptive about the visit. It's very healing to be hugged by someone who loves you for just having shown up. It's a gift of God, the grace of God.

In a world that is going increasingly crazy, friends and family are the connecting links to the Holy Spirit. The older I get, the more I realize that the relationships we have are the relationships we have. They're hard to create but easy to squander.

Life is precious. It's on loan from God for only a short amount of time and you never know when you're due to give it back.

Maybe learning to bleed is the first step toward appreciating life and learning to love. And maybe there are worse things to happen to us than becoming casualties of love.