(Editor's note: You may purchase the book here.)
Tell about it.
LOVE, YOUR MOTHER
O God. What a week.
It started Sunday, the last time I had Mom's spaghetti. It was my favorite dish of hers since I was a little kid. She hadn't cooked spaghetti much lately, certainly not for a crew that included Dad and my family. Mom was nervous about it turning out well. She kept saying, "Gosh, I hope this is going to be ok. I hope you guys like it."
"Like it? What do you mean like it?" I said. "It smells delicious." A little taste-testing, as the sauce and meatballs simmered, confirmed it was delicious.
"Yah. Well. I'm not so sure," she said.
"C'mon, Mom, your spaghetti is awesome. It's the inspiration of Sunday Night Spaghetti Night at our house."
Now, it is Saturday, the end of the week. So much happened so fast, it’s hard to make sense of anything.
To really know anything today is impossible. I now know that Sunday was the last time Mom was ever to make me spaghetti and, more importantly, to talk spaghetti with me.
A week that began with spaghetti made by Mom and talking spaghetti with her is completed with my writing and delivering her Eulogy six days later.
Some folks, especially at times like these, might think life is a three-act play:
You're born. You live. You die. Three acts. Lots of motion, lots of commotion, pretty much one straight line ‘til it ends, then it's over. A lot of work, some heart, a little soul, but not much in the way of awareness of Something Bigger, someone else at work among us, with each of us, in our world.
That's not the three-act play Mom lived. Not for one minute. Mom's play went like this: Becoming. Preparing. Returning. Not a straight line. But, instead one continuous circular motion.
The story of this kid from Minot, North Dakota, is how she lived and loved living. It is a story of always, always laboring. Always in motion: Becoming. Preparing. Returning.
In the middle of the heartbreak of this week, I'm finding consolation believing that Mom’s story is playing out exactly as she wished it might.
Mom made the ultimate return this week to God, whom she firmly believed to be The Giver of All Life. God, Who she spent a lifetime preparing for, and with Whom she has returned, now intimately reunited.
This is what I saw by week's end: Mom's “preparing for and returning to” was about one thing. Becoming a Resurrection Woman and sharing everlasting life upon her return to our Lord, forever.
At spaghetti dinner Sunday night, one of the topics Mom talked about was how impossible it has been for her or Dad to get hold of anyone in their dispersed family of five kids and spouses, and many grandchildren all living within 50 miles or so.
She didn’t get it. “Every one of you kids has cell phones,” Mom said. “But no one can be reached. What if Dad or I had an emergency,” she wondered. “All you kids. With your cell phones. Phhhhhht. We can never get hold of any of you.”
I had a chance right then of coming around to Mom’s way of thinking, and say something reasonable, respectful to her and Dad, who were sitting right across the supper table from me, who’d just fed me a tasty plate of my favorite spaghetti, a couple of people in their mid-70s, who happened to be my parents and happened to be the people who loved me into this world. The chance was right there for me to take a deep breath, and respond to Mom and Dad with something like, "You know what, you're right. Whenever you guys call, I'm going to pick up. No matter if I'm in a meeting. Or on another phone call. Or twittering. Or riding in a cab. Whatever, whenever or wherever. You guys call and, I promise, I'll pick up."
You think I took this chance?
Instead, I gave my folks some genius, gizmo, techie, pep-talk advice. "You guys need to learn how to text." And then, being smart-guy, techno-guru, oldest-kid in our family, I said, “If you guys have an emergency, just text ‘CODE RED.’ You know just like Jack Bauer on ‘24.’ Then I'll pick up. Anytime. Text me ‘CODE RED.’ I'll pick up.”
Mom just looked at me. “Phhhhhht,” she said.
Dad just looked at me too. He didn't say anything. But his look said the same thing Mom just did. “Phhhhhhht.”
The following Wednesday afternoon. 3:35. I got a text. ‘CODE RED.’ But, not from Mom or Dad. Instead, it was from my wife, Mary Alice. “Call Dad. Mom stroke. ER. Methodist Hospital.”
I called Dad’s cell. He did what 75-year-old guys do when their cell phones ring. He answered. Dad said a lot for a guy who doesn't say much a lot of the time. He said it fast. It wasn’t the words Dad said, as much as how he said it. There was this little hitch in his delivery, about midway through his short message to me that said it all. "It's not good,” Dad said. “Probably something.... Mom's probably....(hitch).....She’s gonna….It's probably not something Mom can survive. I just wanted you to know before you get here."
I jumped onto Highway 100 from my office in Bloomington, heading north toward Methodist Hospital, eight miles away. Somehow, I tucked in behind this big SUV, mud-caked, knobby-fat-tired, monster machine, going maybe 80 miles-per-hour up Highway 100. This machine was one of those trucks you see screaming around on TV in the Metrodome Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, driving over other trucks and cars with a deep-voice, macho-man announcer, in an echo-chamber, describing utter destruction with passion and delight and "If you bring the kids, popcorn's free." No time to make value judgments just then, because I got a CODE RED going, and I gotta’ get to Methodist, and this guy is clearing a path and I'm going with him, or her.
Halfway up Highway 100, running about 80 mph, I notice this monster truck's got a bumper sticker in the middle of all that mud. It was a little thing. Not fancy or in your face, like many bumper stickers. This little thing stuck to the back of this muddy monster machine simply said, "Love Your Mother."
So, here I am, in the midst of this CODE RED going 80 mph on Highway 100, in early-afternoon rush hour and there's this monster truck that’s clearing the way for me to get to my Mom who’s dying, or maybe even dead by then, with a grimy little bumper sticker on it, telling me to get my mind right.
“Love Your Mother.”
I started to repeat it out loud. “Love Your Mother. Yes, I love my mother.”
A text. A CODE RED. A Mom in ER. A monster truck. A message. All this at 80 mph up Highway 100 in afternoon rush hour traffic. “Love Your Mother,” I kept telling myself. “Of course. Of course. I love my mother.”
