How can I describe the significance of my mother in a few words? Why would I even try? Death seems too strong for words. The measure of her life can’t be summed up with words. This moment, this sorrow, this aching loss is too much for words. Words fail me when it seems I need them the most.
But then again, before this day, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” joy mingled in sorrow, death and life thrown together, despair and redemption rolled up into one. And so, I rely the words of another about the Word Incarnate, our beginning and ending, first and last words about the Alpha and the Omega: Phil. 2:1-11.
We translated that very passage in my second-year Greek class the day my mother died. It’s a song about Christ—the music lost to us—but the ancient rhythm of these lyrics still sing in my ear. And, as much as my mother loved both—Christ and music—I find it more than serendipitous that my Greek students would read these words to me in the light of day after one of my darkest nights. It’s because, in these words, I not only hear of Christ, but I see my mother, one of the main reasons I am a believer. And, I see her in my family—my father, my brothers, our wives and our children—words becoming flesh.
My mother loved the Scriptures. One of my fondest memories of her is when she and dad gave to me my first Bible. I even see her face now, beaming with joy as I unwrapped the gift (I remembering being a little puzzled when I opened the box. In light of her excitement, I thought I was going to get a special toy, something to play with. But, it wasn’t. It was a Bible for children, the one with a picture on the cover of Jesus surrounded by children, a zipper around the edges to bind up the book, and a cross dangling from the zipper). Holding it my hand, looking at her then back at the book, I realized it was special—nothing to toy with—but I had no idea why.
We were waiting for mom to die. That’s a horrible situation, when the experts say the end is near and you’re wondering if they’re right. Dad and I were in her hospital room, keeping vigil. At first, we both tried to get a little rest. But, long after midnight, dad said, “Here. You take this chair; it’s more comfortable. I’m going to read.” So, he dragged his chair into a dim light, sat next to mom’s bed, and began to read the Scriptures. I dozed off, every ten minutes checking on mom—her shallow breathing getting worse—then glancing over at dad still reading the Bible. I’ll never forget that image. My dad finding comfort during the dark night in the light of God’s Word . . . and I think of mom. Her love of the Scriptures, her husband by her side reading the Bible until she died, and the gift she once gave to her nine-year-old son.
Paul the apostle encouraged the Philippians to empathize with people, to consider the needs of others above their own, having what he called “the mind of Christ.” That was true of mom, a virtue I also see clearly in my brother, Denny. I was in the fifth grade, attending school in Compton, California, when a boy made a fool of himself and everyone laughed. He had dropped his lunch tray in the cafeteria, mashed potatoes and gravy spilled all over the linoleum floor, and as he struggled to get up, he kept falling down in the mess. I’ve always been a sucker for slapstick comedy; and his attempts at gathering his plate, silverware, and bottle-thick-lenses-in-black-horned-rim glasses now covered in gravy reminded me of a bit from the Three Stooges. But, in this case, there was only one stooge, and his comic routine was hilarious. Others took in the sight, and soon a huge crowd gathered around the boy to enjoy the spectacle—dinner and a show. The harder he tried to stand, the more he wallowed in the mess. Then, all of the sudden, he realized we were all laughing at him. I’ll never forget the look of horror on his buck-toothed, gravy-stained face when he realized he was the undesirable center of attention. All of the sudden, I wasn’t laughing anymore. My stomach turned inside of me—an aching in my heart—but I didn’t understand why. When I got home from school, mom noticed my melancholy mood and asked the question every mother greets her children with, “Did you have a nice day at school?” When I told her what happened, puzzling over why I felt so bad, she offered one of many lessons about the importance of empathy. She would often say, “How would you feel if that happened to you?”—a question that I still ask myself nearly everyday because of my mom.
Denny and Paula have recently given up their home and moved to a difficult neighborhood, to live among people who face huge challenges in their lives: low income, poor health, broken families, addiction, crises every day. It takes great courage to have the “mind of Christ,” to not “merely look out for your own personal interests,” as Paul wrote, “but also the interests of others.” It’s called, “empathy”—a virtue my mom tried to teach me at least once a week, a Christ-like character I see in my brother and sister-in-law.
My mom was a generous woman, especially when it came to celebrating Christmas. She loved giving Christmas gifts—dozens of presents spilling out all over the living room. We knew she didn’t receive much for Christmas when she was a child. So, she went overboard with us. When the grandchildren came along, it only got worse—often we’d have to rent a trailer to tow the stash home. I should have seen it coming. For our first Christmas as husband and wife—among many presents—mom gave to Sheri and me a special box (I’d seen that look in her eye before and so I halfway expected a Bible). Instead, it was baby doll. When I looked up in confusion, she said, “Get the hint?” She couldn’t wait for grandchildren. When Andrew and Josh came along a few years later (only a month apart), she was in heaven—so excited when we came home for the holidays. Then Emma and Grace came into the world, and she was overjoyed. Having raised three boys, mom always wanted a girl—it was especially evident when Chris was a toddler. She refused to cut his hair, his long locks falling to his shoulders. People often mistook Chris for a little girl, oohing and awing over his beautiful hair. Mom would eventually correct them, but then add, “he’s pretty enough to be a girl, isn’t he?” I worried sometimes that when I came home from school, we might find Chris in a dress. She loved her grandsons; her affection for Zach and Bryce was just as strong. But, oh how she loved her granddaughters, Emma, Grace, and Callie. The night Emma was born, I called mom and said, “She’s here. Emma was born just a few hours ago.” To which mom replied incredulously, “Are you sure it’s a girl?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, mom. Emma is a girl.” “Oh boy, I can’t wait to buy those frilly, little dresses.” Sure enough, under the Christmas tree, wrapped with her signature bows, were frilly, little dresses—for Emma, Grace, and Callie. Mom loved watching them model their new outfits, and giggled with delight when her grandsons played with their latest super-hero action figure.
I see the same generous spirit in my brother, Chris. He loves giving nice things to the people he loves—just like mom. Just the other day, Chris decided dad’s old refrigerator had to go. Of course, my dad is a “get by” kind of guy. But, Chris wouldn’t hear of it. When dad objected, “I don’t need a refrigerator.” Chris interrupted, “How old is that one, dad? Thirty years, forty years? I’m not going to argue with you about it. We’re going right now. I’m getting you a new fridge.” That’s my brother; he’s a very generous guy—something he learned from his mother.
I’ve learned many things from my mom. Her love of music, her love of Christ, her love of the Church, how she reveled in family get-togethers, cherished a delicious meal, loved to read, and, most of all, how she cared for us. The same qualities I see in my sweet wife, my children, my family. It’s the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The Word Incarnate I need to see when words fail me.
For the love of Christ, until the resurrection, all we have are words, the Spirit of God, and each other. And, because of Christ, that is more than enough.