So That Happened.

My Mom passed away in January.  It’s nearly five months later and while I’m still trying to process things, there are so many things I’m grateful for.

I’m grateful I was there as close to the end as I was.  I wasn’t there when she died, but I was able to spend time with her in her last days.  I never wanted that – I wanted to be far away and “get the call” and have that be that, but it was such a grace that I was able to see her again, even if she couldn’t see me.

There is so much that we fear in death – and not only death, but the things that go along with it: getting sick, growing older, losing the things we once had (or even the physical possessions we have now).  And being there for my mom wasn’t fun, or anything – it was incredibly difficult, at times – but it was a real privilege to see and understand how things work – how the body works to shut itself down, how things progress physically – and also to see what comes out in relief against all that darkness.

It was very similar to me to the process of having a baby.  Labor and death can really mimic each other, I’ve found — it’s a singular process that must be gone through alone – although support is needed, at the end of the day, it’s the person’s process alone – and it’s an experience that requires the double helix of work and of release, of moving towards a goal while letting go of everything else.  It was pretty humbling to witness, as I imagine many births are, too.  I’m happy that my labors with my kids all went beautifully.  I hope my own death is as great an experience, too.

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I was honored to give the eulogy at my mother’s funeral.  Here it is.

Eulogy:

My mother could make friends with a bag of rocks.  

She had the ability to befriend absolutely anyone, no matter how standoffish or introverted, and within a matter of moments, make them feel comfortable. She made others feel important, and it’s a sure thing to say that if she knew you, she loved you.  Her joy came from those in her life, and where she came from.  

Growing up in Florida, my brothers and I heard stories about Inwood, and it seemed almost like Neverland to us: a place where that was more family than community, and every day brought a new adventure.  To my mom (and I know she was not the only one), Inwood was not only a place on a map; it was a source of life, a spring where she drew love that sustained her.  No wonder she had to be close to it, even if it was across the Hudson River from her home.  She could feel that love emanating from it even then, the love that made her tough enough to endure years of surgeries and procedures and chemotherapies that scarred her body, took her energy, and dimmed her light.

But through it all, she never complained.  Through the overwhelmingness of it all, each time I’d ask her how she was doing, she’d say “good.”  I knew it was a bad day on the days she’d say “I’m doing okay.”  Like Saint Paul wrote in the Epistles, she was constantly beaten down, but not broken; constantly wrapped in flame of pain, but never consumed.

What was she really consumed by? The love she felt for her husband; a love that had been tested and tried and found to be stronger than the greatest steel.  She was propelled by the love and pride she had for her children and her grandchildren, her nieces and nephews and their children.  She was energized by the love she had for her sisters. She was uplifted by the joy she found in the presence of her friends.

She loved her life, as hard as it was; and as joyful as we are that her suffering is gone, the most pain lies in the hard reality that the world doesn’t get another Janie Guerra.

Saint Paul writes in the second letter to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” My mother’s race was filled with hardship on a road paved with the sharpness of suffering, of uncertainty, doubt, and fear.  She was, like all of us, just a human being.  But her ability to run it – and to run it so well – said so much not only about her, but about the God she so fervently believed in and loved so much: a God who knew suffering, who knew the value it holds.  There truly is no crown without the cross.  Her suffering had redemptive meaning; it was the manner through which she obtained her glory.  Her last days were flooded with palpable grace.  Death looks so ugly from the outside, but there is such beauty to be found in it.  There is so much about our world today that is ugly, but you and I – and my mother certainly knew – the awe and wonder that is in it as well.  How lucky we are to have known her, to have loved her.

So where does that leave us? She is in a place where we can know she is with God; where her beauty has been restored to her.  In a place where her smile is no longer crooked, where her face is full again, where her voice is once again strong and clear, and sitting on a stoop that looks suspiciously like the one on Park Terrace West.

Her life here is over, but ours continues.  Our responsibilities have not gone away; we still have jobs to go to and bills to pay and hard things to endure.  But we can draw strength from the knowledge that the love of God that sustained her belongs to us, too.  We can spend our days remembering it and living in it; and living our lives to their fullest is what will honor her best.

In the words of Mother Teresa, “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not yet here.  Let us begin.”

 

Shawshanking It

I didn’t want to go.

