Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

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Ten Days On

Today is ten days since Mom passed away.

It’s been an uneven road. For the most part, I think, I’m doing OK. There are moments, though, and there are days that are better than others.

For instance, the other day I saw a trailer on TV for the new Disney movie, The Nutcracker. Oh good, I thought! Mom loves Disney, and she certainly loves The Nutcracker–she always used to collect nutcrackers, in fact. She’d love this, I should…take…her…oh yeah. Huh.

It’s little reminders like that that keep cropping up. Mary and I went to the funeral home to pick up Mom’s cremated remains, and we were stuck in the traffic created by the construction on Route 29 out by the nursing home. Boy, I’ll be glad when this construction is over, I thought…then it occurred to me, I won’t have to drive over here anymore. Oh yeah. Huh.

In these moments of sadness, though, it’s still been possible to find joy. Remember, joy isn’t happiness: there’s not much to be happy about in this at all. But joy is a product of God: it is the security, serenity, and yes, joy, of knowing God and knowing his grace. I can still find joy, in the absolute conviction that Mom has attained the healing that escaped her here. She has a glorified body now, one that works when she wants it to, one that won’t cause her to fall or develop infections, one that’s free of every trace of Parkinson’s Disease. She can run and play with her dog, Kep, in ways that she never could here. And she has claimed the prize of faith.

joy

There is much to be done, administratively, that will be tiresome. There are the dark moments when I wish I could just hear her voice again, or know that hopeful look she would give when I visited. Or take her down to the fish pond one more time. But I also know, she is experiencing the restoration of all things. And in that, despite the darkness, I can take joy.

It’s Not Goodbye, Mom

My mom, Sandy Stoddert, 76, passed into eternity Saturday night.

Mom had struggled valiantly against the effects of Parkinson’s Disease since 1985…yes, for 33 years, and since she was 43, she’s been dealing with it. She fought to keep her independence as long as she could, taking in home-based aides for the last five years she lived in her home in Vermont. Then in 2011 she admitted it was time for more help, and she chose to move to Virginia into an assisted living home in Woodbridge. But the disease kept after her, and in parallel she began developing a series of infections that later would weaken her kidneys to the point they couldn’t cope. Just before Christmas 2016, she moved into her nursing home, and it’s there, surrounded by those who have cared for her, that she died.

I’d seen this coming for awhile, although the actual end was a little faster than I’d expected. She developed her final infection in mid September, and this time her kidneys didn’t respond. Her brother, and my sister, each came down to say what they needed to say to her last weekend.

Then it was my turn.

You see, when my dad passed ten years ago, the decline from his surgery to his passing was only six weeks, and much of it was spent in hope of recovery. But when it became obvious that his story wouldn’t end well, I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye. It was more about me, more about asking forgiveness for my own shortcomings, than about him and what was about to happen.

Enter God: he got my attention in one of the class lectures last week. The professor had in someone to talk about her call, and what she does (she’s a chaplain at a hospital in Kentucky). And when she started talking about the four things she wished everyone had the chance to say to a loved one who’s dying, I really sat up and paid attention.

I used that, then, as the basis for my own talk with mom last Wednesday.

  1. One, I forgive you. I forgive you your role in my parents’ divorce and what that meant to me at the time, I let all that go.
  2. Two, please forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I didn’t show you love, when I put myself first.
  3. Three, here’s what you meant to me. You gave me your love of reading and books, your love of history and government, and you were the one to make sure I got to church. And so here I am, a senior executive in the government and trying to follow Christ as he leads into this new adventure…and yeah, I wrote a book too.
  4. Four, I love you, and it’s OK to go. The last words I heard her say to me were on Monday, when she said she was tired. And so I told her it’s OK, we’ll be fine. My sister and I are doing OK, and all the grandkids are launching into their own lives just as you’d want them to. Go ahead and rest. Go find your beloved dog Kep, and play with her again. And take hold of the healing that we just can’t get for you here. Oh, and by the way: I love you.

Three nights later, she passed away. Go in peace, mom, and savor all the restoration that’s available now in Christ. I’ll see you again soon enough.