That guy or woman and that monster truck and that bumper sticker, what a gift. A profound, poignant message of love, of the essence of God from the wild, chaotic street. A message coming from a place where Mom always believed you find such messages in the messiness and brokenness of this thing we call life here on earth. “Love Your Mother.”
Mom loved the Jesuits. She loved their music. She loved their authenticity. She loved the encouragement of Jesuits from St. Ignatius across the ages to seek and find God in all things. Mom loved them because she believed with them that our God is an Incarnational God. God who is with us. Among us right now. Laboring with us. Like when you’re in the middle of a CODE RED, and hauling like hell on Highway 100 to get to your Mom.
David L. Fleming, S.J., the Jesuit priest who authored, Draw Me Into Your Friendship, a translation of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, wrote that the core principle and foundation of the Spiritual Exercises is about, "God who loves us creates us and wants to share life with us forever." This was the foundation of Mom's story and spirituality, and her continuous journey of becoming, preparing and returning. In translating the Spiritual Exercises for contemporary readers, Fleming writes that, “All the things in this world are also created because of God's love.” When you see life through that lens, Fleming says, all things can become a context of gift.
I once heard a line Mom liked from a Jesuit priest once. It was following a couple of weeks of late-season college football, when this Jesuit said, as Mass was winding down, “Two weeks ago, Notre Dame beat BYU, proving God is a Catholic. Yesterday, Boston College beating Notre Dame proves God is a Jesuit.” Mom loved that line, but not only because it is funny. For Mom, “God is a Jesuit” was theology.
St. Ignatius, according to Fleming, said God invites us to find our balance and not lock our wants on “health or sickness or wealth or poverty or success or failure, or a long life or short life.” Everything has the potential of calling us closer to God, Fleming says. “Our only desire and our one choice should be this…choose what better leads to God’s deepening life” in each of us. Mom believed these words and she lived every day with the intention of being ever aware of God’s deepening life in her. For Mom, the richest work of spirituality was discernment; that thing St. Ignatius described as movements of the soul. It's about how God is at work in our lives moment by moment, moving us day by day, always moving to bring us closer to the Giver, the Gifter, the Source of Life.
Beyond Mom's spaghetti, this is what I loved most about her. And it is where Mom and I connected the most. One part spaghetti, and one part (the bigger part) souls. Each informing the other, our souls as spaghetti, messy, tangled, lumpy, delicious, filling, abundant.
The last direct words Mom and I shared were in saying goodbye to one another Sunday night, after we had finished supper. Mom said she wanted to have coffee; wanted to talk about Haiti and finding God in that tragedy; about finding God in the response to the mess and chaos of the Haiti earthquake in early 2010. She said we should go have a cup of coffee and talk about that someday soon.
“Sure,” I said. “That'd be good. Let's get something scheduled.”
Those were our last words to one another, words of connecting, words of getting time, to talk about how God is at work in the world.
The thing about Mom is that she wasn't a “Thing” Person. Mom was a “Time” Person. All she wanted was time with the people most important to her, Dad, her kids and our spouses, her grandchildren, her siblings.
Mom treasured time and connection more than anything and she was on that course this past week. Beginning with Sunday spaghetti with our crew. Then breakfast with my youngest sister, Mary Kay, and her kids Monday morning. Mom's oldest sister, Kay, said they talked Tuesday for an hour. Likewise for her youngest brother, Dennis, too. Denny told me they were on the phone together also on Tuesday.
Time and connection: That was the important stuff for Mom. It was one important way for her to absorb God at work. And it moved Mom’s soul closer to God as a result.
Mom's spirituality made a lot of sense to me. It drew me closer to her. It draws me closer to God and will continue to do that for the rest of my days. I understood Mom as my Mother-the-Monk way better than Mom-the-Bean-Counter, who'd not stop until every last cent in her checkbook balanced. Or Mom-the-Security-Guard, who'd stick a dull four-inch-long butter knife in the paper-thin-one-eighth-inch-door-jam to keep bad guys out when Dad traveled out of town. Why she stuffed blank checkbooks in a plain brown paper bag labeled "LIVER" in thick, black magic marker letters on the bag and then placed it in the fridge, or when both of them stuffed their vital documents in an empty ice cream container in the freezer (which they later forgot about) I’ll never know. Mom and I didn't share this kind of practicality or pragmatism or wisdom.
I easily imagine Mom, before doing anything else, asking God a question right from the get-go about how it happened that she labored to deliver, and then raised an oldest son (me) who, along with his family, is completely serene when it comes to ignoring the home phone when it rings and rings, simply because we cannot locate or remember what we did with the now half-dozen or so cordless phones scattered around our home or our garden or outside in the woods out back. The look on Mom’s face at our home when the phone would ring, ring, ring and we'd sit there and keep talking or doing whatever, my wife, my kids and me unfazed by it all, well, this was something Mom couldn't grasp, this kind of messiness, yet, there wasn't any judgment from her. Just a simple, “Phhhhhht.”
Back at the hospital on Wednesday, I first saw my youngest brother, Tom, in the hall of the ER. Tom’s eyes confirmed Dad's words 15 minutes earlier. It wasn't good.
I saw Mom lying in the bed with all manner of medical gear stuck on her. I saw Dad standing over Mom. Standing over his beloved Mac, his life partner for 53 years.
My God. My dying Mom. This was the beginning of heartbreak I never knew before. It was the beginning of the final act in her life's play, playing out over the next few hours among Mom and Dad and us kids. All of us being together with Mom in her final moment of becoming, preparing, returning.
What a week.
I miss Mom at the end of this week. I miss her terribly, and yet, I have also noticed movements in my own soul this week. I know Mom would understand these movements because of her own spiritual experience. I know Mom would understand, that in the midst of this scorching pain, I am consoled, quite consoled by an awareness that Mom is okay and in a place where she had spent her whole life aimed at what she hoped to become, and what she had prepared for with all her heart, her mind and her soul all her life and that is, as St. Ignatius says, "sharing life now with God forever."
