March 21, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly

 My mother wore sunglasses to hide her swollen eyes for months after her mother died. I was 12, and I remember waking up that sunny morning to find my mother wearing a black and white belted dress with her newly acquired sunglasses as she smoothed the sheets on my brother’s bed.
She looked up momentarily and said, “Your grandmother died last night.”
I don’t remember what I said. We lived a protected childhood, and I had no experience with death, grief, or pain.
Living in a Divided Home
My mother and father met in Groton, Connecticut, at a Valentine’s Day dance at the submarine base when they were 19. She was a Roman Catholic, and he had been sent to the “church around the corner” during 27 moves in 17 years. In all the preaching styles and themes he had experienced, my dad believed there was a church that followed biblical truth, and he set out to find it.
In the meantime my father and mother married, and he vowed to raise his children Catholic. He kept that vow until my grandmother died and my mother put on the sunglasses. Could her beloved mother be suffering in purgatory while awaiting a mysterious quota of prayers to ascend to God to boost her into heaven? The thought haunted my mother day after day.
My father had found Adventism nine years before, and he faithfully attended church and lived his beliefs. But he respected my mother’s spiritual walk and did not break the vow he had made to raise his children in her belief system.
Years later I asked him about that decision. He said, “I figured it was better to raise you four children as stable Christians rather than have a tug-of-war over doctrine. I knew the time would come for me to say something.”
2012 1509 page24So sometimes my Catholic mother knelt with us at night to say our prayers, and sometimes it was our Adventist father. We always offered thanks to God before meals. We always slid closed the pocket doors between the living room and parlor on Friday nights. We Catholics kept the volume low on the television in the living room so as not to disturb Dad in the parlor, who was studying his Bible and communicating with his heavenly Father.
The Truth About Death
Then my grandmother died, and in his love for my mother, Dad could not let her grief go unchecked. He opened his Bible and read: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5).
She took the Bible into her own hands and read for herself, “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead” (Eph. 5:14). She read about the death of Lazarus: “After [Jesus] had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep” (John 11:11-13).
My older brother was baptized about that time. My mother and I entered the baptismal tank together on Christmas Day two years later. My two younger sisters were baptized a few years after that.
The Truth About the Resurrection
Forty-four years have passed since our baptism, and now I’m wearing the sunglasses.
For a year I drove 30 miles to meet Mom and Dad in front of the oncologist’s office. I watched her size-16 frame dwindle to a size 8; then she safety-pinned her slacks to keep them from slipping. “I’ll be getting better soon,” she said. “No need to waste money on new clothes.”
I watched her slowly wheel her red aluminum walker down the hallway to the chemo room, pause in the doorway, and smile at each patient hooked to their personally concocted IVs. She cheerfully said, “Back again,” as if joining them for afternoon tea.
I watched the grouchy chemo nurse light up when Mom entered the room. Later, in the hallway, Dad chuckled. “Did you see that nurse?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “What’s up with that? For a year she’s been a grump.”
“That was your mother’s project for the past year,” he said. “She wanted to get the nurse to smile.”
“Do you remember,” I asked Mom a few weeks before she fell asleep, “right after we were baptized when I was 14, there was so much talk about the time of the end? That was new to us. I was afraid and asked what you thought about it.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t remember. What did I say?”
“You paused,” I said, “thinking seriously about my question. Then you said, ‘No, I’m not afraid. If God thinks I can make it through the time of the end, He will let me live through it. If He doesn’t, He’ll take me before.’”
“What I remembered most,” I said as she cuddled beneath a blanket on the couch, just weeks from her last breath, “is that you never doubted your salvation.”
“I never understood,” she said, “why people questioned whether they were saved or not. To me, it was a simple matter of trust.”
She spent days in the hospital, then two hopeful weeks in rehab. With five days and 12 hours left, we brought her home with hospice care. “I just want to see Jesus’ face,” she said.
“It’s so peaceful in here,” each nurse said when they entered the living room.
Looking Forward
“Make me look beautiful,” Mom said, and I thought it would be impossible. Seventy pounds had evaporated from her body; black-and-blue marks lined her arms and the backs of her hands; her hair had thinned.
But two days after Mom’s death my sisters and I mingled with Christmas shoppers in the mall and found a beautiful seafoam gown with long sleeves. The undertaker somehow accomplished her last request. So now she rests in a pink-lined white coffin beneath a headstone engraved with the words “awaiting the resurrection.”
I stand in front of her grave wearing sunglasses, not because I fear she is suffering, but simply because I miss her. Now I know grief. I study the roses just behind her headstone in the Garden of Eternity. I hear children laughing in a playground not far away. I watch the sun twinkle off the pond at the edge of the manicured green grass, and I think, You would have loved this, Mom.

And I imagine what it will be like in this very spot when the apostle Paul’s promise is fulfilled: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. . . . then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your sting?’” (1 Cor. 15:51-55).
Dale finley Slongwhite offers creative writing workshops and retreats through her business, This article was published March 22, 2012.