An Iris in Remembrance.

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There’s a bed of purple irises in our backyard. A single blossom has unfurled, and it evokes warm memories of my mother, all those late spring days when she would weed the flower beds at the front of the house, and the irises seemed to multiply by hundreds every year, their heavy heads bowing in the May sun.

In many ways, I feel like I’m not in a place right now to be grateful for what happened to us. Time presses on, and the weight of meaning-making feels impossibly hard to bear.

And yet, these memories sprout up anyway. They both anchor and undo me, all at once. They are the leaves I grow and shed, over and over again, that feed the soul-soil of who I am. It’s an ongoing existence of death and rebirth. That’s what grief is to me – death and rebirth, death and rebirth. Some seasons are uglier and harder than others, and I’m sure I can never recover these winters. And some seasons I turn toward the sun, arms outstretched, like all those irises my mother planted, growing by the years.

So today, yes, I bow my head. Thank you, thank you.

Your Own Brand of Magic

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“Perfection Wasted” by John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

//

My husband’s grandfather passed away on Tuesday morning. He took with him his own brand of magic that no one else will ever possess. Dirty jokes and toy trains and fishing trips. Card games and cigarettes. Raucous laughter and deep affection for his grandkids.

I sat on my porch after we heard the news and could almost hear his own disbelief that he died. I suspect he thought he’d live forever, or at least a hundred years more, sitting on his porch no matter the weather with his smokes and sudoku puzzles, fishing at Lake Shelbyville with Matt and Dad every spring. He and Matt talked about going down for a trip in May, when we saw him a month ago, the weekend we came home because we knew it was our last chance to see him. We knew it was a charade of nostalgia and grief and love for all of us.

This, though painful, is what we do at the end, because we hope that death is just a prolonged absence. We plan the fishing trip, and hope that when we too cross over to the other shore one day, that Grandpa will be standing there with his pole in hand, saying, “What took ya so long?”

I loved you dearly, you beautiful old man. Enjoy the fresh air.

Three Years.

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This morning I looked through a stack of photos. It’s a ritual of remembering I set aside for this day every year, to honor you. I pause and let myself feel fully the weight of your absence. I come to grips with the reality, searching through this stack of photos, that I’ll never find what I’m searching for: you, present tense. You, with me as I am now. A picture of you, age 53, and me, age 27, arms around each other, smiling. The stack of photos in my hand feels so finite. I’m holding a window of time, a fixed frame, a chapter in a book.

I miss you, mom. I always will.

Prodigal : “Facing Grief and Finding Faith”

This article was originally published on ProdigalMagazine.com.
I stepped quietly into the room where my mother lay sleeping and walked to her bedside. I took her hand, thin and bony, and held it to my face. Struggling not to cry, I leaned down and kissed her forehead.“Mom,” I whispered, “The nurses are going to put a tube through your nose and into your stomach to drain it. It will help you not feel nauseous anymore, okay? So don’t panic. They’re here to help you and as long as you hold still, it won’t hurt.”

At first she didn’t respond. I didn’t think she could hear me, but then she opened her eyes and turned to me and smiled. “I just saw Jesus,” she said. “He told me…”

Whatever insight Jesus had made my mother privy to, it was lost in a garble of sleepy syllables, but her thin hands arched above her as she tried to explain. She laughed quietly and smiled at me, happier than I’d seen her in days.Then, for reasons I still cannot articulate, I felt moved to sing to her our favorite hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee…”

I made it through the first line before tears choked my voice, but she, who had barely talked in days, smiled at the sound, and proceeded to sing the rest of the verse and the first chorus back to me. Her voice was clear and unhindered, the way it used to be when she sang solos at church. She was even mostly on key.

And this thought popped into my head, “I’m closer than you think.”

And along with those words an image : Jesus, gently and patiently and lovingly coaxing my mother away from this world and into the next. In that moment, a peace and a joy descended on me, something that I had not felt in more than a year.

She died five days later.