One time a number of years ago, I was driving Mom somewhere. We were going out for a lunch date. She was looking out the front window of my car. Mom said, out of the blue, "I know how this is all going to end."
She turned her head a bit toward me, looking at me from the corner of her eye. She said "It's good. It's going to be good."
I can't get that bumper sticker out of my head. “Love Your Mother.”
Driving 80 miles-per-hour on Highway 100, I read that message as a commandment. Of course, of course, Love Your Mother. But, as the week has unfolded, something moved me to see, “Love Your Mother,” not only as commandment, but a signature, as in: "Love, Your Mother."
In the life of Mom, I'm seeing her story of becoming, preparing, returning, a little clearer at week's end, with this as the culmination of her storyline: “It’s good. It's going to be good.” I see this and treasure this as a tremendous, consoling gift to my family and me, from her and from God; a beautiful gift of message that somehow reached me from the mess of the CODE RED, rush-hour, speeding streets, crowded with We the Living, not as a commandment, but as a simple, loving, soft signature to her storyline, spoken directly to me, right when I needed it most.
As in: "Hi Tim, it's me. It's good. It's going to be good.
“Love, Your Mother."
THE COLOR OF DIRT
Sally 'Mac' McCormick Morin, Mom, died January 20, 2010 at age 74. She died abruptly, unexpectedly at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
Mom was there with Dad for a routine cardiac stress test. It was one of those nuclear stress procedures in which some kind of radioactive goo gets pumped into your body which then stresses your heart, which then tells the doctor whether you have issues. This goo is the kind of health care stuff that goes by hard-to-pronounce names that make me wish I'd studied Latin in high-school, names like dobutamine or adenosine or dipyridamole. Stuff with names like this means it earned the imprimatur of a government watchdog shop like the FDA or some similar type outfit, so well-trained doctors and nurses can mainline it into your body.
When the test was over, doctors said Mom's heart was fine. Her brain, though, had a major hemorrhage. She quickly complained of a severe headache right after the procedure was completed. The docs and nurses figured this wasn't your Advil-variety headache, so they strapped Mom on a gurney and rushed her from the cardiac unit to the emergency room, with Dad shuffling alongside as they wheeled Mom to ER.
"Mom was responsive and talking at first," Dad said. "She was saying her head was really hurting, there was a lot of pain, then she stopped talking." Mom's head tilted slightly to her left. That was the last time she moved. And that was the last of any words from Mom. All this happened in a matter of minutes on a Wednesday in the middle of the afternoon. One minute Mom was alive undergoing a routine procedure. Then some minutes later, she lost consciousness. By eight o'clock that night, Mom was officially dead.
Mom was born in Minot, North Dakota, the daughter of a Great Northern train man and a loving happy mother, who held their family of six children together during Grandpa’s long and frequent trips on the road. Mom was the number-five kid in a pecking order that included three older sisters and two brothers, one older than Mom and one younger.
When I think of North Dakota, the first image that always comes to mind, other than Mom, is Grandma McCormick. And her roundish, plump face, with her wide-beam grin sporting a bit of a gap in her two upper front teeth. Then the thing that comes to mind is the batch of plain donuts Grandma would always have on hand for us kids when we'd come for a visit. I loved those plain donuts and, even though I'm in my early 50s and my internist might suggest laying off these items, I still grab one from the Speedway/SuperAmerica gas station pastry tray and chomp it down with a cup of hot coffee after fueling up to get to work or run errands or go wherever.
And then there's the freight train. Every time I see one, I imagine Grandpa McCormick bringing up the rear, riding high in his caboose, even though freight trains don’t pull a caboose anymore. For fifty-plus years, Grandpa McCormick worked trains as the conductor, the guy in charge. To this day, I stop and watch all the boxcars and tankers pass by and hold my look until the end of the train, where Grandpa made his living on the Great Northern Railroad.
I, too, worked as a railroad man for a couple of summers during college. Part of the track crew; gandy dancers they called us. A lot of our work was cleaning up after train derailments.
"We got one with wheels on the ground," Earl, my foreman would call out. Didn't matter what time of day this was, Earl ordered all of his crewmen to get to work, to put our heads down, start digging crushed and splintered ties from the dirt. "Gotta get the mess cleaned up so Number-Four-Ninety-Two can get moving from St. Paul to Chicago on time. Let's move it men," Earl would say.
If you know people from North Dakota, you know no matter where they live now, North Dakota carries along with them forever.
"Oh, they are the nicest folks in the world," I've heard many people say about people from North Dakota. I agree. I've yet to meet someone, anyone from North Dakota who is unpleasant. Plain-donuts-and-wheels-on-the-ground-people, that's what you meet when you cross paths with North Dakotans. That's what people got when they met Mom.
"What color's the dirt there?"
That's a question Mom would ask me often when I'd return from some business trip down south or over to Asia or Europe.
"What color's the dirt?" was an odd question when I first heard it from Mom. Up until she first asked about the color of dirt, “Did you get your roughage today?” was Mom’s most curious query. She questioned my family and me often about roughage after colon cancer claimed the life of a dear friend of hers some 30 years ago. Mom’s way of protecting her loved ones in the days and years that followed was to ride herd on our daily roughage intake. I haven’t had a slice of white bread since the 1970s.
“What color’s the dirt?” is the kind of question a North Dakotan like Mom asked in a natural way. It's one of the things Mom wanted to know when she'd meet with or hear of people from distant places. You didn't dare cackle when you got this question, because people from North Dakota like my mother expected an answer to a serious question like this. Over time, I wouldn’t wait for Mom to ask. I’d come back with my trip report including a word or two about the color of the dirt in distant places.
