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An old friend of mine just lost his 97-year-old mother. He’s a well-rounded guy, witty, solid family man, grandfather, successful pastor and businessman, an open-minded, openhearted thinker, and grief is killing him. He’s now in therapy. His experience reminded me how existence goes for us, driving us to sickening numbness at life’s painful transitions. I thought about my own mother’s death and the ensuing grief.
I remember standing at her bedside decades ago in a hospital room as she lay comatose. Names like Mother, Mom, Mommy stabbed my heart as she lay there unresponsive, alive, but already dead. My heart weeping, I gazed upon her motionless form, a vestige of the wonderful mom she was: kind, sensitive, and giving.
Always thinking of us kids, she looked after the little things that made growing up sweet, like placing my school clothes over a chair next to the heater on cold mornings, flannel sheets on chilly nights, or teaching me how to properly hang tinsel on the Christmas tree while she painted our windows in snowy edges.
Mom gifted me my love of animals; I grew up in a veritable zoo. Frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, rabbits, cats, dogs, parakeets, pigeons, ducks, tortoises, hamsters, and even black widows in large empty jars graced our home and yard. Mother made sure I had my favorite lunch for school: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, Twinkies, and an apple. I feasted like a prince. On Saturday nights, she made root beer floats, and we watched movie classics. She loved Tyrone Power and Gregory Peck, thought Red Skelton and Lucille Ball were the funniest people alive, next to Andy Griffith in No Time For Sergeants. I remember her holding her sides laughing uproariously. I felt safe when Mom laughed.
She worked feverishly to make sure we had a life to cherish. Hikes in the San Gabriel canyons, camping in Yosemite, Sundays at Belmont Shores were staples in my childhood. All that lay before me immobile in the dying body of my beloved Mother. Though her death was expected, it nevertheless tore a hole in my heart which still lies vacant. Therapy crossed my mind.
Dying is an ineluctable stage of life when the Grim Reaper celebrates victory. We never stop morphing, growing, developing into something a little different each day and with every experience hopefully something better. Each death in our circle of intimates moves us a little further down evolution’s continuum until we find someone we love is crying over our dying form, the endless cycle moves forward, our reward.
Mother was the glue that kept me in the game filled with stuff that let me explore and experiment, knowing I had a welcoming home in which to return. Love is like that. Exploration, experimentation, adventure, and wonder always begin from a place we call “home,” and the return can be as momentous as the departure. Without mothers we are aborted into a hollow life, grasping after what we know not. Even late in life, my losing Mom was devastating, challenging me to ask why and what now, how will I carry on? I persisted because she gave me the wherewithal to continue. Though crushed by life, I am able to get up and move forward.
We seek assistance from professionals in our effort to keep Mom close while explaining her absence. We drift into the sunset eventually finding our own hospital bed and coma. Moms are the link into the next world. They stand over us even in death.
I looked on her perishing presence and cried until I hurt no more and tears failed. I stroked her face and whispered, “Thank you.” Though quiescent, I heard, “You’re welcome.”
My friend overwhelmed by his mother’s death, and I by mine, reminds me life is forever trailing into the horizon, I in hot pursuit of the Pied Piper, and choice has nothing to do with it.
My mother’s death prompted me to consider my own mortality and how I have spent my time on earth.
Decades of developing and growing, intellectually and emotionally, and the fluid unremitting evolution of ideas and beliefs have created a new view. The last ten years or so I have reevaluated my religious faith. The more I read, and think, the more the old tapes play empty. Like a caterpillar shedding his cocoon and sprouting new wings, my belief in God transformed. Black and white answers, myopic views of humanity, exclusion and condemnation I find vacuous. Conformity and control are hardly “good news.”
Some believers find no problem in a God who kills, and they call Him Love. How does that work? “Love Me or die” can hardly be a God of love, mercy, or hope. Can you envision Jesus, who invited small children to sit in his lap, sword in hand slicing men, women, and children to bloody bits to defend His Father’s honor?
