Mama

Some of us begin life with two parents and a series of outside expectations, and such was not the case with me.  I came to live with my grandparents when I was 6 mos. old, and I never knew any other individuals as my parents.  I had many family members, but these two people I called “Mama” and “Daddy”.  Five years later, my sister came to make the family four.  We were a special group of people and I grew up not questioning the fact that I was not biologically theirs, their respective ages, or the supposed differences between our generations.

God reached into my life and gave me two loving individuals, long past the “normal” age of having children, to raise and love me as their own, and I cannot convey the number of times I’ve been stunned into silent awe by the gratefulness I feel at having been granted both a “Mother” and a “Father” of my very own when, indeed, I might have known a life very different from the one I did have.  I think the first time I can remember being forcibly called to that feeling as the first time we sang a choral arrangement of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” in St. Matthew’s adult choir when I was 11.  The words

And from my stricken heart, with tears,

Two wonders I confess:

The wonders of redeeming Love,

And my unworthiness.

were resounding in my heart while I took into myself the realization (perhaps for the first time) that my “parents” were given to me out of their love long before I could have done anything at all to deserve that love or the sheer kindness of their decision.  It was then I understood– at age 11– that worthiness is a deception.  One is given the things one has in life, often without regard to whether or not they deserve, earned, or should have those things, and that the people who love us (who truly love us) go on loving us far beyond anything we could ever do to merit that love.  Which is what God speaks of through Jesus in all those gospels dedicated to the subject of loving one another.

My mother was a singular human in her inability to accept that she was ever doing enough for others.  If you’ve read some popular psychology (stuff that mostly passes for hogwash and is usually believed, but interesting all the same) you’ll have read about the “love languages”.  Well, if they exist, my mother’s first love language was unquestionably “Acts of Service”.  Her second would have been “Gifts”.  My mother loved to give and do for others, and as 24 years of diabetes, in addition to deteriorating mobility, and post polio syndrome slowly deprived her of the ability to do for others I watched her suffer in ways I didn’t know people could suffer because, if this man’s hypothesis about love languages is correct, she was slowly being deprived of the ability to demonstrate her love for others.

Still, I’ll say this for my mama, she knew the meaning of the word “perseverance”.  Born in the Great Depression and a teacher from the time she was 21 she was a stubborn and persistent person when it came to the things she believed, and also to the things she fought for in life– including her own.  While I was in the hospital sitting for hours on end in her room with her largely unaware of me (due mostly to hypoxia and the infection), many people came in and out: health care professionals mostly.  These people would ask about her medical history, and as I talked with one respiratory specialist about that history she observed, “Perhaps it would be easier to describe what she didn’t ever have rather than what she did.”  That was a strange moment of levity for us both in the midst of one of the saddest weeks I’ve experienced to date.  I did laugh, but it was also a pause in my thoughts where I realized that Mama had a bizarre history when it came to surviving the unlikeliest of things that often killed people who contracted them.

And yet, this woman, whose courage I so often admired, I knew had no real strength of her own when it came to believing in her own worth.  Persecuted by her own mother (with whom she spent most of her childhood, as her father was a traveling engineer for Bell Telephone), my mother was a person whose quintessential trait may have been her lack of faith in her worth as a human, and this too I observed in my middle teen years while my father, her strongest defender, was dying.  I watched her image of herself, her trust in herself, and her ability to trust even the smallest decisions erode with Daddy’s failing health over those long months of his illness and subsequent death.  She had, in her husband, a bedrock of faith, and that he always believed in her, supported her, and loved her, had allowed her to shore up enough defenses to trust that this man– whom she so adored– would not love her if she was worthless.

As the years passed and several family members had care of Mama, including the 5 years when Art and I were her care-givers, all of us failed to convince this seemingly indomitable woman that she was not a loathsome burden because she believed that she could do so little for the people who were opening their homes to her.

It was during this time that I learned we can burden ourselves loving others if we believe that we can never deserve their love.  The idea that had begun when I was just 11 had blossomed now into a full understanding that what we give to and receive from others has very little do with each other: people give what they wish, and people take what they need.  The point at which deserving enters any of that is the point at which humanity has crafted this elaborate scheme involving merit and deserving.

We, humans, flawed hopelessly could never deserve God’s love anymore than I, a tiny baby of only 6 months, could have deserved to have parents given to me when other babies in the same community go without loving homes, shelter, food, or clothing.  Over the years of my mother’s descent into this phase (dying) I have realized many things, but one thing comes home to me again and again.

I would not be the person I am:

Daughter

Mother

Sister

Musician

Teacher

Friend

Believer

without my Mother and Father’s example and loving patience in teaching me what they believed those things should look like.  While I do some things differently, while I believe and practice a few things in each of those roles differently than they did, I know that none of those roles would look the same on me (indeed, might never have emerged in me) if not for my parents’ combined forces in my life.  Furthermore, I learned last year (or rather came to believe) that while we all have these roles we play in our lives they cannot ever encompass the totality of a human life.  I tried to tell my mother that and failed.  As she lost the ability to perform her roles in life to the demanding standards she often exacted of herself she tortured herself into believing that she was not worth the love of the people around her.  It caused me a great deal of grief to see this and not be able to alleviate these things in her mind, but that grief ended for me with her death.  For I do believe that even as it is written of God in Colossians, that all who believe may “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  She has gone to understand those mysteries and now there is no doubt for her, and perhaps she no longer believes in the falsehood peddled by those wishing to justify what they have to those who do not have similar gifts.

For as a teacher, I saw the slower learn faster than their peers in singing.  I saw the gentle souls reap cruelty from their “friends” while the adults around them would also judge them harshly.  And I saw that we are not equals until we believe we are, and we will not believe that we are equals until we do away with dialogues of deserving or merit, for what a person believes they deserve they are often denied, and in justification of this we hear the words (spoken to me by the parents I loved), “Life’s not fair.”

No, Mama.  No, Daddy.  It’s not, because if it was I would have been left to the lot assigned me rather than being taken in, cherished, loved and nurtured by the pair of you.  Life is not fair because humanity sows it with inequity, but we can do better, and I believe in this too.

Thank you for my life, Mama, Papa.  I can do no better to thank you, except perhaps to live it.  I won’t do it as you would because I did not have your childhoods.  I had the childhood you endowed me with, and I was very fortunate to have it indeed.  I can’t promise you I won’t cry at times, but I can promise to live my life.  If I can spend it being grateful to you and the other lives in mine that have shaped it, I think that’s not a bad way to spend it.

I just know I didn’t deserve it.

I love you both.  The Brahms Requiem this spring was apparently for you both because I know that in truth:

Der gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand, und keine Qual rühret sie an.

I’ll see you someday again.

Love,

Your Daughter, Rebecca Caroline

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on June 16, 2012.

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