For Mom, knowing the color of the dirt was her way of getting to the essence of the stuff of life, of the people, in these places. She got that by getting to what's below, underfoot, usually beneath our eyesight.
Mom's hometown, Minot, is located way up north at the high-end of North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border, a place where the color of the dirt is rich and dark. The North Dakota dirt, with its darkness stretching as far as the eye could see, held the color that grounded Mom's life.
Darkness in this soil, for Mom, was a good thing; not something evil or fearful. Darkness such as this, for Mom, was like the womb, safe, nourishing, warm and comfortable, full of life. Connecting with and knowing the color of North Dakota's dirt helped Mom trust her desire to explore inward movements in her own bedding.
It's not an easy thing to deeply work your own soil. But Mom was quite attracted and attentive to this kind of work. I never met anyone so active in turning and tilling what was underneath, who had comfort and trust to dig way down there to find truth, wisdom, insight.
Mom knew well her North Dakota geology, the color of the dirt there; she knew its darkness was a rich source of life, special matter that nurtured and sustained her on her continuous journey to find light in this world.
Two days after Mom died, I had a nagging, curious and slightly annoying thought. "How many people will end up coming to her wake and funeral?" I wondered. After all, Mom died suddenly on Wednesday night. We planned her wake for Friday night and the funeral for Saturday afternoon. Barely time to get the word out. Mom was a serial introvert, which suggested word wouldn’t need to travel very far.
"What's an introvert's funeral like? How many people show up for that?" I asked myself. Hundreds is the answer.
Mom's wake was scheduled for two hours. It lasted four. I was afraid the funeral home staff was going to boot us out late Friday night, because it seemed we'd never leave.
Same with Mom's funeral mass on Saturday, hundreds of friends braved a freaky warm January drizzle, pelting all of us with a frigid wicked mix of rain and ice that pooled into growing puddles of loose slush.
"Whoa, so this is how an introvert's funeral turns out," I thought. "A throng gets big when your friends show up one by one at the same time."
I figured Mom touched a lot of people in many ways beyond my understanding. And while this may be true, I've come to see that Mom was more of a receiver of people in her life. Which is to say, as much as she touched a lot of people when she was alive, Mom actually let a lot people touch her through her life.
Turns out Mom was really good at receiving any and all the love people would send her way. And you could see this, all these people showing up at the wake and funeral of a serial introvert: hundreds of people, showing up in crappy January icy rainy slurpy weather to touch Mom one final time. I suspect Mom loved every minute of this, of being touched one more time by all these loved ones and friends.
Mom's story is about a way, reflected in the words of the Prophet Micah:
This is what Yahweh asks of you;
To act justly
To love tenderly
And to walk humbly
With your God.
"You and your family remain in my prayers as you grieve the great woman," my friend Dick wrote in an email to me one day, many weeks after Mom died.
The Great Woman, yes, that is right. This is and was who I'd known Mom to be.
Surrounded by a family of Great Women: Mom's daughters, my sisters, Lisa and Mary Kay; her daughters-in-law Mary Jane, Heather, and Mary Alice, my great and wonderful wife; and Mom's granddaughters, Katy, Madelon, Clare, Sarah, Hannah, Molly, Maggie, Marie and Ella.
Mom's story isn't crammed with things or stuff of busy-ness. Her narrative is an inward story of attentiveness, movement and receiving. It is the fabric of these reflections. These words arise from many of my own inward movements experienced and received in the days following Mom's death, arising from the "harvest of long looking," as poet Jane Hirshfield once wrote.
Knowing of interior movements and becoming comfortable receiving their truth, at their pace, is what I learned from Mom. And I believe these are the great gifts Mom brought into the world.
Ours is a noisy, busy, distracting world. Full of doing, going, getting, grinding. Not for Mom. No, for her, life was about being. For her, love was not only about giving; it was first about receiving and knowing she was loved. This pattern of receiving enabled Mom to be endlessly giving to those around her.
Paul Coutinho S.J., the Jesuit priest and author from India, gave me something to think about during a break at one of his retreats, not long after Mom died. “Our ability to love well is directly related to our ability to receive love well,” he said to me.
How foreign this idea strikes me. It is counter-cultural. An eastern thought from an Indian Jesuit for me, a western fellow.
“Receiving’s not a guy thing,” I said to Fr. Coutinho. He chuckled a bit and nodded in agreement. This is true. I’m built to give, not receive. How much of my day is spent giving, delivering, providing? Like most guys, that’s my typical day. On the other hand, how much of my day is spent receiving? A little, maybe; none, probably.
Maybe there’s a new way to think here; about living somewhere around this word, receiving. Perhaps, I ought to make a habit of asking myself and others I see each day, "So, what have you received today?" Yes, maybe there is a new way to think here.
It's Holy Week right now, the week leading up to Good Friday and Easter. And, in this spring after Mom died, my mind keeps thinking about "the washing of feet," the Gospel Passion scene involving Jesus and Peter. I've never thought much of this scene before. It's kind of gross, frankly. Two guys, two thousand years ago. Arguing over who’s going to wash whose stinky, dirty, worn-out, gross, desert feet.
The more I replay this scene, I see a lesson; one that reflects Paul Coutinho’s words to me. Jesus lays a simple yet profound message on Peter. Brother, quit arguing with Me. You need to give it up. You need to let Me wash your feet. You need to RECEIVE Me.
I'm a lot like Peter. No one's washing my feet. Yuck! No one's touching my gross feet connected to my gross hairy legs and my gross slightly paunchy body and my gross everything else.
You see where this is going?
Mom did. Mom saw where this was going in her own life as a stuck-at-home wife of a busy business guy, and an active mother of five hectic kids and all that doing, going, getting and grinding. She saw where this was heading, saw the dirty color of this dirt, and she reached inward, to a place where she knew that God dwells closer to each of us than we are to ourselves, and from this place she received and chose a different way to live and love over time. Mom got comfortable with an idea that lots of moms and lots of dads, guys just like me, and even guys who are leaders of apostles, have had immense trouble embracing over the ages in our busy, noisy, distracting world of We the Living.
