Mothers and Fathers – Divine Asymmetry

December 1, 2012 — 6 Comments

A friend of mine, Tim, just told me that his mother was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Her name is Odile. Tim considers his mom a saint-in-waiting and she doesn’t have much time left. Odile and Tim’s father, Mel, are now in Maine waiting for the rest of the family to arrive for her final days.

I would ask that whoever reads this post, please say a prayer for Odile and Mel and the rest of their family. In Jesus’ name.

Odile, God bless you!

Mothers and Fathers

My father, Bud, died of a heart attack at age forty-nine. I was fifteen. He fought in three wars, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and was a decorated career Marine officer and pilot. I subsequently talked to some of the Marines that served under him, and without exception he was respected and adored. He was a talented leader, larger than life and a great influence on me.

It’s funny how, in reflection, I tend to recall the somewhat awkward parts of my life. I know I loved my father dearly and despite his imperfections, he tried to be a good family man. Nevertheless, he was unconventional. He drank too much but I never thought of him as an alcoholic. Although he never went to college, he was more like a partying frat kid that never grew up. He married my mother, Grace, when he was twenty-two and she was seventeen. After he died, my mother never stopped longing for him; suitors never had a shot.

My father’s mother was a religious schoolteacher. I have the Bible she gave him when he was a child. Depending on the year and God’s relative status in our family dynamics, Dad would take me to church. I often had altar boy duties but he chose to sit in the car and read the paper. I can see him now, a lit cigarette, a Bloody Mary in his hands and all the while I’m worshiping solo as the Steele family proxy. However, my intuition is that he believed in God, he just didn’t talk much about his faith. If he were around today, one question I would ask him is why did he and Mom wait until I was ten to have me baptized? I’ve always wondered about that.

His dying at such a young age never seemed fair––for him certainly. And for me as well. A son needs his father.

My mother died in 1991 of complications from a rare bone marrow disease. We had a tumultuous bond corrupted by her alcoholism. When my father was alive he would rein her in, but after he was gone, wow. Mom was the quintessential Jekyll and Hyde, an extraordinary woman whom everyone cherished when she was sober, but when drunk, she fought her own wars backed by a platoon of demons. I loved her but eventually cut her out of my life, hurting her immensely. That was my objective. Vengeance.

Not my finest moment––a son needs his mother. And a mother and father together is divine asymmetry. A heavenly complement.

My mother had stopped drinking before she died and the last time we were together was one of the great moments of my life; I learned about love.

As an aside, my mother used to write prayers on small cards and laminate them. I couldn’t find them after her death, save for one. It read, “Oh God, give me the guidance to know when to hold on and when to let go and the grace to make right decisions with dignity.” The Serenity Prayer. At the time she wrote this, I think her ailments and cancer were taking their toll.

I was briefly seeing a psychologist regarding relationship issues—surprise!––and the shrink thought it might be useful to have Mom accompany me for a session. Initially, my mother thought we were going to gang up on her expecting I might play the victim card, but I assured her the objective was otherwise. She reluctantly agreed and in time, the date arrived. We met at the doctor’s office, I could see my mother was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Nonetheless, with introductions out of the way, we began and for the next two hours, I don’t think I said more than twenty words.

My therapist was good at providing a secure environment for my mother. In a short amount of time, surprisingly, Mom was able to talk about her mother and father, eventually remembering things she hadn’t talked about in fifty years. For some reason, Mom felt compelled to talk about the events surrounding her own mother’s death. I don’t think she knew where she was going, but for a brief time Mom was free to revisit this past, and in particular, a late afternoon in 1936.

My grandparents had taken a trip from Ventura, California to Kansas City, Missouri. My mother had wanted to go along, thinking it was a vacation, but they left her behind with a family friend. After ten days or so, my mother received a call from her father asking that she come to Kansas City as soon as possible. My grandmother had not been well and had taken a turn for the worse. No one said anything about the specific illness. My mother was thirteen.

After a long, apprehensive train ride, my mother arrived in Kansas City and was greeted at the train station by her father and a somber group of relatives. She asked about her mother’s health but didn’t get an answer. All they said was that her mother was eager to see her. Mom described the drive from the station as confusing, not knowing what to expect. When she finally arrived at her aunt’s home where her parents had been staying, she leaped from the car and ran into the house.

She heard a voice from upstairs: “Grace, honey, is that you?” She negotiated the stairs two or three at a time heading for the voice, and came to the bedroom where her mother was sitting patiently. At this point in my mother’s story, she was far from composed and angrily fought back tears. My therapist had to keep prodding her to go on, and she did, but with great difficulty.

My grandmother was beginning to undress for a nap and calmly asked my mother to help her remove her blouse. Mom willingly complied. As she slowly removed the blouse from my grandmother’s shoulders and back, the reality of this mystery disease came into focus. Most of my grandmother’s upper torso was gangrenous, discolored and rotting. Some of the side effects, my mother would soon learn, of diabetes. Until this moment, the nature of the illness and the impending fate of my grandmother had been kept secret from my mother. Even so, the intuition of a thirteen-year-old girl could grasp the truth that her mother was dying.

The details are what they are and my mother’s version of events may not be medically correct, but my overwhelming impression of those two hours is that my mother went through an emotional grinder I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It was both heart wrenching and courageous. Moreover, I felt terrible for subjecting her to the horrendous memories she had purposely buried for decades.

After dinner that evening, Mom was on the back deck smoking a cigarette. She had been eerily quiet throughout our meal; we hadn’t discussed the day’s events at all. I didn’t know whether to give her space or not. Remember, we didn’t have much of a connection. Far from it. I was in the living room pretending to read a magazine but I could see her through the French doors. Eventually, she put out her cigarette, came back into the house and I stood to greet her.

She was quite emotional. I asked her how she was doing and I’ll never forget her response. “You know, honey, that was tough today. Maybe one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. And I know that perhaps I haven’t been the best mother. But, I was thinking. I can come back next week. Why don’t you ask your nice therapist? Because if it would help, I’ll give it another try. We can talk about anything you want. I just want you to know I love you with all my heart.”

I was touched––it’s tough reliving that moment even now–– and hugged my mother for the first time in years. I told her I loved her. My mother, a gift from God, gave me the gift of life. She sacrificed for me, suffered with me and endured my truckload of filial offenses. As I look back on that day, which turned out to be the last time I would ever see her––alive or dead––I realize my mother’s willingness to do another torturous session with me, to endure emotional anguish without hesitation, was nothing more or nothing less than a wonderful expression of love. That bestowal from my mother is one I’ll always treasure.

It’s hard to prioritize prayers. However, Lord, this is my number one. I’m going to assume my imperfect parents are in Your presence. It’s my desire to see them both again, to feel their tenderness, embrace them and thank them for their guidance, care and love. They were exceptional, loved by many and did their best to raise their children to be good, honest and caring. To this day, I miss them terribly. Lord, this is my prayer.