At first disoriented, then reluctant, I wake from a deep sleep …
Resentment at first creeps in, followed by a desire to ignore the inevitable waking for as long as possible … reluctance at being inconvenienced rises up in me along with his cry.
But then, ah then, I see his face in the shadow of the moonlit window by our bed … He smiles.
And so I unwrap him from the swaddling blankets and pull him close. I cradle my baby, his little fists grabbing at my shirt, my hair, as he snuggles in and nurses.
Holding on to me, holding on to what he knows he can trust in the shadows. What can nurture him, protect and provide for him.
For he is so young, so very little. The world stretches out wide before him, vast and unknown. But nestled in the crook of my arm, settled against my heartbeat, he nods back to sleep, milk drunk and happy.
Soon he will be moving away from me. Crawling. Walking. Running.
I hold him tighter, the shadows about me, too.
For I know in what seems like the blink of an eye, he will be tumbling out the door like a lopsided turtle with a Spiderman backpack bigger than him. And then he will be stuffing athletic gear into his gym bag for those after school activities. And then he will be piling books and laptop and mounds of clothes into the car, waving through glass as he leaves for college. And then he will be folding shirts for that business trip, or packing his belongings for that adventure far, far away. Or tucking her things among his in the wedding gift of new luggage. Then children, my grandchildren, impatiently tugging at his arm that it is time to go.
It seems only a short time after we are born, once we move away from the immediate dependency, we keep on moving … testing our independence, looking for our own way to be in the world.
Life consists of learning how to live without our mothers.
But do we? Ever?
A few weeks ago, my mother suffered a heart attack. Fortunately it was not fatal, though a way of life died when it happened.
In terms of my dad, I had grown self sufficient long ago. And I since returned to him through grace. Anger is wearying and forgiveness gifts the giver.
But my mom –she’s always been there. We have always been close. So close, that as we grow older now, and especially as she ages, I caught myself inventing ways to be irritated with her so as to mask the pain of facing the inevitable: that the day when I would lose her was growing closer, too.
Perhaps if I could be frustrated with her a bit more often, if I could be demanding or judgmental, then it wouldn’t sting so badly when she was no longer there.
But it doesn’t work that way.
And so I gave up that form of anger, too.
No wonder Jesus at the height of his agony on the cross asks his best friend to look after his mother.
That Sunday seemed like any other. The same day of the week she was born. We went to church then stopped by to visit grandma. The children crayoned pictures to mosaic her refrigerator after lunch. Grandma laughed and held the baby. We chatted and I tidied as I glanced at the time, aware of my to-do list for later that day.
Your life is full of a million distractions, it passes in a blur of responsibilities and errands and tasks. There are groceries to get and bills to pay and messes to mop up and things to put away … and then all of the sudden a loved one drops to the ground, or breaks without bending, or bleeds without stopping, or stops without breathing … and the merry-go-round freezes, jolts to a halt … and the ride that giddily took you along, is suddenly over. You stand there, in the icy wind, palms open with your ticket spent. The painted horses that once seemed so beautiful, glinting in the summer sun, now stare at you with gargoyle features. And you notice, now, how the paint is chipped, the poles, rusted.
So you look away, tired of the ride.
And all the small talk. Years and years and years of it. Small talk is okay when the really big things are understood. And sometimes talking about the weather is so much more than talking about the weather. But when the unsaid things hold a glorious weight, what to do then?
How to grieve that safe space from which we came, that bright body to which we clung?
A mother is the only person we lose twice over. Whom we must reject to grow, and then whom we still dance in circles around for acceptance and affirmation but it is such a silly show, for she has loved us all along, and nothing can undo that love, knotted tight since conception, so that the pain that twists heart sinews most is that of the pieta.
Each of us come from such sycophantic beginnings. By embodying Emmanuel, God takes this first form as a baby, too. He, Author of All, Giver of All, chooses the parasitic path that marks each of our entrances into this world. First, it is her body we need. Her blood and breath and, soon after, her milk, and soon after that, and always, her discernment. We need her about and around us. The cord is cut, but a golden thread somehow remains, binding us through generations to the beginning of time. A thread so strong that even if we are adopted, we seek its replacement in another, or long to find it, if even to hold it for a moment then set it aside.
I spend days and nights – I cannot tell which, from within the labyrinth of hospital walls – curled up next to her cot. Fetus positioned in stiff hospital chairs, awaiting test results, doctor’s rounds.
Like Theseus, I need the thread to find my way out. But this, of course, would again lead me away from her. Would cause me to abandon her to the monsters. To follow that same golden thread that she would give her life – that she has given her life – for me to have.
She returns home and I return to my tasks: answer emails, teach students, talk to groups and individuals, take phone calls and make deadlines. I write polite lines, nod simple yeses. I apologize for the delays, the interruptions.
The entire time I want to scream past the clotted grief in my throat: How to live without our mothers?
My own children approach, needing coats done up, mittens sought after, snacks and stories and forms filled out.
How to teach them how to live without me?
I look at them, at each one of their precious faces.
Interruptions into the really real.
That’s what they are. That’s what these are. Holy hiccoughs, if you will. God’s way of getting our attention, of inserting the mystery and majesty of Himself into my petty, limited list of to-do’s. “Interruptions” that came into my otherwise semblance of selfish control. Like the heart attack rattling into full focus all my mother has meant, and means, to me. Like the other “interruptions” that deter you from getting all you’d like done, in your own little highly controlled way. Interruptions that don’t allow you to coast along. Interruptions that throw in your face how you actually live with such high expectations of how life should be perfect even though we are sinners. That somehow it’s not crazily gracious enough in this world knitted together by various self-wills that “afflictions” like illness, suffering, and despair are things by which we mark the default rather than the norm.
What is the most precious gift I can give these children? What is it that I want settled between my mom and me, when the chips are down and our time is up?
What holds me together in the hospital room? Makes me want to give everything – including my own life – to see my mother again in heaven? What is it I admire so in a husband who continuously puts my needs before his, and displays joy in doing so? What makes me see that the interruptions are actually ways in which He gets our attention, in spite of us?
In the Gospel according to John (14:1-7), Jesus comforts his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
Yes, through the interruptions we get glimpses.
This is what I want to tell my mother. Give my children. Attest to others through my own life:
Jesus interrupts this spinning and fallen world with the enduring, ever-loving steadfastness of His grace and truth.
And regardless of whether you are irritated or overjoyed by the interruption … pay attention to God’s attention and, from now on, be transformed.