Sunday was the first Mother’s Day since my mom passed away almost six months ago.
It was a quiet day, despite the eddy of motion that Sundays usually bring. I quickly sensed a subconscious pandering for how I should feel, along with a hope for pity from a distance instead of conversation. I guess conversation would confront reality and demand a response. So I kept a low profile.
Thankfully, a few people still asked and lured me out of hiding. What came to words, I don’t remember. What came to mind, rather, were a number of recent reflections, lessons that are shaping my new reality. Today I am forcing myself to write them down and share. I am glad to know them.
We are the sum of our contradictions. My remembrance of Mom has been as honest as my writing. There is little appeal for me to remain in eulogized mania. I have considered both her saintly good and her human folly. It’s inconvenient that both exist in the same person. But it’s real. In a single moment I could blush at the thought of her love, and yet boil at the charge of her stubbornness. I call it “bloiling”. And one day while still bloiling, I realized that I am no less contradictory. Romans 2:1 then brings me down to a simmer: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” This is humanity. I am a walking oxymoron, vulnerable and yet vain, loving but lustful. Yet “living a good life often requires integrating a bundle of contrasts into a durable whole” (Shenk).
We cannot define how God answers our prayers. I knew Mom suffered with numerous ailments that caused her great pain. I prayed expectantly for change. I took action obediently for change. My answer and reward: her sudden death with no goodbye. I did not wrongly ask for specific things. Yet I did wrongly define how God should answer me. And that’s why I felt like an exasperated child for a few months afterward.“Lord, if you had been here, [she] would not have died” (John 11:21). However, it was not his over-discipline, but my under-estimation of the mystery of his will. Now, to the one who chose to bring her home, I concede: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
We all cause wounds. Non-superficial relationships hurt, especially parent-child. It’s popular among my generation to trace all our quirks and limitations to the shortcomings of our parents. I do think there is much we can learn from our families of origin, probably more than we even realize. And yet, what quirks and limitations did we children cause them?! Sure, I carry wounds from Mom, but she also died with wounds from me. Not always malicious wounds, but the kind that flow naturally from earnest love, such as the ache of a son leaving the country for a few years. Now as a parent myself, “I wish that I could be [my daughter’s] everything…but sometimes I’m going to let [her] down” (Shane). We will wound one another. And God will use our imperfect relationship to lead us to a perfect Savior.
We cannot atone for our shortcomings. I have a list. It is long and dreadful. It recounts specific ways I failed Mom, things I no longer have the opportunity to reconcile. At the end of the list my journal reads, “These make me ill.” When I worked up the courage to write them down five months ago, when death still stung, I volunteered any sense of emotional equilibrium to pay off such debts. I mourned and shamed and withdrew. But nothing could atone for them. The truth is, even if Mom was still here and I could continue the process of reconciliation, it still would not atone. For, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins…so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:22, 28). I am no longer crucifying. I am waiting.
We need loss to rattle our priorities. I get what is truly important so backward. This experience has been rearranging, not so much by death modeled for me, but death echoed in me. When Mom died, something in me died. I found myself caring less. Caring less about what people think. Caring less about what I accomplish. Caring less about caring less. No, of course I didn’t love my neighbors enough today. No, I definitely didn’t have the faith of George Müller. But I am Zach and I am loved. I’ve heard friends describe this response to loss as “a place of knowing”. I believe it is a miraculous work. And I hope it is evidence of the “outer self wasting away [while the] inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
We are embodied souls. For years I have been a functional Gnostic. I have separated the spiritual/emotional from the physical. I assumed my emotions had little affect on my body, nor my body on my emotions. The thing about being a Gnostic is, well, you’re wrong. The invisible God came in human flesh because humanity is soul wrapped in flesh. So it (eventually) made sense when I physically could not perform basic functions at work. The emotional trauma of Mom’s passing did not have mercy on my body. But God did have mercy, especially as he invited me through yet another breakdown to lay down my work and rest. There is a living, en-fleshed Savior, “who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).
We foolishly believe time heals all things. “They say that time heals all things / They say you can always forget / But the smiles and tears across the years / They twist my heart strings yet!” (Orwell) It is fool’s gold to entrust deep hurts to the placebo of time. I believe instead that time heaps all wounds, often leaving us in denial as they fester. Though time has brought me to a place of no longer regularly thinking about Mom, I refuse to take that as my soul’s healing. I want to pay attention to what bubbles up from my heart. “Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past” (van der Kolk). I need the body of Christ. I need to be honest. I need to keep sharing. It will take time, but time will not be the balm. “Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are the one I praise.” (Jeremiah 17:14).