Yet, it is a simple way. Really, it is.
Mom looked toward the ground, her ground, and she saw her feet, worn out, washed up, weighed down, and she let it go, all of it. She let others touch her. She let them wash her feet.
"What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive." This is what Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her classic book Gift From The Sea. More precisely and in a way that Mom believed to be true, Lindbergh wrote that, "Woman must be pioneer in this turning inward for strength."
Mom was a pioneer such as this. I learned from her how strength is derived from turning inward.
Lindbergh also wrote that woman "must be the pioneer in achieving this stillness, not only for her own salvation, but for the salvation of family life, of society, perhaps even of our civilization."
Yes, The Great Woman I know and call “Mom” lived the story of this pioneer. And it is continuing to be lived now, by the Great Women she called her family, my family. This is a hopeful thing for our world, very hopeful. Future generations of pioneers like Mom in the pipeline. How wonderful!
As Mom let people touch her, I see how she has touched them, helping them gently motion inward to tap movements of their life, to receive and trust the mystery of all that is deep inside, ultimately to taste a bit of the glory of life that dwells within.
The color of this dirt, of Mom, is a gift.
It dapples my ground.
A current of life carries into death and beyond. Well beyond. I have found a gentle, tranquil pulse in this current. Maybe this is the tranquility Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about in his poem, Memory Journey,
Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love...
It is nonsense to say God fills the gap; God doesn't fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty...Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy.
Memory Journey was one of Mom's favorite poems. It was included in her funeral Mass program. These words must be favorite words of others, too, as they've been included in many condolence cards sent to my family and me after Mom died.
I am grateful for having been placed into this current. It is a new current. It seems to be rich with life, teeming with awareness, insight, consoling experiences, words, all flowing aside and around me in the days following Mom's death. There is a tranquil joy here. Bittersweet, yes. But, rich and fulfilling too. This current says there is life beyond life we know here. To remain here with a hard gaze fixed onto life and death and life after life for as long as it is fruitful is a tremendous gift. For this, I am thankful.
What a surprise, how astonishing to find tranquil joy here in this current. I never knew of such a place. This is that place where Bonhoeffer describes,
The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.
A tranquil pulse in a gentle current I hope never ends.
The poet, Wendell Berry, and his way with words in the poem, Before Dark, keep me connected to this current:
From the porch at dusk, I watched
a kingfisher wild in flight
he could only have made for joy.
He came down the river, splashing
against the water's dimming face
like a skipped rock, passing
on down out of sight. And still
I could hear the splashes
farther and farther away
as it grew darker. He came back
the same way, dusky as his shadow,
sudden beyond the willows,
The splashes went on out of hearing.
It was dark then. Somewhere
the night had accommodated him
at the place he was headed for
or where, led by his delight,
The dim month has broken, for a moment. Now it's 60-some degrees outside. It is sunny. Warm sun on my skin and my head and face for the first time in many weeks, even many months. Brilliant blue sky. And now the first taste of spring. Spring, how excellent! Spring, the Joy Ride season!
Mom's favorite season. The gray, dirty muck of March would flatten Mom. She'd barely get off the couch during March, which happens to be her birthday month.
Mom couldn't stand the thick gray sky, the piles of melting dirty snow. Snirt, that's what they call it up in North Dakota. Snirt, what a great, disgusting word to capture the dim month. And the barren trees, just standing there, tall and black and lifeless.
A day like today was all she needed to get moving. "Praise the Lord," Mom would say on a day like today, with a wide-beam smile across her face. "What a beautiful day the Lord has made!"
Life's surely a joy ride in spring. A time when you feel a current flowing again after a long, hard, cold, still winter. A time when Mom, like everybody else up here in the Northland, is whisked along to places and moments of beauty, glory, Heaven on earth without conditions, without expectations, without the need for any more of anything. All present right here, right now. These moments are pure joy ride. They were among those moments that Mom held with the highest gratitude.
Yes, it is something to see and remember, the Joy Ride Lady, and all the joy ride people around here, out and about, skips to their steps, moved by the current, moved in gratitude by their little tastes of early spring’s warm sun.
Harrigan, the family dog, our graying 'round-the-eyes-stinky-sorta-deaf old golden retriever, moves real slow these days. Letting her out when it's way-below-zero on deep-winter mornings in January and February makes me cringe. It's a gamble every morning as she darts into the dark cold snap. Her odds of making her way back to the warm kitchen shorten every day.
"Don't you go out there and drop over in your tracks, animal," I'm thinking those mornings. "There's no sorrow in my bin for you if that happens. Not this winter."
So far, so good with Harrigan.
By the time she's finished her business and is back inside, the hound is dancing on hind legs, jumping and huffing and wiggling with her tongue drooping all around.
She's ecstatic. Of course she is. She's about to get her bowl of chow. It's the same bowl of round brown pellets of chow she ate yesterday and that she ate the day before that and that she ate every day of every one of the 13 years she's been in our family.
She's like this every morning. Out of her mind ecstasy. This old dog and her brown chow.
I puzzle over Harrigan in the mornings.
"Imagine this," I wonder. "Imagine being this happy every day at the same time of every morning when the same bowl of brown dog chow gets stuck beneath your nose."
I'm learning something here. "You're seeing pure, absolute gratitude in this animal every day, same time, no matter what's going on in the world outside our door, no matter this winter's sorrows lurking behind our door," I'm thinking. And me? I don't remember what I eat for breakfast. Or even if I eat.
"Why's my tongue not slobbering, lapping all around and why's my hind-end not power wiggling when I pour myself a bowl of Bran Buds?" I wonder.
