My Mom died a year ago today. I’m posting the newspaper column I wrote a few weeks later. It ran in the Religion pages of the Northwest Arkansas Media dailies on April 13, 2013.
I stood by my mother’s ashes at the front of the church, paying my respects before the service began. My aunt’s boyfriend came to stand beside me. “Where is your mother?” he asked. I proceeded to show him, lifting the cover of the stained-glass box to reveal the bag of gray ashes. I told him of the letters my sisters and I had written as we sat with her ashes that morning, love letters we had tucked into the box with her and would bury in the Catholic cemetery at noon.
“Where is your mother?” John asked again. I realized he meant something very different than the bag of charred bones on the altar. I had no conscious answer to give, but as I stood there, searching, a knowingness formed in my mind. “Everywhere,” I said. It wasn’t what I expected, but I knew it was true. “She’s in these flowers,” I elaborated, touching the white roses beside the stained glass box. “She’s in the candle light.” I gestured toward John’s chest. “She’s in you. She’s in me.”
It was time to take our seats and we did. The oddly intimate moment passed. But the gift of understanding John had opened up for me continues to reverberate. I’d struggled with my faith in the weeks before Mom’s death. What’s really there on the other side of dying? We build our mental constructs and believe we believe them, but face to face with death, we’re not nearly so sure. Was Jesus sure, as he endured his passion, that the resurrection would follow?
It’s hard now, just a few weeks after Mom’s death, to recall the sense of desolation I felt. (That’s the resurrection experience at work, I am sure.) An entry I made in my journal three days before she died gives a hint. “Have I said this is the hardest thing? It is. Why, Lord, why? Why death and sadness and suffering? There are no answers, are there? It’s just how it is.”
Father Bo talked to Mom about the afterlife in the weeks before her death. The visions of streets paved with gold and angels with harps might not literally be true, he told her. But they point us in the right direction. Heaven is so much more than we can imagine, he said. It’s the best place. I thought his explanation was sound, conjuring up a state of being as much as a tangible place. But in the last days before her death his imagery became more concrete. I imagine he was trying to comfort her with visions of things she had loved in life – swimming laps, taking walks, reading books.
They didn’t ring true to me. Those things are too much in our own image. They are what we need to leave behind. The truth, whatever it is, is far beyond what we can conceptualize. Yet there is something more. I have felt it so strongly on this side of the grave. I have to believe it’s on the other, too.
In the weeks since Mom’s death, I’ve sensed a new gentleness loose in the world. A softness, a spaciousness. It seems to me this is the essence of who she was. That her essence continues, one of the infinite shades of love. This is a new thought for me. I’ve been applying it to others who have died – my dad and his essence of freedom, my mother-in-law and her essence of welcome and hospitality. I’ve never really felt Jan’s presence since she died, but when I think of it this way, I’ve felt her plenty. I’ve channeled that energy many times. Her welcome and hospitality, poured out to me, allowed me to internalize it, to accept myself as fully as she did and offer that same welcome to others.
It’s the same with my dad’s unremitting urge toward freedom. My mom’s gentle wisdom. They live in me now. And through me — through each person whose life they touched — into the world. Outward and into the world forever. My answer to John comes back to me. Where is my mother? Everywhere.
Everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere. Amen.