Sunday, February 10, 2013

When A Mother Dies

An unborn child is nourished by its mother long before it sees the light of day. Through a long vital chord – an umbilicus – it receives everything that it needs to live and grow. After birth this child continues to receive nutrients from its mother as it suckles her enriched milk. Then slowly this dependency diminishes. After it is weaned, the child continues to be fed by its mother but also by other members of the family. And as the years go by, and the child becomes a teenager and then an adult, it begins to take full responsibility for its own nutritional needs.

There is, however, something else that the maternal umbilicus gives. It provides a connection between mother and child and a mutual dependency. Of course the child needs the life giving fluids that flow from its mother. But the mother also needs to provide this same nectar to its child. This is not a decision that she makes. Nature instills within her soul the impulse to nourish and care for her child. It is a vital impulse more than a rational one. A mother can no more deny her crying hungry infant than she could deny her own dietary needs. In fact her need to care for her child trumps her own needs almost entirely.

But Mothers also need to give their children an endowment of spiritual care. And this caring impulse never goes away. Even if the child grows into a disappointing adult or otherwise feels estranged from its parents, a typical mother continues to be drawn – as if by a filial tropism – to her erring offspring. A mother’s love never dies.

I was reminded of this in a very personal way a couple of months ago. I was at home on a Sunday evening two days before my mother passed away. She lived in Salt Lake City and I live in Fresno. I knew that her body was about to give out. But this did not trouble me. I knew that Mom was ready to go. In fact she wanted very much to go. And I didn’t want her to struggle any longer. In fact I was glad that her challenging mortal experience, including 50 years of lingering illness, was about to end.

I had been talking to Dad on the phone and could sense his own relief mixed with a nervous concern for the coming days. And when I hung up the phone I was at peace with the coming loss of Mom. Then I felt a pinch of pain in my left arm. It bothered me for some time. At first I thought it must be a cramp from holding the phone improperly. But the pain wouldn’t go away even after moving my arm and rubbing it tenderly. In fact the pain moved up my arm to my shoulder and partly into my left chest. Many minutes later I had to sit down as I began to feel dizzy. At about the same time my stomach began to feel queasy.

At this point I realized that I was experiencing the classic symptoms of an imminent heart attack. I couldn’t believe that this was true though. I have a healthy heart, am fairly active, and have no family history of heart disease. Surely I wasn’t about to have a heart attack.

But the symptoms were too obvious and so I had my son Michael call our local emergency response team. They arrived in short order and proceeded to undo my shirt and tape electrical connectors to my torso. Over the period of several minutes of head scratching, they determined that I was fine, after all. My heart was beating away as happy and healthy as could be. It was obviously a false alarm.

Well yes and no. Thankfully I wasn’t experiencing heart failure of the normal kind. But Kathy (my wife) was beginning to think I was experiencing the cardinal equivalent of losing my mother. She reminded me that I never respond typically to tragedy. Mentally, I work well in an emergency situation. I tend not to over-react. And if someone wants to be belligerent, I don’t get intimidated. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Over time, however, after the dust settles, my spirit is pained. When Kathy told me that her grandmother died several months ago, I didn’t feel strongly about it at all. A few days later, however, I couldn’t keep the tears away.

Two days after Mom passed away, I became an emotional wreck. So maybe Kathy was right. Maybe my body was telling me something that I wouldn’t register emotionally until later – telling me that the life-line to my mother was ripping apart.

My adult relationship with Mom was simple. Her memory was not good and so we only talked about immediate things. She never wanted to reminisce about the time we used to spend in the garden, about the books that she sometimes read to me when she wasn’t too sick, or about the conversations we occasionally had about life, family and faith. We didn’t talk about these things because she didn’t remember them. She just wanted me to know that she loved me.

And I have always understood her love. It came to me continuously, unspoken and unsolicited through that invisible umbilicus that ever remains between a mother and her child while we live. And then it was gone. That divine maternal need to love and care for her dear ones – that need that so often gets abused and taken for granted by ungrateful children – was no longer there.

The more I think of this experience, the more remarkable it seems to me. Why did I feel the symptoms of heart failure? We connect our deepest feelings with the organ that pumps blood. I’m not sure that anybody has ever been able to explain why this is so. But what sort of spiritual link ties our physical heart with the people we love? I have no idea, but I can tell you that it’s real.

And now, several weeks since Mom’s passing, I find myself wishing that I were a child again. Maybe it was her faith in me that kept me pushing forward all these years, striving for success, believing that I was destined for something important. I don’t know. All I really want to do is sit by her side and have her read me a story once again.

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