I process by writing… and I’m here in Fresno because my mom’s resting, and ready to go home and be with Jesus. Here’s what I’m thinking while she sleeps.
I’m sitting in the dining hall at the retirement center in Fresno, needing to study for Sunday, but finding it hard to do so. Instead I’m thinking about the inevitability of loss, the profound joy of life, and how any attempts to separate the one from the other will always have the affect of making us hollow, shallow caricatures of the people we’re meant to be.
My mom’s asleep in the other room, waking long enough to tell me she’s thirsty, that she loves me, and “why did you have onions for breakfast?” (I didn’t) I show her pictures on my laptop and she smiles, in awe of my children, and mountains, and flowers, with her classic line “my goodness!”, which I’ve heard ten thousand times at least, these 58 years.
I look at the pictures on her bookshelf, of she and dad in their youth – vibrant and hope filled. Maybe like most children, I know my parents story better than any other, in my case even better than my own since I’m adopted. I know she skated on frozen ponds in Colorado when they were stationed there during WWII, that they returned to central California to build a life because that’s where family was, and that’s what you do. They suffered profound loss during those days, and great success and joy too. Dad moved from teacher to principal, to superintendent, but always missed the classroom and the kids as his leadership role grew. There were health issues, losses, struggles; there were vacations at the coast, and Giant games with Willie Mays, Rook games, and going to “The Sound of Music” as a family. Joy and sorrow. Laughter and tears. Life and death. Gain and Loss. That’s what real life is, and the sooner we embrace that reality the better. There is, after all, a time for everything, including loss, want, and saying good-bye.
Our attempts to turn daily life into a highlight reel are offensive to me as I sit here and look at the half-dozen seniors sleeping in their chairs. Real life, I’ve finally learned, is created by stacking normal days, one on top of the other, for decades, and living each of those days as fully as possible, embracing whatever each day brings.
I think about my mom canning peaches in the later summer heat, and my grandpa putting grapes on trays in the oppressive sun to dry them to raisins because Methodists don’t drink wine, and then coming in and making poetry at night in a house without air conditioning. Oil changes. Diaper changes. House Payments. Holidays. My dad tossing fake vomit on the sidewalk at a party when I was about 7 and my mom thinking I was lying when I told her felt fine, sending me to my room where I watched as she tried to rinse it off the sidewalk and it slid, in tact, into the garden, while Dad fell over laughing; A rubber hot dog in the fridge that mom tossed into the garbage disposal because it looked funky, and then hearing her scream as it shot out when she turned the disposal on with dad, again doubled over in laughter; Skipping evening church, once a year, to watch “The Wizard of Oz” on TV. The epic excitement of the same when we finally got (last on our block) a color TV. Weddings. Funerals. BBQ spare ribs in the backyard summer heat. H-O-R-S-E with dad after school. It all adds up to what can be a remarkable life, if we’ll but learn that it’s less about what we’re doing, and more about the attitude with which we’re doing it. Lives of faith, I’m discovering, can be rich even in poverty. Vibrant even in the midst of health challenges. Lush even in the desert. I know. I watched this kind of normal, in this slightly “out of the way” town, for decades.
I just preached this past Sunday on the importance of making the most of “the time we’ve been given” and I’m sitting here realizing that I lived in a family that, for all flaws, sought precisely that. I’m just now reading Ecclesiastes and am reminded that it’s only in jumping into the deep end of both joy and sorrow, responsibility and goofing off, life and death, that we find the treasure called abundant life. That’s why Rilke said:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Keep going, no matter what. No sensation is too far out. Let nothing separate you from me….the land which they call ‘life’ is near. You will recognize it by it’s serious demands. Give me your hand!”
Or, to quote the preacher from Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” – Today, my hand finds itself in the hand of my mom and she squeezes and says, “why did you have onions for breakfast?”