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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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Friday, December 02, 2016

This Season Without Mom

I am back in the swing of the end of the academic semester, in between the family gatherings of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  It was our first family gathering since Mom's funeral on February 20.  It's no surprise that grief is unpredictable, and this season has certainly been that way.

I traveled to San Antonio for the annual circus of academic religious and textual studies known as the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, to which are attached dozens of other related groups focused around faith traditions, studies of a particular scholar's work, topical interests, schools, publishers, and most any kind of individuation of religious studies one might imagine.  I attended Mennonite and Baptist professors' gatherings as well as a research institute focused on trends in talking about God.  I went to a workshop on teaching, a panel on a new book, and an alumni gathering.  I hung out with friends, did lots of walking, and considered doing many more things than I had time to do.

Dad met me in San Antonio on Monday after visiting with his sister Mary McCombs, who also lives there.  My time was so short in town, I was not able to arrange to see friends living in San Antonio, to my disappointment.  Dad and I rested one night at his house in Salado, empty of its familiar central presence of Hugh Delle.  We left on Tuesday morning to make the two-day drive to Black Mountain.  Lydia's new job kept her at work through Wednesday and required her to check in and work on Friday, so she was not able to make the NC trip this year.  She went to be with Everly's family, Marie, Ruth, John, and Kenny, in Austin.  Michael and David would make the drive down from Ann Arbor on Thursday.  Jerene's chaplaincy job had her working at the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, so we all were converging to have our big meal on Friday.

The first long day's drive brought us into Tuscaloosa, AL, pretty late in the evening.  It was a day of plenty of conversations.  Without Hugh Delle, no one led us in a singalong.  No one insisted we play any road games together.  We just kept pressing forward to get the miles behind us.  The second shorter day included more conversations about how we were making it in these days without Mom around.  Dad is doing his best to reactivate some professional work and relationships.  While Mom's health was declining, he had little time between their medical appointments and her need for his support at home.  His focus around her care was a development that came gradually and without any regrets.  Of course, it was sad for him and all of us to see her growing weaker and needing more assistance to get through the days.  Now that she is free from those troubles, Dad has had some time to readjust and think about what he should do with his life.  I'm very impressed with the initiatives he is taking to do good in the world and become more active again.  We also discussed what I might hope to do in the coming years.  Thankful not to face much traffic, we arrived to clouds of smoke in the mountains of NC as the sun was setting.

For at least six or seven years, holiday gatherings have shifted from Mom's frenzied work to make everything happen to Mike and Jerene sharing in the cooking.  It used to be that Everly and Jim would take responsibility for the clean-up, and of course that Everly had us all organized in advance to enjoy our time together.  Now, without Everly and Hugh Delle, it was a more sedate group.  The majority has shifted toward the quieter personalities:  Jim, W.D., Mike, David, Michael, and Naomi.  When I am one of the most gregarious people in a group, then you know it's a pretty calm gathering.

Being a little brother seems to never get out of one's system.  So even at 58 and 61, I constantly find ways to pester or tease my big sister when the family is together.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I've gotten too carried away.  Moreover, with Hugh Delle in the house, it seems like I would feel even more permission to pick at Jerene and wait for Mom's reprimand.  I say this because one of the ways I felt Mom's absence this Thanksgiving was in a need to police myself and try harder to get along.  It struck me as somehow backward--it seems like I should have felt that way in Mom's presence out of respect for her.  Family dynamics are confusing and somehow not very transparent to us who are in the midst of them.

We talked about Mom, and of course Everly, throughout our time together.  There was not any clear moment of focus on Mom's absence.  Maybe it was most like being a collection of beads with no connecting thread.  Mom was a thread that held us together.  Now we were trying to figure out how to be together without her.  Nobody had any fights that I observed.  We all did the kinds of things we usually do, with less of the steering, coordinating, planning talk that Mom would bring. 

Just now it came to mind how whenever we would sit down to eat, within a few minutes Hugh Delle would turn the conversation by asking, "What should we have for dinner?", or lunch, or breakfast, or whatever the next meal would be.  Nobody was really pressing those kinds of questions.  With some effort, we agreed at one point to watch a movie together.  We shared meals.  Some went on walks while others napped.  The younger generation went out to meet friends.  The old fogeys sat around and talked, read, or watched TV.  Dad and I watched a very disappointing Baylor football game.

There were some poignant moments, but mostly these were private to each person.  Having been through such intense grief from Everly's death and absence, I wondered if that was going to repeat itself.  But grief is unpredictable, and it was much lower key for these days.  We made it through.  We loved each other.  We reenacted our family traditions. 

And now we are back to work.  For those of us in academic life, it's the high pressure time of wrapping up a semester.  Naomi will finish her dual masters degrees in social work and public health.  I will grade another batch of student work.  And all of us will think ahead about regathering for Christmas, with Lydia joining us.  It is also Advent, a season of waiting through trials.  We all have our trials.  Dad is shouldering his with courage.  He was raised well, and he learned through many years of marriage, pastoring, and organizational leadership.  He's doing all he can to make the world he touches better for the many souls God loves.  And so, we wait.

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