My computer died recently. I thought I lost everything, and I lost more than I can reproduce from memory. In what I did recover, I found the following little essay. It’s a little more self-deprecating than I’d like, but I was hurting when I wrote it, and I’ve always found self-deprecation far more anesthetizing than aspirin. After reading it again, I thought I’d share it. It still helps me to read it from time to time; maybe it’ll help you too.
It is a long standing tradition in my family to commemorate important events through poetry. This tradition blossomed under my mother. She had a wit, and a gift for rhyme and meter which when combined, made for an entertaining poem even if you were the one being roasted.
With my mom’s passing, it seems natural that the tradition to be the family poet should fall on me or my brother. I cannot speak for my brother’s talent, but I have never found it easy to express the truth in poetry. So rather than honor my mom by using her gift, I will endeavor to use my own.
So you will find no poetry here, perhaps not even any wisdom, maybe not even a new thought. But you will find truth, at least in as much as I can convey it. And you regrettably will find it in my usual drawn out, often illogical and contradictory style. It is said “When in Rome, do as the Romans”, and though my mind hardly qualifies as Rome, the same could be said of the voices in my head. So while we ride the train of thought through the switchyard of my mind, we must simply hope we will find a way to stay our course through the blur of memories and images which will undoubtedly try to derail us. What follows are the streams and rivers and torrents of my mind, captured in this far too limited way, in the hope that I might honor my mother’s life and the God who so graciously gave it to her.
My mom’s story, unlike most stories, begins not with her birth but with mine, or perhaps more appropriately, shortly before my birth. My parents were married for 3 months before my mom was diagnosed with cancer. This was in the early 70’s and radiation treatments were just becoming accepted as a viable treatment for cancer. About a year later I was born. Because of the radiation and chemo my mom went through, no one thought I would survive. They even had me baptized in the hospital, because they weren’t sure I would live long enough to be baptized in a church.
The radiation and chemo saved my mom’s life, but in doing so, her aorta and heart were scarred. This led to more and more trips to the hospital during her life. To give a quick run down, she had triple bypass surgery at age 39, breast cancer, adult diabetes, bone cancer and ultimately died from restrictive cardiomyopathy. She had a tackle box full of medication, and a diet so constraining that she had to track 8 variables for everything she ate.
But this is not my mother. This is what my mother went through. She was not a cancer patient, she simply suffered from cancer. She was not a diabetic, she only had diabetes. My mom did not identify herself as diseased. My mom was changed by these events; her outlook and attitude were altered by her suffering, but she was not a sufferer.
A few years ago, I had the distinct privilege of being a professor at Texas A&M. One of my more unfortunate responsibilities was to accuse, when appropriate, my students of cheating. On one occasion, the student denied wholeheartedly my accusation while I explained to him the process in which he now found himself. He followed up this meeting with an email stating that he had, in fact, copied someone else’s work, but that he was not a cheater. I had to explain to him that I was not calling him a cheater, but accusing him of cheating. I was not accusing him of being something, but of doing something.
My mom was not a sufferer, she was suffering. Her identity did not stem from her circumstance. What she went through did mold and shape her, but it did not define her. She was something much more.
Love is a tender topic among my longtime friends. Not just because it is a sensitive subject in general, but because I struggle with its definition and application so much and for so long, that few people who know me have escaped my ranting and raving. At the risk of torturing what few innocents are left with my misguided and deranged views on love, I do feel I must share something about love before we continue with my mom’s story.
Love is not a feeling. It is not an emotion; it’s not even an action. It is a deeper thing than a state of mind or an attitude. It is more than a motivation. At the core of every one of us, there is something that generates our motivations and desires; that creates a backdrop against which our actions and feelings, our words and thoughts can be measured and judged. I call that core thing the Y. (I’m a mathematician; I use variables where I please.) It is, of course, a bit of a play on words, it is both the requirement and the reason; the question and the answer. It is both “Why?” and “Why!”
