Westmont Magazine Noticing Grace
22 January 2001
The more we see, the more practiced our eyes and our ears become, the more we will discover that God makes Himself known in a myriad of moments: moments of physical or natural beauty; moments of felt connection between people, moments of shared humor, joy, sorrow, grief, or understanding; moments of mystical union with God in prayer or in sacrament; moments of imaginative sympathy with an author, an artist, a musician, a dancer. It is a feature of our time that we remark on God’s absence but not His presence, on our doubts but not our faith. Moments of grace do occur in the classroom, the office, the committee room, and the kitchen; too often, though, they occur without remark.
15 February 2001
My parents both died long, lingering deaths. My father died on my 21st birthday, after a six-year battle with prostate cancer. After nursing him for six years, remarrying and later nursing that husband through five years of terminal cancer — and then coping with the side-effects of treatment for her own non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for seven years — my mother died in 1990, two days after we returned from co-leading England Semester. Both deaths were painful, yet the difference between them enabled me, their only child, to learn an important truth.
My father, a Scots immigrant (which does seem relevant), refused to admit that he was ill, and then, when that became too obvious to hide, refused to discuss it. I remember riding in the ambulance with him the last time, yearning to say a proper good-bye, to make peace after our years of doing battle. Instead, he spoke of what we would do when he got well.
As soon as she received her diagnosis, my mother began a conversation about the things that mattered, a conversation that stopped only with her death. While she never gave up on life, she quite visibly learned to detach herself from the things of the world. She was able to discuss topics that had been emotionally charged in the recent past — to reflect upon her relationship with my father, things that had happened in my childhood that at the time I could not understand, my rebellious adolescence, her second marriage, and so on. She also offered comfort and consolation: she averred that she was ready to die, that I shouldn’t grieve her death too much.
Now both my parents were professing Christians, although my father never spoke of his faith. As he lay dying, he suffered the way the eponymous hero in Tolstoi’s novella “The Death of Ivan Illych” suffers, alone, angry and embittered. He treated his nurse, my mother, badly, venting his rage on her. He couldn’t accept that it was his time to die, couldn’t accept that God was calling him home. It was a painful death to watch, as I’m sure it was to live.
My mother’s death gave her time to demonstrate her love more fully than ever before. In her acceptance of suffering she grew stronger, more giving, more honest. In the fire of her final years, she became purified. No wonder that in her last year a man fell in love with her, offering her companionship and assistance when she needed it.
As soon as I got into the rhythm of my mother’s new life, the life of her dying, I too began to change. I began to talk to my 14-year-old daughter more, to speak of the things that I had never spoken of before, to bring her into the honest conversation that constitutes our human story in all its messiness and mystery. Telling our complete story and accepting the pain of it are both essential steps towards healing and growth, but alone are not enough. More importantly, even, I began to reflect with her on the power we have, with God’s help, to change the script that is our lives. Just as my mother did, I believe we can find our greatest hope in a place of desolation, and by sharing our experiences of pain we can help one another to grow up in Christ.