This fading picture is of my mother and her three sons, from about 1966. It was in the boxes of my mom’s papers and pictures that got sorted several weeks ago, after her death. I’m the one standing closest to her, the boy smiling too hard.
I remember a day around the time this picture was taken, a school day when I discovered I didn’t have a lunch. I was so angry. My little stomach rumbled and grumbled, and I wondered how my mother could have so blatantly failed me. And then, on my way home, cutting through the woods that stretched behind our house, I saw a brown bag sitting by the side of a stream—the same stream I’d stopped at to throw a rock into on my way to school. I suppose all brown bags look the same, but I knew it was my brown bag. I kicked it open and saw my sandwich overrun with ants in a grotesque frenzy. Tears came into my eyes.
Why did I cry? And why, of the thousands of days of my childhood, do I remember that day so clearly?
I had another blowup about that same time, on my birthday, when she made me a Heath Bar cake. Didn’t she know it was my brother who liked Heath Bars, and not me? I had a temper tantrum and ran to my room shouting, “What sort of mother does this to a kid?” and screaming that I hated her. I’m sure that broke a piece of her heart. But the wound I made was only a shadow of what was coming. My mom’s heart was broken more thoroughly a little over a decade later, when my dad left her. She was crushed, feeling like 27 years of being a wife and mother had been kicked to the curb.
Her heart was mended two years later when she moved from Michigan to California to marry her high school sweetheart. I had all sorts of mixed feelings. I was on my own by then, moving in my own directions, but I was still the kid in that picture, wanting to stand closest to her, and she moved three thousand miles away.
My kids loved having a California grandmother who lived by Disneyland. I was always aware of the distance between us and the loss of regular contact. Whenever we were together it wouldn’t be long until we had to say goodbye.
We started the long and fi nal goodbye six years ago when she developed Alzheimer’s disease.
I saw her last on Sept. 18, my birthday. She was in the fi nal stages of that awful disease. She’d aged about 20 years in the fi ve months since I’d seen her. She was unable to speak, unable to hold her head up, still my mother and yet not really my mother. Her muscles had become rigid, and she moaned and groaned and was obviously suffering. Her eyes were open but not fixing on anything, looking into the distance for someone or something unfindable. Filled with a deep sadness, I prayed over her after sitting with her that day. The first words I prayed surprised me. Completely unbidden I said, “Lord, forgive us our sins.”
Why did I say that?
It’s taken a while to figure out, but I think I said it because in that moment I had an unconscious awareness of how imperfectly I had loved her and how imperfectly she had loved me. “Forgive us our sins” came from my subconscious self because deep down I knew the truth of what my colleague Tom Boogaart says, “Since our hearts are broken, we can only give pieces of them to each other, and it is never enough.” We want to be loved perfectly but never are. We want to love perfectly but never do. We hurt those closest to us, often unintentionally, sometimes intentionally. We are imperfect lovers, needy people, never fully satisfied, never fully known, always wanting and needing more than those around us can give.
Forgive us our sins.
After praying I told her that I loved her, that she’d been a wonderful mother, and that she didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore on my account. I told her I wanted her to go be with Jesus.
I felt guilt after I said that. What kind of son tells his mother he wants her to die? Death wasn’t far away and would come as a friend, but once again, I felt like an imperfect son, loving and betraying at the same time.
She died two weeks later.
It’s been many weeks now. Stuff happens. The other day I was receiving communion, and I could have sworn I heard the celebrant say, “This is your mother, broken for you.” We are all broken, and all we have to give each other are pieces of our broken hearts. We do the best we can, but it is never enough. Lord, forgive us our sins.