(PS: Here’s her obituary.)

Mom’s Ailing

I’m having to come to terms with the fact that my mother perhaps has very little time left among us.

About ten days ago, she developed an infection that affected her kidneys, causing them to be ineffective at metabolizing sodium, among other things. This is at least the third such infection in the last 14 months, and it got to the point this week that my sister and I have put her on a do-not-resuscitate, or DNR, order. She’s eating less, and at one point this week refused her medicines. The palliative care nurse practitioner noticed she looked a little sad Tuesday, and asked if Mom felt she was beginning to transition home. She nodded.

Large parts of this, of course, feel like when my dad was ailing ten autumns ago. He went in for open heart surgery, came out of that, developed complications, and slowly sank over the next six weeks: in mid September, he had surgery, and by November 6, he was gone. What feels the same is the slow-motion horror of the train wreck you can see developing and are powerless to stop.

It’s so much different from when Mary’s dad passed this summer, largely unexpectedly. And what feels different from my dad to my mom is that we’ve had 32 years to see this coming. Mom’s Parkinson’s Disease has reached a pretty advanced level, and so it’s entirely foreseen that some complicating factor will start to work on her. Still, it’s not easy seeing her drift away, unable to communicate well, weakening.

And yet, I have to confess to a certain peace about this. Perhaps because it’s been developing for so long, but also perhaps because of what I know. I know, for instance, that I’ve done all I can for mom, and so I really don’t think whether she knows I love her is in question. And all the more, I know there is a restoration of all things that awaits her. There is newness, wholeness, beyond anything we can imagine. Mom will be restored, not only to how she was before the PD afflicted her, but also to what she was always intended to be, in a resurrected body free from everything. This is the promise in Christ: this is the fruit of his resurrection, opening the way for us to follow him into glory. We don’t follow Christ because we get eternal life: we get eternal life because we follow Christ. Makes all the difference in the world.

The medical team hastens to say that the new antibiotics are working better, her numbers are improving, and in any case, it could be some time still, months even, before the end. But for the first time we are talking about an end, which in turn gives me hope for a new beginning. Alleluia...come, Lord Jesus.

 

Henry P. Tarrier, 1943 – 2018

On Tuesday morning, Mary’s dad unexpectedly passed away at home, aged 74. This whole week has been a blur of getting Mary up to Vermont to her family, then the kids and I following. He had wanted a very simple funeral, but as a 31-year veteran of the Army National Guard, received full military honors at his burial. We’re still processing through feelings that are quite raw, and I’ll be sharing more about that as time progresses I’m sure, but today I wanted to share the comments I made at his graveside funeral as a way of honoring the only other man I ever knew as Dad.

I want to thank the members of the United States Army for their service today in honoring Dad and his 31 years in uniform. I’ll let them honor that today; my role today is different, to share a few words about Mike in all his other roles, husband, father, grandfather, brother, and friend.

I knew Mike only 28 years, and I got in trouble before I even met him, when I didn’t come out to the house to meet him when I met Mary for our first date. I remember having to go through initiation with him as Mary and I dated, with his brothers Chuck and David grilling me on life, career, politics, everything, as Mike just sat back and watched, wondering if this one will be good enough to be worthy of being part of the family.

Because for Mike, everything began and ended with family. His wife, Sandra, and he were married for over 50 years; their devotion is a model for us all. They were absolutely inseparable, did everything together, which was a hard lesson for Mary when we married, that occasionally a husband may want to do something different than his wife. He loved his girls, and it absolutely broke his heart every time Mary and I left to drive back home to Virginia.

I just want to say a few words about the character of the man that we honor today: eight of them, in fact.

I won’t say Dad was stubborn, but I’ll say he was determined, and he had a very definite sense that there is a right way to do things. He was persistent, he never gave up trying to figure out a fix for something around the house. He worked with his hands, doing simple, honest work; he didn’t have to be a General, he was content with who he was. He was selfless in serving others, which we saw both in his career choice and in how he sacrificed to make sure his family had everything it needed. He had a tremendous heart for others, one that had a quiet depth to it. He might not speak often, but when he did, his words conveyed meaning. There was a genuineness to him that meant what you saw was what you got, there was nothing artificial about him at all. And he was a man of character and integrity, a wholeness that everyone came to understand.

