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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Mom's Death and What Is Lost with Her

I've written a few things about Mom over the past three months--mostly short comments on facebook.   For those of you who remember my outpouring of pain and suffering in dealing with the death of Everly, you might notice a difference in my grieving this time.  Some of you remember that the family has endured a series of losses, beginning with the long illnesses of Herbie (Everly's dad) and Everly, Everly's death in July 2013, Herbie's death in May 2014, Aunt Dot's death in June 2015, and Hugh Delle's death on February 15 this year.  Each death, each relationship, has it's own weight on our family members' capacity to cope.

I was not surprised by the incapacitating grief that overcame me when Everly died.  I was a little surprised by the different kind of grieving I've had since my mother died.  People's experiences of loss don't come in a standardized schedule.  As a child and a very young man, my grandparents' deaths happened at the stage of life in which it was not unexpected.  Through the sadness of losing them I somehow made sense of their deaths.  But there was a turning point in my psyche with Everly's death, a different understanding of what a human life is and what anyone can expect from living in the world.  Dealing with loss moved from the margins to the center.

I go to this effort to write and post about grief, as I have said before, because many of you have told me that you appreciate thinking through these things with me.  Some of you say it helps you grapple with the confusion of grief and loss in your own lives.  So what follows is some storytelling about the past few years with Mom, with particular attention to her declining health.  More than any other reason, I write about this to help myself gain insight into how to live through loss and grief as a follower of Jesus.

Hugh Delle and I were privileged in the past few years to be together more than we had been since I left home for college.  Everly and I moved in to W. D.'s and Hugh Delle's home in 2010 to share life on a daily basis.  During that time, we developed everyday household routines as well as working through big decisions and life changes.  It was planned to be a short stay while Everly and I worked out housing, but it dragged out longer because the real estate market made it hard to sell our house in Durham.  By the time that finally happened, we were seven months into cancer treatments, and buying a house did not seem like a wise next step.  Mom and Dad welcomed us to stay, and we continued in our habits of living in one house that branched off into two wings, each with our private retreats when needed.  The common space for meals and conversations was a blessing to us all.  After Everly's death, I continued living with Mom and Dad for another year while I sought the direction for the next steps of my life.

Going through so much together built a mature kind of intimacy of mother-son relationship.  Growing closer, we knew much more about one another's lives than before.  Closeness brings blessings and warmth.  It also can give opportunity for disagreement or conflict.  We had our share of both, but I guess even the disagreements and conflict are a kind of blessing.

While Everly was so sick, Hugh Delle played down her own health issues, always claiming that "everything is fine."  Yet it was not fine, and long hospital stays, times of being near death, and the ever-present yet hidden matter of her chronic heart failure made it impossible for the rest of us to ignore her tenuous condition.  One of the pitfalls of living with one's parents is that too often adult child and aging parent revert to patterns of relationship that hark back to the child's adolescence.  In my own way, I sometimes reacted resentfully or critically toward Mom, especially about her health.  It frustrated me that she could not openly accept that her shortness of breath represented an underlying health issue to confront directly.  I could confess a whole range of my shortcomings of kindness in communicating with her, but let it suffice to say that our closeness included both harmonious times and painful times.  I suspect that is true for many of us.

After I moved back to Durham in August 2014, our time together was drastically cut back.  I had hoped to be able to continue a cycle of long stays in Texas with Mom and Dad, but as my faculty responsibilities returned to normal and my community involvement increased, I found it harder than I had expected to get away for more than a couple of weeks at a time.  Consequently, each visit met me with evidence of advancing health issues and change, and not much time to try to deal with the newness.  Mom became less able to do the things she wanted to do.  We would discuss options for making things better, and we added some support and help. 

For the most part, she continued to treat symptoms as passing acute illness rather than declining abilities.  In retrospect, I can't be sure whether her approach of proceeding as if things are fine while continuing to seek medical answers led to any different results than if she had done as I imagined her doing and aggressively pursued solutions to her heart failure.  As her heart grew progressively weaker, it may not have mattered whether she had been more aggressively attentive to that problem.  So probably part of the disagreement we had was about how to handle the grief of her decline. 

She preferred not to accept the idea that she was in rapid decline and hope that things would reverse and improve.  That's not such a bad approach, in that she could without much effort keep herself in a fairly happy condition at least part of each day.  Maybe she saw my perspective of admitting the progress of the chronic condition and dealing with it "head on" as a form of giving up hope.  I can't begrudge her her own way of facing challenges, of dealing with the grief of her declining health.

One result of her way of facing down the struggle was that most of us did not see the rapid decline she was in for the last eight months.  Only W. D. and Lydia were very aware of it.  After graduating form Baylor, Lydia had moved in the room where Everly and I had lived.  She was job hunting, and interviews were slow to get started.  She was glad to be able to offer some care for her grandparents, and she became increasingly concerned for the advancing pain and weakness Hugh Delle was displaying.  Remotely, the rest of us did not get the full impact of the night and day pain and struggle she was having.  Hugh Delle could usually muster up her happy and hopeful self for a phone call.  Sometimes she let us in on the harder parts of her life.