For all of us, it is most natural to make “I” our Y. It is most natural for that core thing that generates my motivation and desire, my words thoughts and actions; it is most natural for that thing to be me. Every motivation and desire I have stems from the fact that at my deepest core, there is nothing but me. Every thought, word and action I have exists because I care most about me.
But by the grace of God, and solely by the grace of God, we have been given a very exciting gift. He is willing to replace that “I” at our core with His Love. This is what His death and His resurrection have bought for us. This is what it means to be a child of God; that we can live in His Love. This Love is what defines who we are, and whose we are. When His Love is in our core, when it is at the center of our being, then our motivations and desires, our thoughts, words and actions stem from this Love, and we truly are His light to the world.
My mom wasn’t defined by her suffering. God used her suffering to share His Love with her and the people He placed in her life. My mom was not a sufferer. My mom is a child of God. My mom is a Lover.
Because this Love is in our core solely by the grace of God, because He alone can give us this new Y, “I love you” seems terribly misleading. “I love you” sounds as though this love is mine, and that by some power of my own, I am imparting it to you. But this cannot be true; the love expressed is the Love of God and not my own. So rather than saying “I love you”, which betrays the truth of the transaction, perhaps “I share this love with you” is more appropriate.
But even this statement is misleading, because I am still the one doing the action. It still sounds as though it is because of me that this love, His Love, is shared with you. God brought “I” and “you” together, and it is His Love that is effective in both bringing us together, and making that togetherness something worthwhile. So it is my opinion that to be totally honest, we’d have to say “This Love shares us.”
And it is true; it is this Love that shares us. It is His Love that brings us together and makes that time spent together something beautiful. And it is all about God. It’s His Love that is effective, and it is in His timing and by His design that we are brought together. And it is only because He has brought us together and poured out His Love abundantly on us that we could ever share in this Love. “I” and “you” are only in the picture because God, in his infinite mercy, designed us to be together and share the Love he created us to share.
And so “I love you” should be “This Love shares us.” But there is a deeper mystery at work here.
Christ’s death and resurrection have bought for us this new Y; He has put His Love at our core, that it might be our new identity. His sacrifice gives us, by God’s grace alone, the freedom from the sin that enslaves us. Through the gifts of Baptism and Holy Communion, we enter into Christ’s death and into a new life as a new creation, as a child of God.
“To live is Christ, to die is gain.” I have been made a new creature, whose very core is the Love of God. My life, my motivations and desires, my thoughts words and actions are now measured and judged by this Love. And this Love will proclaim the glory of the Father; it will make itself known. It will, by His design, be shared with the people he has, again by His design, brought to it. He will share this Love He has put at my core with the people He brings into my life. My very life has become an instrument of the work of the Father, through the action of the Holy Spirit. To live is Christ.
And make no mistake, now that I have become a child of the Living God, I will receive my full inheritance. I have only one deep desire, I long to be with my Lord. My place is being prepared at my Father’s table, and when it is ready He will call me home. To die is gain.
My mother passed away from restrictive cardiomyopathy. The heart is an unusual muscle; it is designed not just to contract but to force its expansion as well. It doesn’t just force blood out, it also draws it in. Restrictive cardiomyopathy means that my mom’s heart wasn’t able to expand to draw in the blood. My mom had a strong heart, a very strong heart. If it hadn’t been so strong she probably wouldn’t have lived as long as she did. But even though it was strong, it just couldn’t draw her blood back in. This has some extreme side effects, most notably dangerously low blood pressure.
Your kidneys filter your blood as it is drawn through the organ. But it has a bypass valve of sorts, and when your blood pressure drops too low, the blood naturally flows through this bypass valve rather than just stopping in your kidney. My mom’s blood pressure got so low that her kidneys were completely bypassed. They didn’t fail; the blood simply didn’t flow through them any more.