We marked Fathers’ Day yesterday (it’s not right to say we celebrated it, given the circumstances). To become a father is fundamentally a foundational act: you are establishing something you intend to be permanent, to live on forever. Mike lived a whole life, devoted to establishing something permanent, and as he would look around today at everyone gathered here, I believe he would feel he was a success. Who a father is, his values, he hopes will live on after he’s gone. I believe Mike’s will, because of his grandchildren–and it’s with them that I want to close today.

I want the four of you to know, to never doubt, that you were loved by your Grampa, that he was incredibly proud of you. And, everything we’ve talked about here today about him, lives on in you.

  • Naomi, you are persistent. You didn’t give up on college, you went back to classes this year, and I know that made him proud. You are also incredibly genuine. Your Grampa lives in you.
  • Monica, you have such a heart for others, and a quiet depth about you. You have your Grampa’s heart. He lives in you.
  • David, you too are called to work with your hands in simple work, and you are becoming a man of incredible character and integrity. Your Grampa lives in you.
  • And Sarah, I won’t say that you’re stubborn, but I will say you’re determined, and that you also know there’s a right way to do things. And your selfless serving of others is reflected in how you serve the Lord. Your Grampa lives in you.

At our funerals, the stories that are told won’t be about how early we walked, or our grades, or that time we stayed late on that project, or made this incredible Powerpoint…none of the things the world says are important. Instead, the stories that will be told will be about the life we lead, our values, and the legacy we leave behind in our children and grandchildren.

And so, as we commend Mike’s remains to the earth and his soul to his Lord and Saviour, we reflect on the legacy of the man it was our privilege to know and to love, and we celebrate how he lives on.

One Tumultuous July

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. (Romans 8:35-37)

Can I just share a little of what my July was like? In the space of the previous month, here’s what I’ve faced (in no particular order):

  • My mother’s sudden hospitalization for a kidney infection, with the attendant disruption to our everyday lives of being at the hospital frequently (she’s better now, thanks be);
  • The unexpected death of a coworker, who in the space of a weekend had an accident around the home and lapsed into a coma from which she could not recover;
  • A longstanding friend’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, same as my mom; and if that wasn’t enough,
  • Her husband was taken to the ER with a mild heart attack;
  • The utterly unexpected firing of a longtime friend in very, very murky circumstances that leave me worried for what comes next;
  • My boss being taken ill with serious abdominal illness, hospitalized, and only gradually returning to work during a very hectic time at the office that I had to cover (on top of the above list); and
  • Another coworker’s father in law needing emergency surgery for an aortic aneurysm (they caught it in time)

And that’s just within the span of July, all happening to people around me who are part of my love and my life–and who therefore affect me with all of these goings-on. It’s overwhelming! This is a pretty scary list!

hairoutAt times like these, we can hear some pretty horrible theology from people. Well-meaning people, to be sure, but still, what they tell us can ruin our understanding of God if we let it happen. Things like, “It was God’s will.” (God does not will us disease! Disease is an effect of the brokenness we brought into the world from our expulsion from Eden.) Or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” (No! If anything, the Bible tells us, it’s more like there is nothing we can’t handle WHEN WE GIVE IT OVER TO GOD, not when we try to take it all on ourselves!)

And yet through this month of madness, I haven’t crumbled, I haven’t curled up into a ball in the corner. I have endured, and I am absolutely, utterly, completely convinced it’s only my faith in the power of Jesus Christ that has kept me together. I have been strengthened, indeed I have become “more than conquerors” by being able to turn to Christ, by placing myself and each of these situations in his hands, and by trusting in him to help me through. There are certainly days this month when it most certainly did not feel like “overwhelming victory,” yet here I am: assaulted, assailed, buffeted, but not breaking in the force of the storm. For that, I can only give everlasting thanks to Christ.

Come on, August, do your worst. I’ve got backup.