I was told Jesus died for all sinners, but I have learned He died only for those who accept a tired orthodoxy. I choke on the dust of threadbare doctrine while religionists find challenges to convention blasphemous, portending dire consequences. Where’s the tolerance and understanding? But it doesn’t matter. Either you buy into their script that plays in an echo chamber, or you will never experience eternal life, as they see it.
Jesus died for all my sins, ALL our sins, or He died for nothing. Either He died for the worst of us, those who exhibit the vilest of lives, or He died only for those whose sinsqualify for His clemency, in that case, not all of us. I thought He died in my place, representing me, but that would mean all my sins died with Him, leaving me free and pardoned to enjoy Him daily. Authoritarians, however, preach not so fast; they argue you must “accept,” you must do something, or Jesus can’t help you. In other words, Jesus can’t save us without our input. It is a joint effort. Our passive WORKS either procure or thwart His sacrifice. The efficacy of his death lies in our hands. I thought salvation was all his doing, but perhaps not.
Though I did not request it, (I had no choice in the matter), He showed up claiming He was the Savior of the world, but now I understand it’s the world of the chosen, those who have grabbed the golden ring on the carousel of Life. He claims all of us as His own, but only if we consent. So I ask, “Who is the savior?” Him, us, both? Just tell the truth. Seems like “bait-and-switch.” Adam the creature, sent us ALL to perdition without our volition, had far greater impact on the human family than God’s own Son, the Savior of humankind, who now claims He cannot save us without our cooperation in His salvific work.
This means His death only provides opportunity. Not everyone will realize the opportunity for myriad reasons; therefore, His salvation is not for the whole world but rather for those few who make the correct decision. Grace is ultimately dependent on us. Such thoughts take residence in my evening years. The faith of my youth has its own coffin. Death has a way of fostering wisdom. I moved on.
Of course, I still believe in God, just not the one I was sold as a child. I can’t believe in a God who would destroy all my non-believing friends who honestly see life differently and, truthfully, share another perspective. I can’t trust a God who would extinguish them because they think for themselves. Where is unconditional love, having compassion on us just as we are if in the end we are merely dust in the wind because we didn’t buy the sales pitch? I am resurrected from the tomb of questionable narrative a new man. Heretics are liberated believers.
I no longer swallow the interpretations of others, regardless of how old those traditions are, without questioning them. All Christians believe in the interpretations of ancient others, and I wonder about that. What about my interpretation? If God spoke to them, why not me?
Such freedom of thought disturbs those who think they possess the truth that judges everyone. If you don’t see it as they do, you are wrong and worse, doomed. Therefore, they dismiss, even condemn, whole groups of people they view as outside their prescribed salvation. Such religion I have weighed and found wanting. Will my Savior condemn me? He’s my best friend. I think not.
So I stand before the casket of beliefs that no longer make sense. Their death frees me to love all and find the wonder in life in the faces of those who believe differently than I do. Sometimes, death is a savior.
God gave me a brain to think and the freedom to inquire, at the risk of being nihilistic, and I am comfortable with that. Mom bequeathed me a platform of love to know I could rest in His acceptance as I rested in hers. Though my belief is different from hers, my faith derived its foundation from her compassionate existence. She introduced me to God. Through her kindness and care, I found God to be the same.
Yes, we are products of genetics and nurturing, and wisdom hopefully comes after a lifetime of exercising our talents and exploring our curiosity. Paradoxically, we gain wisdom just in time to cast it in the grave.
My time on earth is a short excursion into wonder, filled with fascinating experiences, wonderful love relationships, mingled with unthinkable pain and horror, yet a life summed up ironically: “I want more!” My mother awarded me that.
My friend looked at his mom in her casket, and I looked at mine dressed for death, just the way it goes. Existence is a speedy ride indeed. People die and so do ideas and beliefs that ultimately prove unworthy of adherence. Only love prevails.
Mom, I will look for you in the next . . . on the other side, and you will be there as always, your celebrated smile, your pretty blond hair and hazel eyes, the car loaded with beach stuff, lunches, surf-riders, ready to go.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.
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