“Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real/it’s just your point of view/how does it feel for you?/Einstein said he could never understand it all/planets spinning through space/a smile upon your face/welcome to the human race… isn’t it a lovely ride?–
–James Taylor, “Secret O’Life”
This is a strange year for me. Countless people have gone through what I’m going through, so it doesn’t make me special. But our family was weird. I think I grew up feeling that nothing bad could happen to the members of my immediate family. It just happened to other unfortunate people. It seems silly to me now, of course, but my family of origin has escaped, not so much unscathed, but a lot better off than some people.
Until now. My father is on hospice. My mother is in a memory care unit that she refers to as her “hotel.” She can’t wait to get back home, and she hopes they’ll “release” my father soon. Of course they’re not ever going home, but you can’t say that to a person with dementia.
We thought Dad was going to die in October when he had chest pains and they found that two of his arteries are 99% blocked and his valve is 70% blocked. But he’s still here, just laying in bed. I think even before the dementia, my mother never really believed he or my father could die. She didn’t have to think it through, it just didn’t make sense for them to die– to her. Or him. My father seems a bit insulted that he might just be on that journey. Like an ordinary human being.
We lost a dear friend to Alzheimer’s back in May. Yvonne was a surrogate grandmother to my daughter Sarah when we lived in Pennsylvania. She and her husband Jim were there for us during some really difficult times. They were the essence of pure love. Good, good people. We saw Yvonne last year when the Alzheimer’s was very advanced, and it was heartbreaking.
Just last week we got news that a friend and former colleague, John, died at the age of 75. Both Larry and I worked with John as his student assistant, consecutively, back in New Jersey when we attended Drew University Theological School. I only worked with John for 6 months, as I later transferred to school in Kansas City. But my time with him was intense and profound. I learned how to do a worship service from him. He taught me how to put it together so that the hymns, songs, prayers, rituals, readings and sermon all related to one another. Parishioners later in my ministry were always impressed by that, but since working with John, I thought ALL pastors did that.
He taught me the basics of doing a hospital visit, meeting with a family about a funeral, serving communion. At Roselle Park, they had the tradition of people coming forward for prayer during the second hymn. John and I would kneel with them and say a prayer over them at the chancel rail. As his assistant, I became a pastor, and I experienced all the things I would love about being a pastor.
We processed in at the beginning and there was a huge cross up front, looming over us that put me in the spirit of awe. When we recessed out, there was a stained glass window of Jesus with his hand up, as if in a blessing. On the Sundays that I preached, especially, it felt like Jesus was saying, “Well done, Peggy.”
John celebrated my sense of wonder and awe at the holy moments of worship and pastoring. Offering communion to people who came and knelt before me with their hands cupped, ready to receive a blessing. Those who came asking for prayer. Finishing a prayer in the hospital with someone and find that they had tears in their eyes. That first day that I put on the white alb that my mother made for me. It was like taking on the mantle. John smiled. He knew.
Our relationship wasn’t perfect, by any means. He was an active alcoholic at the time. Later, he referred to himself as a “high functioning” alcoholic, because he didn’t miss meetings or worship, he was able to keep it “under wraps.” However, I did smell it on his breath often, sometimes on Sunday, and he had a couple of Cutty Sarks at our long lunches.
Despite that, John supported me through some very difficult times, including the decision to move halfway across the country to study at St. Paul School of Theology. We shared many holy moments in friendship during those brief months– it was intense.
We would have a falling out around the time I left, when I didn’t think we’d be friends again– alcoholics can incite that kind of rage in the people who love them. But we both made amends. When we lived in PA for six years, we met John halfway every few months to share lunch. It was at one of those first lunches at the beginning of the new millennium that he shared his journey into AA and being sober. It was an intimate conversation that day, as he shared at a level he’d never shared with either of us before. As he had done with both of us, we celebrated this important step in his life.
In the years since, we’ve kept in touch via emails and Christmas letters. When I won a sermon contest, John drove over to Princeton to hear me preach in 2005. He was still sober, still struggling to give up the cigarettes. He said he was proud of me that day, and we had a good visit.
Through Christmas letters, we were told of his increasing COPD and other health issues, going on oxygen. I wasn’t too surprised, but yet saddened to get a letter this year from his widow, Tina, telling us of John’s death.
And I Remember. I’ve been remembering, silently, and out loud with Larry, many moments with John– the profound and the maddening, the laughter and the tears. There are moments I feel a deep sadness, though I haven’t seen him in 13 years. When you share such intense moments, God-moments, with someone, it doesn’t matter. “Time isn’t really real.” Those moments are eternal. You don’t forgot things like that, they stay engraved in your heart forever. When your souls connect with another in vulnerability and trust, in brokenness and healing, it feels like it can’t be broken. Not even by death.
I remember Yvonne. The many suppers we had at her house or our house. The many times she and Jim babysat Sarah overnight, or when they both got down on the floor and played with her. Many hugs. Many tears. So much love. She was the consummate host, and in her home and in her presence, you felt like you were home.
I don’t know what happens after this life. I trust that there is life after death. I don’t know what it looks like or feels like, but I can’t help but trust that it is real. I’ve experienced such profound connections– other-worldly, timeless connections that aren’t broken by physical absence or even death. How can we have such holy bonds here if there isn’t more? At their best, those bonds feel like just a taste of what there is to come, when our bodies don’t betray us. When we don’t need our minds to remember, for our souls will do that.
So, this Christmas I remember. As I slowly lose both my mother and my father, I also remember my whole life. Being a child. A teenager. We had difficult relationships, but I’m remembering those moments with my mother, especially, when she and I did connect. When she could forget all the other things that troubled her and BE with me. Glimpses. Moments that caught her off guard. And it wasn’t so long ago. In Soul Time.
I will remember, and dwell in those grace-filled moments when I feel sad. And trust that John, Yvonne, and all those who I’ve loved and lost in this life, will also remember me.
Peace. It is a lovely ride.