After 14 years of fighting against breast cancer, her body had had enough. I watched her vomit several times a day for months before that, watched her abdomen distend not with fat but with fluid, while the rest of her body withered until she was Auschwitz thin.

Forgive my graphic description. There’s something about terminal illness that strips us of our preferred pretenses, the things we wish we didn’t know.

And there is something about watching the people we love die that kind of death that shifts our perspectives on life, on the eternal. It’s an experience akin to staring, nose-to-paper at a stereogram until suddenly, Bugs Bunny’s giant face emerges three-dimensional from empty, chaotic design.

I had always had faith. I had always believed in Christ and proclaimed Him as my Savior. I had always believed in Heaven as a real place, a place I would go to someday. But I believed in Heaven the way that I believe in the quadratic formula; it exists somehow, but I just didn’t get the logistics. I believed in Heaven the way that I believe in six figure incomes; some people have arrived, others are on their way, some are working their asses off to make it, some claim they’re ambivalent, and others just don’t have what it takes.

How foolish I was, how flat and empty and selective was my concept of God’s grace.

In the days before and the days immediately following my mother’s death, life took on a distinct and urgent spirituality. The gap between where I placed God and Heaven and the spiritual world and where I lived my every day life, down here on this tiny planet earth, grew smaller and smaller as I listened to that still, small voice, “I’m closer than you think.”

It didn’t ease the grief of our goodbye. However, my hatred for life, my distrust of God, my self-perpetuated isolation from His Spirit was not something I clung to anymore.

I wasn’t ready to be motherless, but I was finally ready and able to pray that impossible prayer, God, Please take her Home.

Back on the Blog.

I’ve been afraid to start this, unsure that the words would come, unsure that if the words came that they would adequately touch the depth of this experience. But as with all forms and subjects for writing, the important part is to begin.
My mother died on a snowy Monday morning two weeks ago. We missed her by minutes. I slept fitfully in a recliner in her hospice room all night prior, counting seconds between breaths, trying to remember to keep breathing myself. My father slept on an air mattress next to her bed, doing the same. The nurse came in at seven to check on her and administer more medication and left to get a stethoscope. Our eyes drooped closed, and when the nurse came back, she had gone. The air slowly exhaled in one long quiet breath from her lungs, and she crossed over into the next world. It was as simple and as peaceful as that, just as we had prayed for.
I cursed myself for missing it, for not being awake to hold her hand and say goodbye. But now I understand that I was doing exactly that for the months, weeks, days, and hours beforehand. Things had become so apparent; as much as we wished it were different, we knew what we were facing. Therefore, important words did not go unspoken. Time was not wasted. There was no limit to love in those days; how grateful I am for that. And in the moment she left, it was appropriate that she make that transition independently; she didn’t need anyone to cling to her and beg her to stay as she made her way into a new life that she rightfully deserved.
I can’t say much without saying it all, and a single blog post won’t hold the whole of it. If you’re at all like me and you haven’t experienced death first hand, you probably have all sorts of questions running through your mind :
Is it scary? Can you sense death’s presence mentally, spiritually, emotionally? How do you know when they are getting close to the end (days, hours, minutes)? How do you carry on conversations with each other when things become that serious? Is it better to talk about it, or avoid it? How do you spend time with your loved one in the days before their death if they are conscious? How do you comfort and encourage them as they reach death? Losing a loved one is hard – where and how do you find solace and strength to keep living? When your loved one suffers from a terminal illness, can you really find relief in knowing that they are no longer suffering, or is that just something ignorant people tell you when they don’t know what to say?
There is a lot that people don’t talk about when it comes to death. Why bring it up now, when things are fine? But death is a part of life. Whether it is from a terminal illness, natural causes, or a sudden accident, it happens to each of us; it’s only a matter of time, and we never know for sure how much of it we have left. And there are so many ways that it changes us as we witness it, and as we draw closer to it ourselves. A sense of our own mortality is part of what makes us human.
So in the weeks and months ahead, as I process this loss, I will write about it here. If you have specific questions, or if you have your own story to share, please email me. I’d love to dialogue about it.