As Mothers’ Day approaches, I find myself thinking a lot about my mom. She died shortly before Christmas, 1986. She only knew one of her two grandsons, the other being born exactly one year to the day after her death. The grandchild she knew was only four when she passed. And though she loved him deeply and dearly, she never experienced most of the key moments in his life. She never saw him go to school, become an athlete, attend the prom, graduate from college, or start his counseling practice. Death came too soon for any of that. Death came too soon for her.
A friend of mine recently asked, “When did you lose your mother?” I offered a chronological answer: “Thirty years ago.” But later, in reflecting on her question, I found myself thinking: “I never lost my mother.” To lose something removes it from your existence. You can lose a wallet or car keys or a piece of jewelry. Once lost, those things are no longer part of your existential reality. They are truly “gone.” But that is not so with a person who mattered in your life. Whether physically present or not, that person continues to matter, to have an impact, to exercise influence, and thus to be with you in ways too real to deny.
My mother is still with me thirty years after her physical death because of the things she imprinted on my psychological and spiritual DNA. In a time honored sense, she taught me the importance of the words “please” and “thank you.” Put another way, my mother valued courtesy and civility in human relationships and impressed upon me those same values. So now, I simply cannot get into a taxi and bark out my desired destination to the driver. Instead, I open my mouth and literally hear the voice of my mother saying, “I would like to go to LaGuardia, please.” It is virtually impossible for me to receive something from someone without saying, “Thank you.” Emotionally, those transactions would not be complete for me without those words – words imprinted on my emotions by my mother. In those moments, the essence of her lives on with me, in me, and through me.
She was a person who, like most, battled periodic episodes of stress (and occasionally depression). When those times came, mom used humor as medication. She often would say to me: “I laugh to keep from crying.” I have become a person who seeks the comic side of life and loves to point it out to others. And those who know me best understand that when I am the silliest is when I am actually suffering the most pain, doubt, or insecurity. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “Laughter does good like a medicine.” I first learned that lesson from my mother. I can still hear her raucous laughter... sometimes in my memory and sometimes from my own mouth.
She was a woman of deep faith, always active in church, and committed to the power of prayer in daily life. I am a clergyperson who preaches faith in church and prays daily about almost every issue in my life and the lives of those whom I love. It’s not too hard to connect the dots.
My parents were never wealthy, but we always had enough. Mom made sure my clothes were clean and the food was plenteous. I’ve rarely met a better cook. She was an expert in southern cuisine with all its rich, fattening, and inexpressibly delicious qualities. So, I became a foodie. Still for me, however, the finest meals are not in restaurants but at a family table. There’s something almost spiritual about family tables – the conversation, the laughter, the second helpings that are just as tasty as the first because of one thing: the food was prepared with love. That was mom’s secret ingredient. She wanted her meals to make us happy because she loved us. So when I am seated at any family table where love resides, I still find her spirit there.
“When did you lose your mother?,” my friend asked. The honest answer is: “Never.” How can you lose someone whose influence is upon and within you all the time? What I lost was her physical reality. But what even death cannot take away is her essential reality – the wisdom, the kindness, the values, and the love that made her who she was. All that will live on as long as I live. And then I hope, in whatever comes next, she will greet me there... certainly with laughter... and perhaps even with the words, “Sit down next to me, son. I’ve fixed dinner.”