To try to elevate her blood pressure, my parents, at the advice of the doctors, placed my mom on a ventilator. This is part of the equipment used for dialysis and is specifically the piece that breathes for you. There is a large tube which is inserted through the mouth to the lungs, and the machine then forces air into and out of your lungs.
My mom never wanted to be kept alive by machines. She didn’t want to live, to eke out an existence, bound to machines. In her opinion, they were for healing, not to sustain life.
This is how I found my mom when I went to the hospital Friday afternoon, with a tube down her throat, swollen by days of having her blood bypass her kidneys. And this is how I found my mom Saturday morning when we decided to take her off the ventilator.
When your kidneys don’t take the water and waste out of your blood, your body will try to compensate by drawing the water out through osmosis. This fluid is retained in the body and will eventually cause your body to swell. When your body swells just a few pounds you’ll start to have labored breathing. When your body swells 30 or 40 pounds, you won’t be able to breathe without a ventilator.
Mom had been trying all morning to pull out the tubes herself. She likely thought we wouldn’t have the courage to take her off the ventilator. When one of her closest friends showed up to see how she was doing, we had to hold her arms down so she wouldn’t pull out the tubes. She used all her strength to try to force her arms from our grasp.
What took me a while to realize was that she wasn’t trying to pull the tubes out so she could breathe on her own, or to die, or even because they were horribly uncomfortable or painful. My mom was trying to talk to her friend. When she stopped fighting to get free of our grasp, I could see her lips moving, I could see her tongue fighting to get around the tube. I could see her unmistakably saying “I love you” over and over and over to her friend.
My mom was dying, in what had to be a horrible, painful way. And all she wanted to do, all she could think about saying was “I love you.” And no tubes, no machines, not even death was going to stop her from sharing that with the people God had brought into her life.
When we decided to take mom off the ventilator, her diaphragm was so weighed down by the fluid; she would not be able to breathe for long. When we decided to take mom off the ventilator, it was so that she could die.
She died quickly, with my brother and me at her side holding her hands, and my father leaning in to kiss his wife.
My mom always made sure I was well taken care of. I have more surrogate moms than I can begin to count. Many of these women knew mom well, and loved her as a sister. There were hundreds of people at my mom’s funeral. Many of my moms were there.
At the graveside my family and I were standing next to mom’s casket as our friends and family walked past to pay their respects. I stood at the head of my mom’s casket as her friends came and shook my hand and said “I’m sorry.” I stood at the head of my mom’s casket as our family came and put their hand on my back and said “We’ll miss her.” And I stood at the head of my mom’s casket as my moms came and hugged me tight and said “I love you son.” So I stood at the head of my mom’s casket as my moms came. I hugged them tight, and at my mother’s funeral, I said “I love you mom” over and over and over.
“To live is Christ. To die is gain.” My mom is not a loser. My mom won the fight; she finished the race. My mom is with my God. She has received her full inheritance, and she has taken her place at His table. My mom is where I long to be.
“I love you” isn’t a lie. It isn’t misleading or anything less than the truth. I am a child of the living God. He has given me the keys to His kingdom, and filled me with His love to such abundance that it has soaked to the very core of who I am, my very soul, and has transformed me by the water of Baptism and His Holy Word into a new creation. I do have the power to Love you. It is God’s own power, just as it is His Love. And I am the vessel He has used to bring this Love to you, to share this Love with you. This is what we have become. This is the new creation. This is what “To live is Christ.” means. “I love you” is who I am, who He has created me to be.
As I leaned over to kiss the lips of my dead mother, I knew that what I was kissing was only what she left behind here. My God has taken my mother to be with Him. She left the hospital before I did. She left without her cancer, without her diabetes, without her tackle box of medication. At my Father’s table she won’t ever track fat or protein or sugar again.
