|My mom with my two sisters and me.|
That's me on the right.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
My mom died 20 years ago today. She was my best friend.
I wasn’t Catholic when she died, but just prior to her diagnosis of cancer, I had returned to God by way of a Pentecostal friend, and considered myself a “born again Christian”. I’d been baptized in the Episcopal Church as an infant, and we had attended that church till I was about 8 years old. After that, my dad had “issues” with the church, and we stopped attending. Lacking any religious upbringing after that point, I considered myself non-religious, and in my young adulthood even tried to deny the existence of God (it just didn't work!).
There is no doubt in my mind that God called me back to Him when He did because He knew I would need His help to get me through my mom’s illness and death.
We had a memorial service for my mom. I had spent the last days of her life composing a eulogy for the occasion, and I managed to deliver it without dissolving into tears, which had been my fear. I have saved the print version of that talk all these years…it’s on video, too, along with the rest of the service.
Every few years I take a look at the talk, and sometimes I share it with someone in honor of the anniversary of my mom’s death. I’m doing that on this blog this year – along with some commentary from the present.
Here's how I started:
The message I want to share with you today has to do with a question probably each of us has asked over the last few months. When someone like my mother gets caner and dies, the inevitable question is “WHY?!” Why do bad things happen to good people?
So I want to address that question – because Mom was a good person, and something bad did happen to her. And I think we all need to come to terms with that.
That was then. My theology was pretty simplistic back then, and people did think of my mom as a “good person”. But this is now. These days, I think more about our sinful fallen nature.
Let’s start with the part about being a good person. I don’t think anyone here would deny that Ruth Collins was a good person…Her attitude was always positive, and she usually knew how to treat people right (well, of course you didn’t want to get on her bad side! I felt sorry for the individual who parked in her “employee of the month” spot). You know, after lying bed-ridden for weeks and lacking the strength to sit up in bed, she still had a smile for everyone who came to see her. Mom was just in the habit of making people feel good.
I talked a bit about Mom’s sense of humor, and related this story:
I think I witnessed the ultimate in her sense of humor and positive attitude the day after Thanksgiving when I took her to see her doctor at the hospital. That was the worst day of my life because he told us together that she was going to die. He was gentle but straightforward, saying things like “We don’t know how much time you have” and “She’s not going to be with us much longer.”
I was in tears, but Mom was stoic. Picture her sitting in her pajamas, looking thin, pale, tired, and very, very sick. The doctor has just told her she’s going to die. Mom kept a straight face and said to the doctor, “You know, Doctor, I think there’s been a mistake all along here. I’ve been having this craving for root beer, and I think I’m just pregnant.”
To be honest, I was actually slightly appalled that she said this, though I was accustomed to her occasional wackiness, and I looked at the doctor to see how he would react. He was from India, as I recall, so there was a bit of a language barrier at times, and I didn’t know whether he would get the joke. Would he think she had just lost her mind? To his credit, he laughed.
Now we don’t have to pretend she was a saint. Like I said, you didn’t want to get on her bad side… I know she yelled at people now and then – especially her daughters! And she had a few complaints about her job over the years. But nevertheless, she was good. So back to the question…why did this bad thing happen to her?
Ha! You see the seeds of my Catholicism there! She wasn’t a saint, and even back before I was Catholic, I didn’t want to have a canonization ceremony for my mom! I was still sort of stuck on the “good” part, though.
The next part took some people by surprise, I think. I had thought long and hard about it, and didn’t really want to do it, but I felt very strongly that I needed to do my part to help people understand that there is an eternal life (or death) ahead of us. So I continued:
I have some things to say about this for those of you who believe in God and some things to say to those of you who do not believe. I even have something to say to those of you who aren’t sure. In fact, I’ll start with the unsure ones. If you are sitting on the fence in terms of your religious convictions, you should know that the Bible says if you can’t decide one way or the other, you make God throw up. Actually, I’m paraphrasing Revelation 3:16: “Because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” So take a stand!
For those of you who believe in Scripture, let me paraphrase and quote a few verses. First of all, God never promised us a rose garden. Okay, he did give us the Garden of Eden, but we blew it. In fact, I think most of us would be bored in paradise. There’s a story about a guy who dies and finds himself in a place where everything is perfect; he gets whatever he wants just by wishing for it. But he gets tired of that, and he goes to the head guy and says, “I’m tired of heaven. I want to get out of here.” And the head guy says, “This isn’t heaven.”
So God didn’t promise that if we live a good life we will never have any sickness or tragedy. He did promise, however, that he will help us through the bad times. The Bible is full of those promises.
You can see also that I was a “Bible Christian”. I knew nothing of Catholic tradition, nor the Fathers of the Church. I went on to read a number of Scripture verses which I characterized as promises “that God will help us through the bad times”.
And then I got pretty darn Catholic. Or not…if the Catholic funerals I’ve been to are any indication of Catholicity! I have generally stopped going to funerals because of the tendency to beatify or canonize the deceased, and because of the failure to acknowledge that there could have been some salvific value in suffering...let alone any mention of purgatory or hell.