I had other plans; I meant to run a few errands before the upcoming festivities of my daughter’s Baptism this weekend, and the logistics of rushing to meet anyone anywhere seemed impossible.  But I wanted to see my friend and when she suggested spending some time walking around K-Mart and letting the kids loose (this K-Mart doesn’t pull in a lot of foot traffic), I agreed.

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It’s not easy, rounding two kids up to go places.

I’d known that before I had the second one, but it’s really not easy when one of the kids is being potty trained and we have to sit him on the potty before we go anywhere.  Because it’s not really ever an easy sit.  There’s the bribery, the whining, the carrying, the tears, the biting, scratching and pinching, and even if he successfully goes on the potty, there’s the inevitable fight over the pulling up of the undies.  All of this while the baby is crying to be held in the other room.  Trying to get anywhere on time is a nightmare; and we were a few minutes late when we pulled into the parking lot.

I was frazzled.  I have been, lately.  My mom’s not well.  We found out in April, and the little time I had to really think about it before the baby arrived was stuffed with hysterical crying and the thought that it would just be too hard.  It is hard, but I can do hard things.  With the baby here in all of her newness, it’s easy to push the thoughts of my mom’s inevitable passing aside, but up they bubble, here and there.

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My friend asked how my mom was doing as we cruised the store, walking past the too-early aisles of Halloween candy set up facing the on-clearance rows of poolside plastic lawnchairs.  I told her how she’d had her PET scan to determine if she’d continue treatment, about how short her breath was getting, about how she slept all the time and barely could eat.  By the time we’d gotten to the toy aisles, the stomachache I’ve acquired when thinking about my mom for extended periods of time had set in, but we kept talking about her.  I wanted to talk about her.

“She wants to be cremated, I know that,” I said.  “Wants the ashes buried in the park near where she grew up.  In Manhattan.”

“You going to do it?”

I shook my head.  “My brother will, probably.  I don’t think it’s legal.  It’s human remains.”

“Why doesn’t he Shawshank it?” my friend asked.  I was confused.  Like, did she mean dig a tunnel, or…

And she mimicked Tim Robbins’ character walking through the prison yard, hands in his opened pockets, letting out the pieces of concrete wall he’d hammer-rocked through onto the ground.  “You know,” she said, “Putting the ashes in your pockets.  Shawshanking it.”

It was what I needed to hear.  I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time, and my eyes brimmed with the kind of tears I was pretty sure from the laughing and not just the intensity of what was going to come sooner rather than later.

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Knowing someone with terminal cancer – especially a family member – propels you into a vortex of grief early.  You get familiar with the idea of “first times” after the person passes (the first Christmas after, the first Thanksgiving after), but you also get pushed into an awareness of the “last times” you will have.

I don’t know how long she has left.  My birthday was two days ago; was it the last birthday I’ll have with my mother still alive?

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It helps that my faith dictates that there’s a Heaven and a time we’ll see each other again, but statements of faith like that have to be made for real.  Do I really believe this? Do I really believe in God and Heaven and Jesus dying for us on the Cross?

It’s strange that I have to ask myself that – it surprises me that I do, but it’s so near now.  These were just ideas before, and the reality is that I have to decide whether or not I think it’s true.

And yet I do believe it.  I do believe in all those things; I believe that it’s true.  And in those moments I have in between shoving my son towards the bathroom or strapping my screaming daughter in the car seat, I find myself believing and being comforted, even if it’s just for now.

Some news.

My mom was diagnosed today with Acinic Cell Carcinoma, a cancer of the salivary glands. She’s without health insurance and the money for her biopsies were donated by their church and by friends, so it’s a worrisome time for more than a few reasons. We’re praying that her Federal Disability application goes through so she can get treated, and mostly we’re praying that she doesn’t give up hope and keeps trusting in God through this time.

After I got off of the phone with her all I could think about was a song by a Christian band called the O.C. Supertones, and their song called “Jury Duty”:

Though I haven’t had the best of days
Still I want to stop and thank You anyway
Every single moment, whether sleeping or awake
is Your creation, and what You’ve made is good

I don’t always thank You for the rough days
and the hard times in my life,
even though I should

Everything is God’s, the good days and the ones that aren’t worth saving. Thanks so much for your continued prayers for her and my family. 🙂