When the doctors began to tell Mom, at the beginning of 2016, that her heart condition was so far advanced that she should not expect it to improve, the seriousness of the condition became clear to all of us.  Jerene made the first trip down to see her.  At the end of a hospital stay for tests and decisions about next steps, it became clear that all the interventions that the doctors had considered were too risky for Hugh Delle's weakened condition.  They thought she probably had a limited time for her heart to continue working.  Already heart monitors revealed that her heart had brought her near death, and sometime in the next few weeks or months it would finally give out.

As we made the decision to bring her home and begin hospice care, I was able to go and stay for a while, with the cooperation of my employer and students.  I went back to teaching my North Carolina classes from Texas for an indefinite time.  Mom was glad to have her two kids home, and we helped organize her medications and treatments with the expectation that she and Dad would continue the routines with assistance from the hospice team and their fellow church members.  Almost as soon as we would make decisions and get the house in order, Mom's situation would change.  Spending many hours sleeping, she would sometimes become alert and join us for meals, only to get fatigued and go back to sleeping soon after.  Every few days, the obvious changes made clear to us that she was growing weaker and losing ground.

Eventually, she became confined to bed.  She did not have the strength or muscle control to help us get her up and move her around.  She stopped wanting to eat.  She was less and less able to communicate.  Her niece and nephew, Pat and Tim, both came to stay and help care for her.  All of my children made their way to Texas to be with their MeeMaw.  They sang to her, sat with her, talked with her, did everything they could, as she held on for her last days.  She lived to see her 86th birthday.  She was no longer very communicative, and she was not really eating.  The best we could do was touch her mouth with a little bit of cake and icing.  We read the scriptures, sang to her, and prayed with her.  On her last Sunday, we shared communion around her bed and offered prayers.  The next day, she died, surrounded by us.

I was very worried about Dad and Jerene.  I knew how I had fallen apart with Everly's death, and I felt some kind of responsibility to try to hold them up in the immediate crisis of Mom's death.  So I was feeling the emotions of losing Mom very differently than I had expected.  Grief is a strange thing.  It is not well scripted, although liturgical and poetic scripting can be a great help in uncovering thoughts and feelings that are hiding just below the level of consciousness.  The funeral service, planned by Hugh Delle, was filled with beautiful tributes and familiar songs.  Mom was beloved, and many people came from near and far to honor her life.  That day was an emotional day for me, and the structured events served me well in drawing out my pain and ministering to me.

On Easter weekend, March 27, I was surprised by grief.  If you go through our family's photo collection, you would find that year after year, there are family pictures taken at church on Easter Sunday.  For many years, David, Naomi, and Lydia are wearing outfits sent to them by Hugh Delle.  Easters were family days.  Even if we could not regularly spend them with Hugh Delle and W. D., there was a kind of presence of the whole family.  As I walked into church on Easter Sunday I felt overwhelmed by the loss of my mother and my children's loss of their mother.  It was a very tearful weekend for me.

I was feeling a new kind of loss for the first time on that day.  It has recurred on most Sundays since that day.  I was trying to explain it this week to Ruth, Everly's sister, and to a friend and fellow minister.  The experience of no longer having my mother living in this world with me seems to have opened up a space of loneliness that I did not know before.  For a long time, when I went to church or to a restaurant or some other place familiar to me because of being there with Everly in the past, it was as if Everly's palpable absence was my companion.  Her absence somehow took on a kind of presence through memory and familiarity of her having been there so many times by my side. 

Yes, that is a form of loneliness, but in recent weeks the loneliness has changed.  I found myself in the foyer of the church wondering whether I would have anyone to sit by.  Now inside, of course, were pews full of people.  I know most of them and would, as an act of fellowship or ministry, gladly sit on any pew with any person.  There is a kind of joy and purposeful satisfaction in doing that.  But it was not that kind of question my mind was pressing on me.  The question came from a lack, an empty place, a need.  I was feeling the need to sit with someone to whom I am already beloved, someone whose presence already speaks to me of their care for me.  My first thought was to look and see if Willie and Joanne Jennings were at the service.  Because they were out of town  that day, I found myself looked around for others. 

The point is that with Mom's death, I am finding myself again in a new place in the world.  Even living far away from her for most of my adult life, there lurked in my consciousness her presence to me at all times.  The one who had nurtured me, believed in me, prayed for me, and done all that she could to seek the best for me is no longer in the land of the living.  Where does that leave me?  Without Mom, I am alone in a new way in the world.  She had borne on her tired shoulders all of the burden of Everly's struggle with cancer and our family's grief at her loss.  And now she who held us up is also gone, leaving me alone in a new way.  Of course I am not absolutely alone.  I have my family and friends.  My church and coworkers look out for me.  God has never deserted me.  Even so, God's presence mediated through my mother's love has been muted by her absence.  I will need to recognize new habits and different relationships in which God's love will be manifest in my life.  It took some time for that to soak in, and I'm just now figuring out how to describe it.


1 comment:

Kira J. Holt said...

Mike, This is a beautiful post about your mother. Thank you for writing and I hope to read more as you examine your grief process. I understand the feelings you so poetically expressed, having lost first my mother and then my dad a short eight months later. We do have to learn a new way of walking without parents, of seeing the world, and interacting without that person or persons who were always there and knew us better than the people we see on a daily basis.

I feel as if I'm meeting my parents again through the letters I've been transcribing - his to her from the front line of Korea, and her letters to him when he was overseas drilling oil wells. It's an opportunity to see them as young, vulnerable individuals - more than parents.

I wish you the best on this journey of exploring your grief. Have you read C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed?

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