My mother died on Thanksgiving Day and I have never felt more joy in my life. Am I mad or merely cold-hearted?
I was raised believing in Me and Mom and Dad. And that was pretty much it. God wasn’t in the picture. Or rather, he was but I didn’t know it.
My parents were children of the Depression, and as a result grew up devoted to Security. Money was good because it bought Things. Things were good because they bought Security. And Security was good because it bought Happiness.
And for a long time that seemed to do it for them. I grew up watching Dad make money, which he was brilliant at, and Mom make crafts, which she was brilliant at. She loved beautifying her surroundings.*
But after my father died at age 45 and my mother disintegrated into grief, I lost whatever was left of my belief in the Things>Security>Happiness Principal. My atheism, which had been wobbling anyway, collapsed and I began to turn toward God. In fact, I turned into a full-blown Jesus Person.
That didn’t sit well with Mom: “That’s fine, honey, just don’t get too into it.”
“Mom, Jesus said he was ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ You can’t be ‘too into’ the way, the truth, and the life!”
Mom eventually married Bud who was nearly as ambitious as my dad, and he helped restore her faith in the Things>Security>Happiness Principal.
But then, in the fall of 1999, she had a series of strokes. These left her mentally cloudy, shaky on her feet, and unable to pursue her projects. So she took to sitting and watching the news.
She began to look at the world differently. Our phone conversations, which had always been filled with reports of her little projects, now turned to diatribes against the cruelty and injustices of the world. “There’s so much suffering, honey. So much wrong!”
For years I’d ended our conversations with, “I’m praying for you, Mom,” and she’d always replied, “I’m praying for you too.” Then I’d ask, “Really?” And she would answer, “Oh, you know, I mean I’m holding up a good thought for you.”
But one day, she said, “I’m praying for you” in a deliberate, I-mean-this sort of way. “Really?” I asked. And this time she replied, “Yes. Really. Oh, honey,” she continued, “the world is so broken, so shattered—I never understood that before. And there’s nothing I can do about it. So I pray. All the time.”
Two days later, Bud called from a hospital in Hemet, California. He sounded shell-shocked. “Your mother’s heart…she’s not going to be leaving this place,” he whispered, refusing to confirm the truth with a full voice.
The moment I saw her, I knew he was right. Pale and struggling for every breath, her heart pulsing more like a memory than a reality, she smiled and whispered, “Still praying.”
“To God?” I asked, as if repeating an old punchline.
She slept fitfully throughout the night. Bud and I did the same in two tired vinyl hospital room chairs.
Mom faded in and out of consciousness all the next day, unable to offer more than yeses or nos. I talked about our life together, about her love for Dad and for Bud, about tennis and origami, about all the Christmases we’d spent together.
The doctor told us that in order to make her more comfortable they would need to up her medication; she would only be semi-conscious after this and no longer able to communicate. It was code for, “Say your good-byes.”
Bud sat by her for a long time, unable to speak. Then I took her hand, smiled, and said, “You can’t have too much of the way, the truth, and the life, can you?” She did a little choking laugh, squeezed my hand, and shook her head no, her eyes glowing.
She was fighting for every breath and yet her eyes were glowing. I suddenly realized that in the race toward God, she’d run far ahead of me.
“I love you forever, Mom,” I told her. Tears slipped from her swollen eyes as she squeezed my hand one final time.
My mother died in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day. God, in his wonderful, alien economy, had used everything—her strokes, her heart failure, the evening news—to speak to her, to strip away all that had kept his precious daughter from him for so many years.
And that was why, just after sunrise on Thanksgiving Day, 1999, I drove home to be with my family—
Filled with irrational joy.
*Mom was the inspiration for the first of three mothers in I Always Knew You Loved Me, a short film I made last spring.