Harrigan's on a joy ride, a shimmy of pure ecstasy. Even when it’s way-below-zero outside. Even though she's almost, what, a hundred years old in people-years. Even though it’s the same brown chow every morning. The stinky, old family dog. On a joy ride. Seeing something I don't often see, especially at a time like this. Seeing all as gift.
You are teaching the man something, Dog; teaching me lessons about receiving, gift and gratitude for ALL things in life stuck beneath my nose.
Mom turned 70 in 2005. She wasn't a “thing” person. Didn't want stuff for her birthday. Particularly a special birthday like seventy. All she asked from her kids was time, to be with each one of us.
"You pick when, where, what we do," she said. "All I want is to be with each of you one-on-one; however you want to do it. Doesn't matter to me. As long as we do something before I turn 71."
Mom gave us a year to think of something, some way to specially mark her 70th birthday, to specially mark her. Seemed to me Mom deserved something more special than a couple hours at a Starbucks chitty-chattin’ over a latte or going to Perkins for a plate of pancakes or even high dining at some fancy chop house for surf-n-turf.
Seemed to me 70 ought to be marked with a road trip. A special road trip. Yes, a joy ride. One Mom would never forget. One I'd always remember too. Maybe even a road trip that matched life itself insofar as this joy ride would "carry with it a modicum of risk,” to quote a line from the Dustin Hoffman movie Little Big Man, one of my favorite films.
Mom gave my siblings and me a year to come up with something. She didn't care what it was or where I chose to celebrate with her.
“Just make it happen before I turn 71,” she kept reminding me.
No problem. Piece of cake, I thought.
"How hard could this be?" I asked myself.
It took me eleven months to figure something out. Something more meaningful than Starbucks or Perkins. Something surprising. Something that wasn't thingy. Something she'd never done or would never do. Or could say to Dad, "I got to do this with Tim and you've never done that."
"How hard could this be" turned into near impossible. And I damned near ran out of time. Saturday in February, early February, almost one month before time was up and I'd turn into a pumpkin, I picked up Mom for our road trip. The day was February cold, with early morning crackling air, clean cloudless winter blue skies, the sun bright as though it was sitting right on top of planet Earth. Perfect road trip conditions. First stop was 60 miles west of Minneapolis. In the middle of nowhere, in late winter. I was taking Mom to see something she'd never seen before. A wonder of the world. In our backyard. No one else in our family had seen it. We were going to be the first Morins to say we've been to this place, to a holy land of sorts.
"So, where are we going?" Mom asked.
"First stop, Darwin,"
"Oh. What's in Darwin? Where is Darwin?"
"Darwin's an hour away. Something you've never seen. At your age, you need to see this."
"Okay then," she said.
And we made way to our first stop, Darwin. Mom and her oldest kid. Visiting and riding the open road on an early Saturday morning, sun-soaked, empty, two-lane U.S. Highway westbound for Minnesota's rural winter wonderland.
"YOU'VE! GOT! TO! BE! KIDDING!" Mom couldn't take her eyes off of the thing as we got out of the car. The thing was sitting inside a large weather-protected see-through, clear square case; an oversize, upside-down highball glass.
"Damn, look at that thing. It's huge," I said. A little sign-post out front simply described the obvious, The World's Largest Ball of Twine.
A wonder of the world.
First time anyone in our family had seen it. Now Mom and I were here. Finally here. First stop on our road trip, our joy ride, in celebration of Mom's 70th birthday, two explorers orbiting a large sphere of tightly wound skinny rope.
Best of all, it was just Mom and me. We had the place, this shrine, to ourselves. Just us. In early February in Darwin, Minnesota, there were no long lines to see The World's Largest Ball of Twine. Imagine that. Not another soul anywhere around. As if the town of Darwin was packed up and launched on a moon shot for the winter.
"Damn that thing is big," I said.
"Yah," Mom said. "Whoever would've thought...? Why would anyone ever think to...? What do you suppose moved a person to do this?"
Around and around and around we walked. Just Mom and me. Shaking our stocking caps stuffed full of our heads as we gazed at that thing. It is, for the record, the dumbest thing you ever saw. A big damn ball of twine. It is the kind of thing that should've made its way into that goofy movie, Fargo.
"Phffffffffft....." Mom said, looking at me. "You, you, you, where do you come up with these things?"
"I was thinking of taking you here or going to Starbucks or Perkins. Hope this was okay."
"I can go get coffee and pancakes anywhere."
And with those words, we were underway again. In the car, heading east toward home, the joy ride resumed. A big damn ball of twine like the western sun fading in our rear view mirror.
Heads kicked back. Mouths wide open. We were riding a current, like it was heaven on earth, or something. Of course it was. We'd just seen the world's largest ball of twine.
"The airport," I said.
"Airport? What's at the airport?"
We're going to Memphis, I told her.
"Memphis? What's in Memphis?" she asked.
"Ducks? What ducks? Judas priest,” Mom said. “We're going to Memphis to see ducks?"
"Beats going to Starbucks."
When you're on a road trip with your 70 year-old Mom that's now turned into a joy ride because you'd just seen the world's largest ball of twine, where else can you go? How do you follow that experience?
You fly to a place where you can watch a parade of ducks march in formation every morning and every night at a hotel in Memphis. Naturally, this is what you do with your 70 year-old mother after you've seen a big damn ball of twine. Yes, you fly nine hundred miles away and nine hundred miles home so you can tell loved ones upon your return that you saw some ducks put on a parade. This is precisely what happens at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis. A bunch of ducks. Maybe a dozen or so. All lined up single file, parading daily.
They parade into the elevator, up to the Peabody rooftop when the day begins. And they parade down from the rooftop in the same elevator, then out of the Peabody Hotel when the day is done. Every day hundreds of people gather to watch this parade. Just a parade of little, waddling ducks. No marching duck bands. No clown ducks. No ducks on tall stilt-legs. No Shriner ducks on weaving motorcycles. Or Queen ducks on flowered floats. Nope. None of that. It's just ducks. In a line. Single file. Waddle, waddle. Quack, quack.