I know when my place is ready at the table, I too will go home. Until then, my life is His, and while I am here, He will make His Love known to you through me. He loves you so much He’s willing to turn an imperfect man like me into a new creation to show His Love for you. He loves you so much He’s willing to turn a perfect man like His own Son, Jesus Christ, into a living sacrifice to show His Love for you.
My mom passed away surrounded by her family. We were all there to watch her breathe her last breath with us. I watched my mom die. She has left, she is not here, but she is not gone. I will see her again.
I love my mom. She is one of the most incredible women I have ever met. She is far and away the most incredible woman who’s ever loved me. If she were the only thing in heaven, I’d want everyone to go there just to meet her.
I love my God. He is the most incredible man I will ever meet. He is far and away the most incredible, and for that matter, the only God who’s ever loved me. If He were the only thing in heaven, I’d want everyone to go there just to meet Him.
I pray that you will find Jesus Christ, the one who hung on the cross for you, the one who rose from the dead for you, the one who offers you the incredible gift of His Love, the one who died saying “I love you” over and over and over. I pray that you will fight the good fight, and finish the race. And if you do finish the race before me, tell mom I’ll be home in time for dinner.
I lied. I’m including a poem. I wrote it for my mom over 10 years ago because she needed a little encouragement. If for nothing else, it still expresses my heart, in my usual drawn out, often illogical and contradictory style.
You did not earn it
You did not deserve it
It is a gift, not a payment
It is not dependent on your response
It is not necessary for you to return it
It is a gift, not a favor
Your words and your actions will not change it
It will never be removed
It is a gift, not a privilege
It is unaffected by other people in my life or yours
No one can take it from you
It is a gift; it belongs to you
It is not based on anything you cannot change
It is not based on anything you can control
It is a gift without condition
It will be useless to you if you do not trust it
It will do nothing if ignored
It is a gift, meaningless if not accepted
It is not constant or stagnant
It must change
It is a gift and will only grow
If you accept it, it will change your life
If you never doubt it, it will not fail you
It is a gift too large to contain
It is not always evident in my words; my mouth cannot always convey it
It is not always seen although it is always there
It is a gift and it lasts forever
It is all that I will be with no respect to time
It is yours regardless of the events in my life
It is a gift which keeps on giving
It cannot be hurt; it is above pain
It cannot be severed; its bonds are indestructible
It is a gift which cannot end
It is unique to you; no one else has one like it
It demands all of me; even though yours is not the only one
It is a gift independent of other people
It is more than a feeling; feelings may change
It is more than an action; yet requires action
It is a gift, very real and physical
It is all that I am physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually
It is the dedication of my life to you
It is a gift of myself
All too often we forget the three little words that can change a mood, paint a smile, earn a hug, or save a life. Sometimes in this world those words are all we have, and all we have left to give. You must believe that there is always someone willing to listen, willing to help, willing to love.
I am here, you have a friend. But I am human and, consequently, not perfect. I cannot be all you need. You have a God who loves you, and his love is perfect because He is love. Do not miss the love that can form oceans and move mountains. Accept the gift; it is yours for the taking. God loves you.
I love you
You may not have ever felt able to express truth in poetry well, but man. You certainly have prose down.
“So while we ride the train of thought through the switchyard of my mind, we must simply hope we will find a way to stay our course through the blur of memories and images which will undoubtedly try to derail us. What follows are the streams and rivers and torrents of my mind, captured in this far too limited way, in the hope that I might honor my mother’s life and the God who so graciously gave it to her.”
Beautiful, Mike. The whole entry. Beautiful thoughts; beautiful delivery.
I actually cried as I read this post. I am not a crier; I was raised to be “tough.” But you moved me. You are amazing. Wonderful. I admire you so much. And you have quite a way with words.
This Love shares us.
Thank you for reminding me why I come here. I don’t know why but When I read your writing I always learn something either about you or about myself. I don’ t know what else to say other then I am glad that God allowed me to enroll in your class 5 years ago, I have since gained much more then Math from you.