Gathered around a bed at Brooks Howell home last May, two of my siblings, a hospice nurse, my wife, Debbie, and I watched as my mother’s breathing slowed and then finally stopped. Her passing was quiet and peaceful – a good death in many ways. But for most of us in that room it was a door opening into untraveled territory.
We all know that we will lose our parents someday. Still, when the moment comes that we do – first one, then the other – there is something unreal about the experience. As complicated as our relationships with them inevitably are, our parents loom as a huge influence in our lives. They are after all the origin of our being.
The psychologist Alexander Levy argues that the moment when the last of our parents dies is a unique time. From the beginning of our lives, he says, an important part of how we identify ourselves to others and even ourselves is as somebody’s child. It gives us an anchor to family, to a heritage, a context.
That heritage doesn’t change when we lose our last living parent, but our relation to it does. It moves, in a sense to the history books, away from living parents. Yes, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and so on are there, but it’s different. We feel, he said, something like an orphan.
On one level that sounds silly. We think of orphans as children. As adults, all of us have spent many years building our own identities that are separate from our parents. At the same, he said, parents often are like figures in the rearview mirror, providing a glimpse of where and who we’ve been as we head into the unknown. What happens when there’s no one in the rearview mirror?
Levy says he was caught up short when, after the death of his last parent, he reflected that, “there is no longer anyone who would ever again claim me as their child.” No one was living who knew his story, who had been present at his birth, who walked with him on his first day at school, who celebrated his successes and consoled his failures.
In my mother’s last months as she drifted into dementia she sometimes struggled to recognize me, but she almost always eventually did. And when she did, her face would break out into a beautiful smile, and she would announce my name and say, “I always said if I ever had a son, I would name him Mark.” I’ll never hear those words again.
So, there is a grief at such a passing that is profound and unlike any other. And yet, Levy observes, that grief also teaches us something about ourselves. For grief is not something that comes from outside us. It is our heart’s response to a loss. As Levy puts it, “the source of grief’s breath-taking energy comes from within ourselves.”
It also alerts us to our own impermanence and so urges us to focus the time we have on what matters for us. It reminds us how precious the people we love are in our lives. In an important way, Levy says, “when the second parent dies, the rest of adulthood begins.”
So, in the wake of our parents’ passing we struggle to come to terms with who they were and in the light of their lives who we are: what there is to celebrate, what there is to mourn, what to take stock of and what to let go of, and how to find a way forward into the days that remain for us.
I entered the story of my mother’s life when she was 25 years old, barely a year into marriage with a 27-year-old psychiatry resident. She had grown up the oldest child of a Boston newspaper man, though wounded by the death of her mother at age 5. A patient and loving stepmother, though, came in later and kept the family together. Cynthia excelled in school and ended up in college with a BA in English.
My birth was only the start for this couple. It was the time of the baby boom generation, and my parents boomed with the rest of them, giving birth to a total of five children in seven years. For my mother, this busy household with a psychiatrist husband working 60 to 70 hours a week left her time to be little more than a homemaker.
But as we made our way into school, she began looking for professional opportunities of her own. Given her background, teaching was a natural choice. A master’s in teaching led her to teaching in private schools in the area, but it still wasn’t quite the right fit.
Our family had been active in the Unitarian Church of Princeton, New Jersey, since moving to the area, and my mother was deeply involved. When the position of Religious Education Director came up, she saw the opening she had been looking for and got the job. It was a rich time for us and the church. My mother was not only an excellent writer and speaker, but she had the soul of an artist, and so she brought wonderful creativity to that work.
Before long she felt the tug to take it further, and so seminary beckoned. Tied down with a busy family, she couldn’t travel far, so she chose the nearest seminary she could find. That turned out to be a conservative Dutch Reformed school that was not exactly crazy about women students, no less Unitarian Universalists.
Undaunted, she dove in, outing herself in her papers as, in her words, “a humanist agnostic,” “a feminist of the 1981 Betty Friedan school” and “the heretic of the class.” I was long gone to college by this time, and only heard about most of it second hand. But not long after I was called to this church I received a package from my mother containing a paper from seminary she had written 20 years before on the conservative theologian Karl Barth.
I couldn’t help noticing, as I think she hoped I would, that it was peppered with positive comments from the professor and an “A” at the end with the remark, “Marvelous paper. You’re really in the thick of it, aren’t you?” And she clearly was.
I’m sad to say that I didn’t really know my mother as a minister. During the 14 years of her ministry, before she retired in 1999, Debbie and I were half a continent away in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, raising a family of our own. But I know a bit about her impact from what I’ve since learned from her colleagues, especially women.
She was part of a wedge of women ministers entering our movement in the 1980s who struggled against a patriarchy that was deeply imbedded in our movement. My mother had several brief ministries in the metro New York area, but also was frequently tapped as a consultant for conflicted congregations and as a mentor for many women colleagues trying to find their way.
