It’s 4 am in 1989 and three small boys—too small by far—are being roused.
“Mummy has gone to be with Jesus, give her one last kiss.”
We gather at her bedside and I hoist myself up to the safest place in my universe. Here has been a refuge against nightmares, asthma attacks, thunderstorms, and things that go bump in the night.
I gaze at her while clinging to bedsheets. Her skin has sunk around the cheekbones that made her striking. Dark rings encircle eyes that once twinkled with an intelligence that was sharp, but never cutting. Her chest, stationary. Her lungs, robbed of the ability to harvest life from the wind.
She’s present, but she’s not here. I’m kissing a mock-up. A figurine. A forgery.
Her lips are sealed. I kiss them as I have done ten thousand times before, but this is different. For the first time in my existence an expression of affection goes utterly unanswered, perfectly unreciprocated. She’s present, but she’s not here. I’m kissing a mock-up. A figurine. A forgery.
As I write this, my outrage kindles. I want to run back into that room and represent myself. “I beg your pardon; how can you ask an eight-year-old to give his Mum one last kiss? You might as well ask him to take one last breath. This is all wrong. There’s been some kind of mistake. Let me talk to the Manager.”
One week after the fact and Mum is in a box being lowered into a hole. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. At the funeral I read a poem titled “God’s Gifts”. That was the worst church service I’ve been to—and I’ve been to one where they handed out tambourines … And it was quick. Over way too fast to work out what on earth was happening. We’re just going to dig a hole in the ground and leave her there? Has anybody thought this through?
At school, we line up for the Mother’s Day stall. There’s no express aisle for the Motherless.
One month later and it’s Mother’s Day. I can’t form the word ‘Mum’ in my mouth because it hurts too much. The edges are sharp and they dig into the permanent lump in my throat. At school, we line up for the Mother’s Day stall. Fifty cents will get you some potpourri and a picture frame. I line up for nothing. There’s no express aisle for the Motherless.
This is all wrong. There’s been some misunderstanding.
For the first year or so I was convinced she was coming back. This whole thing was some kind of conspiracy. Maybe there were marriage problems. A hasty separation was covered up by the ingenious ruse of death-by-cancer. She’ll be back any day now…
The poet, William Cowper writes of his own Mother’s death, and he speaks for eight-year-old me:
Thy maidens griev’d themselves at my concern,
Oft gave me promise of a quick return.
What ardently I wish’d, I long believ’d,
And, disappointed still, was still deceiv’d;
By disappointment every day beguil’d,
Dupe of to-morrow even from a child.
Every day beguiled. Tomorrow always tricks me.
This is all wrong. Thirty-two years later and that protest still rings in my soul. I want to appeal to the Author. “Excuse me. I’m here to complain about the storyline of my life. The most important character was killed in the second chapter. What’s that about? I’d like a re-write, please.”
The most important character was killed in the second chapter. What’s that about?
People say weird things to grieving kids. “She’s in a better place now.” Really? Is she? Because she said the best thing in the world was being our Mum. She said God made her for Motherhood. So how does that work? How is it better for her to be forever where I can’t be now?
Christians offer explanations: “God didn’t want your Mum to die.” Didn’t he? Then we’re on the same page, Him and me. The difference is, I couldn’t do anything about it. I was 8 and he was ∞. God does whatever he wants. They told me that every week at Sunday School. We had an anthem for it. “My God is so BIG, so strong and so mighty…” You know the next line.
This is all wrong. She never should have died, and I’ll never get over it.
I went to one funeral where the guy at the front in the dog-collar said, “We’re not here to mourn death, but to celebrate life.” I should have raised my voice in opposition or called down holy fire. Don’t speak for me, matey, I’m not here to celebrate. I’m here to protest. This dying has got to stop. It’s outrageous.
Death is wrong. I refuse to make peace with it.
All death is wrong. The enemy of Right. The enemy of God. His last enemy.
The death of a mother or father. Brother, sister, image-bearer. The thrice over deaths of my unborn children. The death of my Nan, even after a good innings. All death is wrong. The enemy of Right. The enemy of God. His last enemy, not yet defeated. It will be one Day. Then, every tear will be dried, and every tear mended. But for now, let us grieve and let us groan.
You might think this is all a bit affected. A bit over the top. I know, I know, my wounded inner-child is acting-out et cetera. Fine, but I count Jesus an ally to my cause.
Remember him at the tomb of Lazarus? He was ticked. The Word had written into existence every living thing, and Death had come and erased each one, rubbing them out, leaving only the ghost marks of rapidly fading memory. At the tomb of his friend, the Author wept tears of loss, and longing, and anger. This was personal.
Death is wrong. Take it from an eight-year-old.
It’s May 2021, and as Sunday approaches, I’m once again standing in line with no one to buy for. It’s ever been thus. Mother’s Day is a salt mill poised above open wounds. Every year it grinds.
Those of us who pastor churches never really get Mother’s Day right. We fill our sanctuaries with flowers and disenfranchise mums who prefer power tools. We pedestal motherhood and wound women who will never join the club. It’s hard to strike the right chord.
So, if you will, let me speak for those of us who flinch as this Sunday draws near. Let me speak for the Motherless.
Church, please don’t imagine away our pain. This Sunday we will feel afresh the sin-sharpened sting of death—please don’t try to heal our wounds lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Don’t drown-out our dirge with your inspirational playlist. Don’t smooth over the cracks under the weight of a thousand platitudes. You can’t chase away the darkness with theology lite.
Instead, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
And do more than that. Tell us the only Story that can reach beyond our grief. Remind us that the Author is writing a Book of Life that can’t be erased. Help us see that this vale of tears is just the waiting room. That our tragedy is prologue. That the wrongness of Death will finally be unwritten.
Brothers and sisters, let us grieve, and give us grace.