Love’s Tenacious Memory

There are childhood moments that will not let you loose. One of mine comes from 7th grade when I spent several days ravaged by an infernal fever. I remember the concern because the heat hovered near 104°. I remember delirium, the spinning room, fuzzy newsmen from 60 Minutes on the TV. I felt like I was trapped in a kaleidoscope. Mostly, though, I remember that long Sunday evening where my mom held my head in her lap on the living room couch. For hours, she stroked my sweaty hair.

My mother was not merely caring for me. She was fighting for me. Because I have children of my own now, I know that my mother felt a pain in her bones that my little body could not yet know. My mom guided me down the hall and helped to lower my steaming body into our old porcelain tub. She filled the bath with water and ice. I remember the shock shimmying up my spine, me gasping for air. I quivered and ached while my mom poured all her love and energy and fierceness into that fight. And my mom won. The fever cried uncle.

For graduate school, I returned to living at home, driving 97 miles north two times a week for classes. On those pre-dawn mornings when I would travel, my mom would pack my lunch. Some would say it’s goofy for a grown man to have his mom packing his lunch. Maybe, but the fact is that those days I was hacking my way through a dark space, and my mom wanted a tangible way to say, You’re not alone. You don’t have to do this by yourself. I don’t remember much about those lunches, but I do remember one note she dropped in the brown bag. I won’t share what the note said, it still feels like a secret between a mother and a son. But the love was strong. It sits, even now, in my drawer, a mere scrap of paper that emanates potent mysteries and the kind of presence that perhaps only a mother can give.

My mom waged a long, fierce battle with cancer, and we buried her in January. In her last months, the effects of radiation and multiple rounds of chemotherapy did a cruel work, degrading her cognitive skills. Often she would be mid-sentence and lose the words she wanted to say or forget conversations from a few moments previous. Names, dates and details were often elusive. I flew to Texas last July to visit her, just me and her. It was difficult to see her in pain, though I was so proud of her fight and her spunk. She was determined for us to get out to the courtyard, by the soothing water, before our visit ended. On my last night, we made it. It took my mom hours to work her way up to it, to get dressed and manage all the simple things that require herculean effort when your body has an enemy coursing through its veins.

One evening, we sat in her room alone. She looked over at me from her bed with great intention: “Winn, even if someday I forget your name, I will never forget you.”

My eyes turned wet. My voice cracked. “I know, mom. I know.”

St. Paul said that love holds fast even when knowledge fails, even when our memory or our grip on reality fails. Paul was right; I testify to this truth.

I can read you Scriptures explaining how God is like a mother hen who gathers up her chicks and Scriptures insisting God will never forsake or abandon us. Or I can tell you stories about my mom who spent her life fighting fevers and enacting hope and assuring me she would never, ever forget.