Sunday, May 12, 2013

In Memory of Her

"I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (Luke 7:28)
It was 1990, give or take a year. I'd been living in San Francisco since late May 1988, and working for a publisher in the city's Financial District since September 1988. I spent a lot of time at the office, so it was bound to show up in my dreams now and then.

One night, I dreamed that I stood at the end (or was it the beginning?) of one of the long fifth-floor hallways. A woman was walking toward me from the other end. As she got closer, the moment came when I realized, this is my mother! Yet, she looked different than I had ever seen her before. Slender, dressed in a simple but elegant businesswoman's suit, she radiated health, and peace.

How could this be? My mother had died of cancer in 1974, when I was sixteen. I hadn't seen her in more than fifteen years.

"But, but," I stammered. "I thought you died."

"Can we talk someplace private?" she asked.

I led her to an empty cubicle. I don't remember if we stood or sat down.

"I didn't die," she assured me. "I just had to go away and get myself together. I'm fine now."

I awoke wet with sweat and tears.

I couldn't think of anything from the day or week before that may have triggered such a dream. And I was the last person I would ever have expected my mother to visit from "the other side." Her death had only seemed to confirm and intensify my already-existing feelings of emotional disconnection and abandonment. I had long felt that she didn't like me, and that I was a great disappointment to her. Yet here she was, acknowledging that she had not been "together," and offering me reassurance that she was now "fine." She didn't say "I'm sorry," yet it felt like an apology, and a promise, that if she could be "fine," then one day so could I.

I went to early Mass at the Monastery this morning. After the homily, which addressed the Gospel reading, the priest said, "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten what today is." He asked everyone to be seated for a moment—everyone except the mothers. I hesitated. In recent years I have become brave enough to acknowledge, when asked if I have children, that, yes, I am mother to one child, who didn't live long enough to be born, but he is waiting for me in heaven. This answer is meant not to honor me—because I don't deserve it—but to honor my child, whom I have promised never to allow to be forgotten.

So I hesitated, and then I sat down—feeling neither brave nor worthy enough today. Yet, as I sat with my eyes closed and my hands open, listening to the blessing offered to the standing mothers by the priest, I could hear in my heart, as though someone were whispering without words, "Receive the blessing." And my heart whispered back, "Thank you!"

Later in the morning I joined my stepmom for the worship service at the Mennonite-run retirement community where she lives. The woman who began the service mentioned Mother's Day in her first sentence. But then she said something that surprised me: she asked everyone in the congregation to remember especially those for whom Mother's Day is difficult, either because they are children whose mothers are gone, or because they are mothers whose children are gone, or because their thoughts of their mothers are filled with pain and even anger. She prayed that God would help us "to remember those things without the hurt." She didn't ask God to take away the memories, and she didn't admonish us to forget; rather, she prayed that, through Christ, God would give us the grace to remember but with freedom from the pain.

Then she said that God had a gift for every person participating in the service today. And I knew I had already received mine.

Throughout the day my mind has returned again and again to the story told in Luke 7 about the "sinful woman" who bathed Jesus' feet in expensive ointment, then wiped them with her hair. When Simon, Jesus' host, chastised him for allowing this "sort of woman" to  touch him, Jesus replied that this repentant woman had shown him far more love than Simon, who had failed to perform even the customary courtesies owed to guests in those days. "Her many sins have been forgiven," Jesus pronounced, and that is why "she has shown great love." A briefer version of the same story is also told in Matthew 26, where Jesus adds, "Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done"—she who certainly is considered by many to be one of "the least in the kingdom of God"—will be spoken of, in memory of her."

Who was this woman? Was she someone who would have sat down when a blessing was offered for mothers only? Was she someone whose memories of her own mother were fraught with pain and anger—until Jesus allowed her to touch him?



  1. Thank you for sharing this with me today, Alice. Signed your sister, Mary.