Then, in less than five minutes, or maybe it's more like one minute and five seconds, or it's some teensy timeframe you really don't want to quantify because you'll feel like a dope for spending all those hours and all that money traveling to this quack-brain place with your 70 year-old Mom, why, before you know it, the thing is over. And the ducks disappear into the night. Waddle, waddle. Quack, Quack.
People come from all over to watch this and only this, a dozen quacking ducks. People like Mom and me. People who have nothing better to do than take time for themselves, to be with loved ones or friends, and go on a joy ride. Those ducks and these people don't do this once a year or once a month. They do this every day. Twice a day. Those ducks and these people show up. Ducks and people, like Mom and me, on a joy ride. What a road trip this was turning out to be. Both of us riding a couple of roads-less-traveled. Who knew how we'd get on covering America's mid-section when the day began?
Here we were, the two of us, enjoying this offbeat trek; Mom, the birthday girl, keeping pace, loving every minute of a day no one else in The Peabody Hotel, nor in all of Memphis, nor in all the world could claim that day. Mom was the only 70 year-old human alive right then who'd spent this day, on a joy ride, taking in a big damn ball of twine and a bunch of ducks in a parade. Way better than a half-caf venti latte at Starbucks or buttermilk pancakes at Perkins.
It didn't take long for the ducks to finish their parading and go packing for the night. Then it was early evening. Mom and I walked across the street and along a narrow downtown alley to grab supper; cold Budweiser beers, iced all day in big metal buckets, and a couple racks of baby-back ribs from the Rendezvous Rib joint in Memphis. People all over the world love these ribs. That's why its website boasts "hogsfly-dot-com" in its address. This place ships its ribs anytime, anywhere. Absolutely, positively. Not much risk in making that claim, I suppose, when FedEx is based nearby to help the hog butcher meet his customers’ next-day barbeque demands.
Mom and I loved the ribs. We loved the ice cold Buds. A great way to finish off Mom’s seventieth birthday road trip, a joy ride of huge balled up twine, marching ducks, ribs and ice-cold Buds at a place where hogs fly.
We returned the following morning, and as I dropped Mom at home, just before she got out of my car, she pulled something from her purse, a tightly wound brown paper sack.
"Open it," she said with a slight smile and some mischief in her blue Irish eyes. "It's for you. I want you to have this. So you will remember our time together."
How thoughtful! A small gift, a surprise souvenir from Mom, a pair of boxer shorts. From The Peabody. A color photo of a duck, one of the Peabody Marching Ducks, stamped on the rear-end. Under a headline that reads, Butt Quack.
I don't talk much about my underwear. But these under-shorts deserve a word. I wear these boxers still, many years later. I wear them fondly. There are no other fondly worn undergarments stuffed in my dresser drawers.
Indeed, this undergarment is special; oh my, how magnificent these Butt Quack shorts.
Boxers with a happy, parading duck stamped on the rear-end. From Mom, with love. Just for me, her 52 year-old son. Now, a special memory.
I imagined, when this road trip was approaching, that I was gifting Mom at a special moment in her life. And while that was true, by journey's end, it had also turned out that Mom was the one who really gifted me.
I received a cozy forever memory from Mom, the two of us, together in the current, on a silly delightful joy ride in life that has remained a snug undergarment, a warm lining offering comfort and tranquility, that I will wear the rest of my days.
I know this.
I have underwear to prove it.
WHY THIS WORD
"Well, there's life there, right?"
This question found its way into my brain at a Milwaukee Target store one Saturday night. In a check-out line. A painfully slow check-out line. With a lady in front of Mary Alice, Clare and me who had, maybe, 36 items totaling something like 47 dollars-and-change, the whole pile getting scanned by a red shirted, khaki'd, unmotivated associate, who didn't seem to know much about the art of the fleeting checkout-scanner-wrist-swipe, and who was much fleeter at flipping his red-light-help-me-out-switch every third item or so to obtain further instruction.
Of course, we were hurrying. We were hoping to get to the 6:30 showing of Avatar in 3D that evening. I was getting more and more annoyed because Target in 3D looked like the only show that we were in for this one Saturday night. And it didn't look like it was ever going to end. That was the moment this question lodged itself in my head.
"Well, there's life there, right?"
It was a question to an answer I didn't really know I'd been carrying around for the previous day or so. A lot of thoughts were running through my head. All of them had a similar theme. All of them were coming to the same conclusion, the same answer.
"Maybe it's not so helpful to keep thinking and writing all this stuff about Mom's death and the days that followed. Maybe I should stop this business of thinking and writing about it...."
Here's the thing, though. I wasn't aware this conclusion was taking hold in my soul. And the more it took root, the more desolate I began to feel. All I knew was this sense of more and more agitation, hopelessness and, yes, crabbiness, as that Saturday wore on, especially when coming into contact with a Target Store cashier. Until this conclusion was answered by a simple uplifting question, quietly asked, in a superstore checkout line.
"Well, there's life there, right?"
My friend Doug runs a software company in Omaha. We live similar lives. Business guys. Guys who hustle software to help other business guys run their businesses a bit better. Both of us work hard to feed our families. We've got deals to get done. Customers to satisfy. Neither of us would be mistaken for holy rollers. Doug, who lost his Mom a while ago, sent me a note the week after Mom died that helped me see how death begets life,
"Both of my parents have passed. My dad about 10 years ago (lupus) and my mom one year ago this week (Alzheimer’s). I believed I cried for about 3 weeks as well as my other brothers/sisters. My mother raised 9 children and ran a boot camp but found the time to love each of us individually. I would assume that your mother was just as impactful to your life. We can take them for granted but my guess is that you had a great relationship with her and you always could have spent more time. I remember questioning myself on that statement of spending more time with them…….Did I call her enough….I could have visited her more…..feeling guilty at times (comes with being Catholic), etc……. if there is anything I have learned from both of them now gone, is that they are really not gone. They live through their children on a daily basis and as important through their grandchildren. We all have many attributes from our parents both genetically and especially emotionally. That torch gets passed down. We all cherish the time they were here and remember them often in their passing. Memories are the most important along with the many, many life lessons they gave us."
