By Jon Berry
LOOKING OUT FROM THE SCREEN PORCH AT MY PARENTS' home onto the back of their little farm – the corn and soybean fields in midsummer splendor; the vegetable garden offering up its bounty of lettuce, green beans, and sweet corn; the newly adopted cat skittering across the lawn and up a tree to get a closer look at the bird feeder – it’s sometimes possible to forget that 11 years ago this August, we got the call.
My mom had felt unwell on the flight home with Dad from Paris to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. For years, she’d dreamed of going to Paris. In one of those rare alignments of the cosmos, reality lived up to expectation. We rented a garret apartment in the historic Beaubourg. Everyone, including our two teen-age kids, was entranced. We had long walks through old neighborhoods. Simple, gourmet dinners on warm summer nights. Fresh croissant and dark coffee every morning. Museums. Monet’s Garden.
Best of all to my mom were the leisurely evening boat trips down the Seine, an experience she loved so much we repeated it on our last night.
Barely three weeks after our return, she phoned with the news. She was going into the hospital. Her doctor had found a mass. It didn’t look good.
Life stopped. Became a blur. We hurriedly packed the car. I remember calling from a phone booth at a gas station in eastern Ohio, and praying, over and over, hold on, hold on, hold on. We arrived to find her preparing to go to Indianapolis for surgery.
The morning of her operation, we encircled her on her bed to gather her in light. My dad. My family. An uncle. The nurses. My mother proudly told the nurses that I’d begun seminary studies, which, technically, was true. A class in preaching, a class in the philosophy of religion, and a class on peace and reconciliation, squeezed in between a full-time job, family responsibilities, committee obligations at our Friends meeting, and a beginning practice in 12-step. That year, as I rode the subway up to my classes, and spent my evenings reading and writing, I felt a new world opening up. But, in this moment in the hospital, I felt woefully unprepared. I quick-sifted my memory for a ministerly insight. Blank.
Mom, as it turned out, said all that was needed. She thanked us all for being there. She said she’d “had a good life,” and was ready to accept whatever the day would bring. “I trust the doctors and trust God. I love you all.” We took in her words, returned our expressions of love, said we would always be there for her. And she was wheeled away.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the scenes that ensued as fresh as this morning’s drive into town. We waited, uncomfortably. Occasionally there would be reports – the doctors were beginning; they were making progress; they were almost done. Then the lead doctor came out, ashen-faced. “Gather your family,” he said. “She didn’t make it.”
To this day, the medical explanation for what happened – complete system shutdown – and when it happened – after they’d removed what they could, discovered the cancer's startling extent, and were finishing up – still jars. She knew, we surmised. She knew, from her experiences with others, what was to come – the months of pain and hardship of what, inevitably, would be a losing cause; the doctors said she might have six months. She decided in faith, we believed, to turn it over, surrender, let go.
Numb, shocked, in tears, we walked out later that night and gazed up into the most beautiful, vivid star-filled sky we had ever seen. One of the nurses attending mom, on hearing the news, brought out a tray of cookies (“she was such a lovely woman,” she said) – communion, on a starry night.
This week, I’m resuming seminary. It’s been a fits-and-starts, on-off journey, a class here, a class there, between work, family, and other obligations. For this class, in a new program, in Indiana, that I switched to two years ago, I’ve been asked to write a spiritual autobiography. In the paper, we’re to reflect on what’s been “rich, inviting, and memorable” in our spiritual journeys; what’s drawing us to seminary “at this point” in our spiritual lives; and what “spiritual hungers” seminary may nourish. We’ve been asked to think back on people, places, events, and spiritual communities that have been significant to us.
I didn’t intend to start with my mother. But, when I sat down to write this morning, it’s what came out. In truth, she’s been with me all week, since I arrived in Indiana to visit with my father, in his 85-year-old farmerly spryness, before beginning classes, on the farm that he and mom had bought – and worked – as the retirement gift to themselves.
The other day, I asked a friend if anyone’s ever done research on how much being read to as a child affects intelligence scores when you reach your teens. The ostensible impetus was a summer reading camp I’d bumped into while going to the college library to work. But I was really thinking about my mom's weekly library visits, from as early as I can recall (was I four? three? two?), and her checking out a foot-high stack of books to read to me. Blueberries for Sal. Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. Winnie the Pooh. The Little Red Lighthouse.
She always had big plans for my brother and me. We were to be the generation that would go to and finish college (a project she virtually ensured by taking a secretarial job at a college, earning us tuition remission). Mom and I did not have an easy relationship. We fought, a lot. But over time, the tensions mellowed.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the different ways we can be called to witness. There’s a tendency to think of witness, in the religious sense, as action: to witness against war by refusing to pay taxes, for example. I’ve had some experience with active-tense living-out of belief in recent years – clerking Quaker meetings; overseeing a Quaker wedding and a Quaker funeral; 12-step service like speaking in meetings, going into classrooms and hospitals; and searching for a voice to write about the experience of the spiritual in work and life in this space.
It’s my hope that seminary will deepen me in all of this and, perhaps, point toward work that engages them. But as I look back on the circle that formed around my mother eleven years ago, I see again that often the most profound witness that can be offered is not to what we say, or do, but to be present and listen, fully.