As a writer and preacher, she made her mark with her deft use of poetry and her own creative spirit. In one sermon late in her life she told of attending the ordination of her niece, a Presbyterian, and being confronted by a man who insisted, “You Unitarians aren’t religious; you don’t believe in God.” She writes that she tried to feel him out on what he meant by God, and he would have none of it. Finally, she responded that, well, perhaps we didn’t believe in God as he understood it, “but we believe in Glory, Grandeur and Gentleness.”
Glory, she said: that which “takes the human potential and holds it high and wide for all to celebrate and amaze.” Grandeur, the greatness of the world, the cosmos, which “none of us own but all of us share in its expansiveness.” And Gentleness, that in us which treasures precious moments, connections among loved ones and friends, which takes time to know textures, and beauty, that upholds compassion and care.
In that context she told the story of her uncle Nat. “In the winter of my sixth year,” she says, “I searched the heavens for my recently dead mother and for God, whatever that was, as my maternal grandmother had instructed me. ‘Your mother is in heaven with God.’
“It became difficult to trust well-meaning adults with their non-answers. ‘How sad your mother has passed away.’ Passed away? Where? How? My father, whom I did trust, was wrapped in grief and work. His silent hugs saved my young soul.”
The next summer, she says, “I was taken to see Uncle Nat, a family physician. He took my hand, looked me in the eyes. ‘I know you are sad because your mother died. But I know that what she would want is for you to grow up to be a big strong girl. What you need is a strawberry ice cream cone and jumping in the hay in your grandfather’s barn.’
“Who was Uncle Nat? Someone who named my pain and offered a prescription to jump start my life. My pain was serious, but so was my life. He found the balance that made sense to me. Death is the gnaw of nothing, an unexplained void to children and adult. Whatever the cause, whatever the abruptness, death needs the honor of truth.”
It was her way to lean into, rather than outright reject, traditional religious language. When we explore what the word gets at, she felt, perhaps we find it not as alien as we had at first.
And perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in her love of cummings’ sonnet. As she read that poem, the God who is thanked is not some distant being, removed from the world. It is both subsumed in and embracing all that is, everything “which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
And yet in the poem there is something transcendental, if not transcendent that she feels cummings, the son of a Unitarian minister, points to here, a quality of beauty and wonder of simple yesness that we are called to see.
My mother used to tell of how when I was an infant and she and my father were in their first apartment she posted pictures of Van Gogh paintings on the wall and pointed them out to me, “Look.”
Perhaps Mary Oliver, one of my mother’s favorite poets, put it best, “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.”
That was certainly how she felt, and that perspective may be her greatest legacy to me. Don’t just glide through life: open your eyes, open your ears, open your mind: Look! And don’t just look: you are a part of this, too. Bring your own creativity, your own vision, your own genius and play! And play we have, my siblings and I, and I am grateful for the urging she gave us.
But of course, as with any family, it wasn’t all just play with us. While my mother could be endearing and attentive, she could also be dismissive and self-absorbed. We do our loved ones and ourselves no good insisting on canonization or nothing at death. We each have struggled in our own ways. Part of living and loving is finding ways to give each other some slack.
As we were sitting around my mother’s bed at Brooks Howell, I remembered that hospice, which was overseeing her care, recommends that at death we find a way to say four phrases to our loved ones that we all want to hear, words of assurance and care.
So, trying to remember the phrases, I spoke them to my mother: “Thank you. I love you. I forgive you . . . .” and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the last one. I looked to the hospice nurse for help and she reminded me, “Please forgive me.”
I chuckled to myself: But of course! We are so ready to be magnanimous to our dying loved ones, assuring them of our love, our gratitude, our forgiveness, but even then it can be hard to own the role that we have played in whatever may have divided us. So, yes, I leaned over to my mother’s ear and said, “please forgive me.”
I can’t know what she heard. It was very near the end. But I found some peace in saying it, in acknowledging the mutuality of our love even at the brink of the mystery.
So, life as an orphan has proven to be an odd thing, as I’m sure many of you know who have experienced it. My mother has appeared in some dreams – always much younger than she was – not as someone I engage with, just a character in the scene.
Maybe her presence there will evolve. We’ll see. As Alexander Levy predicted, I see the world a little differently: less concerned about the expectations of others, more determined to be true to who I am, deeply appreciating the ones I love, and even more grateful for the life I have.
I find myself less worried about my achievements and more drawn, where I can, to be an agent of compassion and hope. With my last parent gone and the reality of my own death looming before me with unsettling clarity I have come to realize that I can’t know what the impact of all I have done will be. So, how will I use this “breath-taking energy” that Levy says I have awakened to now? My hope is that somehow I will be a gift to the world, to the embodied mass of humankind. It seems to me that if I could be a link in the chain of love that passes from one generation to the next, it will have been enough.