In God We Live – Reflections on the Death of my mother-in-law

May 21, 2017

Bible Text: Acts 17:22-31 |

In God we live and move and have our being.

Perhaps it’s simply the poetry of these words that makes it so attractive to me. It certainly is poetic. But, no, it’s more. It’s what the poetry says that beckons me.

In God we live.

In God we move.

In God we have our very being.

There is a completeness in these words that resonates deep within my soul. What do I want out of my faith? What am I seeking in this life? Just this: to live in God, to move in God, for my very being to be in God.

And not just me, but us. In God we live and move and have our being. The great agony of this life as we know it is isolation from one another. All we want is to know and be known, to love and be loved. Yet sin wedges itself between us like water that seeps into a narrow crack in a rock. Then winter comes. The water freezes and expands and fractures the rock, cleaving it with incredible force. And so the valleys of our lives are filled with rubble that has fallen from the cliffs of countless winters.

Even amongst our loved ones – perhaps especially amongst our loved ones – we know the pain of division and misunderstandings and grievances. But that’s not the life that we want. We want to love and be loved. And ultimately we want this love to find its rightful source and destination within the heart of God’s own being. God is one, and we are one in God.

So said Christ to his disciples,

On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

This is indeed  a mystery, yet one that points to a deeper reality that feels almost like a memory – our soul’s implicit knowledge that we came from and belong in the peaceful unity that is God.

I’ve felt this very keenly in the past couple weeks.

For several months now Cynthia and I have been wrestling with the reality of how to move her mother out from Alabama to be with us in Gig Harbor. Her mother began having strokes before I ever knew her. For twelve years now she’s been on a feeding tube and hardly spoken, beyond the single, occasional breathy word. She’s been completely bed-ridden for more than a year, her brain pock-marked from strokes, leaving her with – if not outright dementia – dementia-like behavior. But we’ve long suspected that, beneath her stroke-impaired exterior, remained a living, thinking, observing woman who was very aware of her surroundings. Last summer, with extraordinary determination, she made it clear to Cynthia that she wanted to move to Washington with us.

It was too overwhelming to consider at first: the complexity, the difficulty in moving someone who’s bed-ridden, the ramifications for her brother. We started out tentatively. We began to look at Cottesmore and Manor Care. But the more we talked and the more we prayed the more we began to consider the impossible – that we wanted her to move into our home with us.

And the extraordinary thing was, we began truly to want it. It was preferable for her to be with us and not just near us. We had fantasies of her being able to sit in a wheelchair again so that while we were cooking she could be in the kitchen with us; while I was working in the garden, she could sit on the deck and feel again the warmth of the summer sun on her skin; that she could sit at the dinner table with us and be present to the normal banter of a family reporting in from the day.

Beneath all this day-dreaming was the deeper desire to be one with Dorothy, to create in our home a closeness and a familiarity with her that – for various reasons – was absent in Cynthia’s home growing up.

For me, personally, in these days when our society seems increasingly estranged and hostile, I was eager to do something tangible and true of the Kingdom of God, to be proactive in caring for the vulnerable in my midst. I was glad for my children’s world to expand and that they would be able to share in loving her.

And so a week and a half ago she moved in with us. The day of the move she was awake and attentive and comfortable the whole time. It was cute: We were in the back of a small plane together, propped up at opposite ends of a mattress. I’d sometime catch her watching me and she’d quickly close her eyes and turn her head like she was just napping. And I thought, “Dorothy, if you’re aware enough to be self-conscious when I catch you staring at me, then you’re doing all right!” We got her home, where her grand-daughter greeted her and started telling her all about her day. And Dorothy was just staring at her with wide-eyed wonder, like “Well I’ll be damned! I’ve wanted to be here for a long time, and they actually did it!” She fell asleep that night in peace and slept peacefully all the next day. We thought she was just recuperating from the trip.

We’d brought her here, expecting to share a life with her. But within a couple days we discovered the reality: she’d come to share her death with us. Hospice had prepared us for this potentiality, but we were still in disbelief. On Monday night, after a day and night of keeping vigil and holding her hand, Cynthia stepped out of the room to take a brief nap, and Dorothy breathed two shallow breaths and left us.

The reason I’m sharing this whole story (apart from the fact that I can’t seem to wrap my head around anything else this week) is that in this brief overlap of our worlds, I saw the Kingdom of God with such clarity. We were joined with Dorothy and Dorothy with us, and we were in God, and God was in us. You know, when someone is dying, what matters in life becomes very clear, and what doesn’t matter – well - that gets relegated to the shadows where it belongs.

I’ve often thought, I wish I could live with people now with the same degree of grace that is so easy and obviously right to offer as they’re dying.

That’s faith, isn’t it? To be able to grasp the eternal reality of who we are in God,  then enter that eternity today, with eyes to see and hearts to believe the truer truth of all God’s beloved creation. Nobody is the product of their sins. Nobody. In God we live and move and have our being. Perhaps the greatest grace we have to offer is the ability to see and elicit the beauty of God that resides at the heart of all who surround us.

I certainly saw Dorothy’s beauty this week in ways I’d always failed to see. Sitting beside her, holding her hand, watching her breath, it was all there. Not only did the shell of a stroke victim drift away, so did the history of her that I’d learned over the years, of her various faults and the difficulty of being raised by her. These things were true in their way, but they weren’t the Truth of who she was.

There was a grace that came simply by watching her with tenderness. But, thank God, I also had the wherewithal to remember the advice I often share with families – the five basic things that need to be shared before someone dies:

I’m sorry.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

Good-bye.

And so, with no one else but the two of us in the room, I began to talk.

I’ve never had a real relationship with her. The whole time I’ve known her – over sixteen years – she’s been diminished by her strokes. So it’s really never crossed my mind to think I’d hurt her in any way. But as I talked I began to remember things I’d done and things I’d left undone, things that absolutely required my repentance. Likewise, she’d never hurt me; there was nothing to forgive. Except that there was. I saw ways that – in defense of my wife – I’d harbored resentment towards her, and yes I did need to forgive her. I’d certainly never thought to thank her. But once I began, I realized the obvious truth that she’d given me my world: she gave me Cynthia and by her our children. We moved to their small town in Alabama to be near them soon after Henry was born, and it was in Alabama that I had my first real job; it was there that we bought our first house and raised our kids; it was there where I finally completed my discernment and was ordained in the Episcopal Church – and all because of Dorothy. And I never knew how much I loved her until I sat with her this past week.

I watched Cynthia, too, as she finally let go of all the barriers, all the disappointment of things that had never been. Their relationship in this life ended with the deep knowledge that her mother loved her, and always had. And Cynthia loved her mother in return, with a heart that was full and pure, no longer cluttered by past hurts. The Spirit was at work healing the broken places and creating in them the divine “shalom” of wholeness and peace.

And so as this week unfolded, bewildering and startling as it was, the Kingdom of God was very near.

But questions linger still: Was the move just too much for her fragile body and did we hasten her dying? Is it possible that an old, demented woman might have the will to orchestrate her death? that she was holding on to be reconciled to Cynthia and to die in the peace and love that our home could provide? I don’t know. It seems so preposterous. And yet, I’m willing to believe, that if Dorothy is in God and God is in Dorothy, then her dementia was no barrier to God’s holy intention that we should be restored to one another. If God needs to peel back the dementia – and even the dying – to permit the eternal exchange of love and reconciliation, then so be it. If the will of God and the will of Dorothy and the will of her daughter were all set towards grace and love, then what could possibly stand in its way? Where, O Death is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?

In God we live. In God we move. In God we have our being. Amen.

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