I think it’s also important to remember that we never have all the facts regarding another person’s suffering – or even our own. Suffering can be used for a higher good, but we may not always know what that good is. For those of you who believe in Scripture, remember that it can be a joy to suffer. The Lord won’t give you anything you and he can’t handle together. If the Lord tests your strength by allowing you to suffer, consider it a blessing. As it says in Romans 5:3, “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
None of us can ever know what good may have come to Mom because of her suffering – though she did learn how much you all cared, and that was a blessing for her. Robert Schuller says that instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, we should ask what happens to good people when bad things happen. Maybe the good that was to come from Mom’s suffering was not for her, but for some of us around her. I can tell you from my own experience that a lot of good came to me through my participation in her situation. It’s been a time of introspection and personal growth for me, not to mention the fact that I had the benefit of becoming friends with a number of you whom I would not have met otherwise. I’m not happy about what happened. But it helps to look for the good.
One benefit I didn’t mention at that time was that in the hours I spent simply sitting in Mom’s house watching her deteriorate, I read the Bible. A lot. It was the NIV Bible, and the commentary in that version doesn’t always reflect Catholic teaching, but it was a boon to become more familiar with the Word of God.
I think for all of us, it’s been an uplifting experience to watch a person like my mother hold on to her dignity and her sense of humor, and never really complain, through a very difficult time. She is an example for all of us to follow. As I watched her continue to smile and compliment others in some small way, even when she was desperately weak, I realized how easy it is to make someone else’s life a little more pleasant. If Mom could do it on her death bed, how much more can we do it, as healthy human beings? If we all endeavor to do that, the world will be a better place.
Now…for those of you who don’t believe in God or Scripture, let me say this: It might be tempting to use my mother’s death as an excuse to say, “If there was a God, why would he let this happen to her?” In fact, Mom asked me that question herself one day during her first bout of radiation treatment.
My mom had lung cancer. She had smoked cigarettes most of her life, quitting only when my dad died. She quit “cold turkey” and never went back to it. And like many who quit smoking, she became relentless in her exhortations to her friends to quit smoking. When, 20 years later, she developed lung cancer, she thought it a most egregious injustice. She said to her radiation doctor, “My friends ask me why they should quit smoking; I quit but I still got cancer.” The doctor said told her to tell them that if they quit smoking they might get cancer or they might not; but if they didn’t quit, they would almost certainly develop - and die from - emphysema.
But...can we blame God, or his absence, for cancer? After all, how many of you are smokers? How many of you smokers know that it’s bad for you? How many of you will quit smoking because you know it’s bad for you, and because you saw what it did to Mom? God has certainly not hidden the facts from you; it’s clear that smoking can lead to cancer. But neither has God taken away your free will. The information is there, and if you are not acting on that information, don’t blame God for cancer. The fact that there is disease in the world does not prove that God does not exist.
Besides, I can tell you from my own experience that the bad things that happen to good people are much easier to handle if you have faith in a greater mind that has a plan, if you have faith that those bad things are happening for a good reason.
When Mom said to me, “If there is a God, why would he do this to me?” I could only answer, “Mom, I guess that’s where faith comes in.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” Yes, believing in God is a leap of faith. On the other hand, if there were undeniable proof of God’s existence, then it would be easy to believe, and thus would be meaningless. Nothing of value ever comes easily. So if you think it is easy to believe in God, you are wrong. Having faith takes hard work. I challenge you to give it a try. Mom did – at the end. In the early morning hours on Wednesday, February 12, I asked her if she believed in God, and she gave me several emphatic “uh-huh’s” – which was about as much as she was able to speak at that time.
Besides, on something of a lighter note, I hope you’ll all consider the fact that you’re going to be dead a whole lot longer than you’re going to be alive, and you should really think about making some long range plans in that regard.
I am sad that Mom died. That’s an understatement of course. But the day the doctor told her she was not going to get better, she told me not to cry. “Everybody has to go sometime,” she said. And of course she’s right.
How many of you want to go to heaven? How many are willing to die to get there? Willing or not, we do all have to go sometime, and I hope you’ll all have at least a few words with God about the final arrangements.
Some of you may think it’s inappropriate for me to exhort you to believe in God and to quit smoking at a ceremony designated for the memory of a woman we all knew and loved. But I don’t think Mom would take offense. She certainly felt the necessity for faith in God at the end of her life, and she certainly wanted all of you smokers to quit!
I know I would write a different eulogy today. That’s okay; this piece of my past helps me remember how far I have come, and how far I have to go.
My memories of my mom are still strong. Sometimes I can hear her voice in the things I say to my daughter. She influenced me tremendously in practically every aspect of my life. I counted on her help and support, and she was always there for me. Now I depend on Our Blessed Mother for that - and more! And somehow, my earthly mom is wrapped up in that devotion to Mary.
I suspect they are both pleased about that.