I was thinking of Doug's note while killing time in the book section at the Target Store in Milwaukee that one Saturday night. Mary Alice and Clare were finishing their shopping and I was leafing through Mitch Albom's book, Have A Little Faith, on the shelf. I opened the book randomly to page 127 where Albom was describing a notion of the so-called "second death." According to Albom, second death is when you die all over again, this time when no one in the world remembers you ever existed. And sooner or later in some generation, whether distant or near, despite what my friend Doug writes, the world is going to forget you were alive.
Ok, I'm thinking, as I'm standing there in the Target Store book section aisle, this is enough.
“That’s it,” I thought. “I’ve had enough of this crap.”
Right then, I decided time to be done with desolation. It'd been, maybe, four weeks since Mom died. It was February, the month that doesn't end in a normal year, let alone the year when your Mom dies. It was cold. It was gray. In Milwaukee. In a Target Store. Somehow, without trying hard, I'd found my way into acedia on a Saturday night in the city of Milwaukee. Time to find Mary Alice and Clare, and get the hell out of Dodge.
But first, that checkout line. And that inept cashier. Leaving me nowhere to go, nowhere to make a quick exit. Nothing to do but stand there and watch this cashier kid. And, then, listen to one small thought, one quiet question that made its way into my head.
"Well, there's life there, right?"
Mom gave me a lot of great gifts, but two gifts stand above the rest. First, of course, is my life. She and Dad are the best parents a son could ever hope for. And God knows, I pray that I can be half as good a parent to my kids as my folks have been for me.
Second, Mom taught me to be a plumber. Yes, that's right, a plumber. With faith and belief, Mom led me into the ways of Ignatian spirituality, the stuff of Ignatius of Loyola, the medieval fellow who founded the Jesuits. I learned to be a plumber of my depths from Mom and, through her, the Ignatian way of living hopefully and consciously.
Central to this way, is Ignatius' call for discernment, to seek awareness, to listen to my interior and my soul, by plumbing the far reaches of my being to recognize and understand the currents and movements underway. Always on the lookout for how I am being attracted or how I am being distracted; where I am finding little life or no life; and where I am finding a lot of energy and abundant life.
Ignatius believed you find God at work in these movements. Mom believed she was closest to God when she was plumbing her interior. And I know being closest to God occurs when I am plumbing too, working to become more fully aware of the hidden interior movements underway in my life.
“Love the thing inside that feels no need to move.” These words are from poet, Jim Moore, and they capture the purpose of this kind of plumbing.
Mom didn't preach or pontificate or browbeat. Her method of delivering lessons was to point out an article here. Or a book there. Or casually mention a conversation she might've had or listened in with someone. The last lesson in spirituality Mom passed along to me was on Christmas afternoon. She and Dad came over for Christmas Dinner with my family. And, while at our home, she came across a Christmas card from a friend that had this quote from Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the leader of the Jesuits from 1965 - 1981,
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you will do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.
Mom handed this Christmas card to me. She scrunched her brow, and with a slight tilt of her head in my direction, said softly, almost under her breath, "This is really good. You should spend some time with this."
So I did in the days and weeks after Christmas. And I've recognized that one of the things I most enjoy and love to do now is writing about stuff. People. Ideas. Words. Philosophy. Maybe an odd business concept from time to time. Every week I find something to write about. And up it goes on my blog, Friday’s Post.
Some guys like fishing, hunting, running, golfing, birding. Me? I like to write. And when I do, I think more clearly about this place we call the world.
Where does it lead? Who knows? Doesn't matter. Mom's last spiritual lesson, delivered in the message of a Christmas card sent to me by a friend, a card that I pretty much overlooked until Mom underlined its importance and depth for me, will remain with me forever.
Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.
"Well, there's life there, right?"
God was at work with that question right there in the middle of a Target Store on a busy Saturday night. Mom was at work, too, right there with me in the checkout line. Right there in the kind of place where Ignatius of Loyola believed and where Mom believed and would teach me again and again, that God is working hardest and is most clearly experienced in the everyday nit and grit of our lives here in the chaotic world of We the Living.
This business of writing in the days after Mom's death, for me, is about connecting with God and with Mom, connecting in the way that Mom knew best and in the ways she handed on to me.
Jane Hirshfield’s notion of “long looking” and this business of writing about Mom, her death and life after her life is a story that is alive for me, maybe for others too. It's a good story. It's worth sharing.
The ways people find God in the midst of their grieving the death of a Mom or a Dad or a brother or a sister or child is uniquely personal.
For me, God lives, and I believe Mom lives, somewhere near and in the movements of my interior, as I plumb the events, feelings, movements related to her death and life after her death. This is soul work. And writing has been the way to dig down and tap into these movements, to sift them, to find life after the end of Mom's life.
It is a thread I don't want to ever let go of, that thread William Stafford, described in his poem,
The Way It Is
There is a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what things you are pursuing
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
Or die; and you suffer and grow old.
Nothing you do can stop times unfolding.
But you don't ever let go of the thread.
This business of putting life into words is my thread. I'll never let go of it. This thread keeps me connected to movements down deep. With it, I remain more aware and continue dwelling in a sacred place here in this world, where maybe, just maybe I am enjoying a fruitful taste of heaven right here, right now, where I am invited to believe and receive that which is real and true. Letting go of this thread is letting go of life itself.
Letting go of this thread is to walk away from a question containing within it an answer. Wisdom tailored for all hopeful plumbers, designed to plug the black holes of death and despair anytime,
"Well, there's life there, right?"
(Editor's note: You may purchase the book here.)