Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The Necessary Ministry of Remembering

On Tuesday, I said goodbye to Mom. She has been on the brink ever since dementia took hold over a year ago, and now she is on the edge of death.  I will be surprised if she makes it to Christmas.

It’s been an agonizing journey for Mom—as well as all the family. It’s one thing when life is extended; it’s another when death is stretched out.

Witnessing death’s withering work is heartrending. I caress Mom’s forehead, hoping she will open her eyes and speak one more time. But she doesn’t. Her emaciated 70-pound body lies comatose. She, like other guests in this care center/transit hotel, awaits departure from this temporal existence.

While death takes many things from us, it cannot steal memories. And remembering is important. It’s why we celebrate Advent. The cycle of the liturgical year is a way of keeping in memory things that have happened. And this is important. As Margaret Bendroth put it in The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, “The past tense is essential to our language of faith; without it, our conversation is limited and thin—and growing thinner all the time.” Without remembering the reality of what Christmas is about, contemporary holiday celebrations become superficial.

The past tense is also essential to relationships. Remembering helps me to see beyond the present. As I look at Mom, it is obvious the petals are gone, but I can still see the rose. Peering into her face I remember a vibrant, beautiful, classy woman. A former Miss Lakeside, my Dad clearly married up. We keep on a wall a picture of Mom, a striking photograph presented to her by Nordstrom for her excellent customer service. She worked in the high-end department of women’s clothes and always had an eye for fashion. During the years she and Dad owned and operated their own clothing store, she was in her sweet spot. But beauty was only one part of mom.

Standing near her bed, I suddenly recall our Friday night ritual watching Twilight Zone episodes and drinking Delaware Punch. It was about the only time of the week she sat down and relaxed. She thrived on activity. Was drawn to labor. There are few people I have known in life who worked harder than Mom. But as dementia set in, she began to forget how to cut a rose, iron a shirt, or keep order in the kitchen. She wanted so desperately to assist, but the moment came when she couldn’t. I’m certain this created some of Mom’s greatest grief.

When mom was at her peak, she was full on. Memories can change, but I know this to be sure—she was a fierce protector of my sister and I. She was also a strong competitor. She was all in if someone suggested Cribbage or Skip-Bo or Oh Hell! She worked long hours in a pharmacy, but it did not keep her from the active life of making our house a home. She loved the Chargers until they became the Judases, served Dad as if he were a king, and graciously cooked my favorite meals upon request.

I think faith was more of a duty in her earlier life, but Mom became more tender to God as she grew older. Given her early Sunday School days, a father-in-law who was an old-school Baptist minister, and my dad, who was on a long journey back to God, Mom was not as highly devoted as some. But she has always loved God and lived Christ. Though she lies still and nearly lifeless in this hospice bed, I know she does more than ever. There was never a day she did not support my call to ministry. Christianity as a religion gradually grew into Jesus and a relationship.

Something in mom’s constitution enabled her to outlive her tribe of brothers and sisters. Maybe it was her insistence on drinking at least one Coke a day. All of her brothers and sisters have passed, as well as so many she and dad hung out with. Yet, she still hangs on. It’s God who numbers our days, but Mom seems to want a say. “I will leave when I am ready.”  

Yesterday, preparing to head back to Portland, my wife asked if I would like to see Mom one more time. My first thought was no. It’s too hard. I said my goodbyes and told Mom I would see her on the other side. Nonetheless, this still, quiet voice—sometimes identified as conscience or more specifically God—compelled me to go back. One more time we passed through this facility lined with people in beds or wheelchairs, most staring off into vacant space. Coming to mom’s room, I held mom’s hand and spoke into her life one more time. One last moment—I think. And then Mom opened her eyes and with words barely audible said, “I love you.”

In his On the Brink of Everything, Parker Palmer reflects on getting old and concludes, “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am.” The alternative is a life that showed up, embraced it, lived out one’s true self, and was fierce with life’s realities. I have been graced with a mom who showed up.

Leave a Reply