Brown Bags & A Mother’s Love

I was 22 years old, working two jobs to pay for seminary. Three mornings a week, I’d rise long before the sun to pack my books in the car and drive the 101 miles to classes. Before walking out the garage door, I’d open the fridge and find a brown bag lunch sitting on the top shelf.

Maybe it’s odd for a mother to pack her grown son’s lunch, but it was how my mom knew to show she loved me. She saw me hacking my way through a treacherous, dark season of the soul, and she didn’t know what to do. More complicated, I was changing, growing, entering a world she didn’t understand or always agree with—and she didn’t know how to be present with me there (what parent does?). She could sense how I felt very alone, unmoored, experiencing the isolation of not really fitting anywhere anymore. My mom, the woman who’d always fixed and mended and helped me maneuver life, had no idea how to help.

But you know what she could do? She could wrap pizza in aluminum foil or pile Parmesan crusted chicken in Tupperware. And after hours parsing Greek participles or poring over Augustine or Daniel, I’d open my brown bag. Often, tucked next to a ham sandwich or leftover meatloaf, I’d find a little note penned in her elegant cursive. One still sits in a box in my closet, a post-it size card bordered with lavender orchids. Do you think the Apostle Paul felt understood, she wrote, or like he fit in? I love you.

My mom didn’t know what to say, or what to do. She couldn’t fix anything. But she could reach out with her tangible brown-bag love. She could say, “I see you.” I can’t think of a better gift a parent can give.This picture was my last time to be with her. But her love remains with me. This fierce mother’s love that wrote notes and packed brown bags and tried her best to see.

That Reckless Christmas

christmas wrapping

I planned for the Christmas of 1988 for at least 7 months. It was my senior year in high school, and I knew everything in my world would be changing. Soon, I’d leave home for college and I’d move into new orbits and of course, I’d be scraping pennies for the foreseeable future. So beginning in May, I revved up the lawnmower and went to work, cutting yards all summer and squirreling away almost every dollar. In December, I reached deep into the top drawer where, for months, I’d stashed my loot and pulled out fistfuls of greenbacks. I spread the treasure onto the floor, mouth agape. There I was, like Scrooge McDuck, rollicking in all the wealth. I counted $1250.

For the next two weeks, I went on a buying spree, intending to surprise my family (including my grandparents and Great Grandma Sparks) with the most lavish gifts on Christmas morning. I don’t remember a thing I bought, save one. At Service Merchandise, I found a combo tape player/radio deck that mounted under the kitchen cabinet, above the counter. My mom, a musical soul if ever there was one, could listen to Perry Como or the London Philharmonic while whipping up her chicken, broccoli and rice casserole or her parmesan chicken bites.

While I don’t remember most of the gifts, I remember the feeling. I remember wrapping those boxes and slipping them under the tree, so eager for everyone to catch first sight of them and wonder what in blue Christmas blazes was going on. I remember my joy at watching them unwrap their presents, the joy at doing something that felt, to a 17 year old, outrageous.

Some of us poo-poo gift-giving this time of year, and I acknowledge we’ve run amuck with our lust for more. I can only say I’m so glad I spent a summer sweating and saving, that I blew every dime I had, saying “I love you” in one grand, extravagant gesture that, for me, felt like tossing a match onto a pile of cash. And I think my mom was grateful too; she kept that tape player in the kitchen long after cassette tapes were overwhelming landfills the world over. It stayed right there until the day mom and dad said goodbye to that old house. I like to think that some days, after I was off in Colorado or South Carolina with a family of my own, that she would stop and look at that worthless pile of metal and plastic and smile and maybe put her hand to her breast and remember.

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.

Grief and Gratitude

It is a strange thing to see your mother in a wooden box, lying there so gently, as if you could simply lean over and whisper into her ear to wake. For her funeral, my mom wore the dress she had originally purchased for Miska’s and my wedding. My mom released her son into the world. And now we have released my mom into God’s care.

It is such a strange thing to lay a hand on your mother’s casket, to speak a blessing over her life. Emotions and memories rush forward at such a moment, but the sturdiest thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude for her tears and her tenacity, for her commitment to my dad, for the ways she sought out those who had been left out or wounded or silenced. One morning before her funeral, I ran my old jogging route, and I stopped in front of the house that was my childhood home. For several minutes, I walked back and forth in front of the old house, fearing the neighbors would think me a loon. I remembered all the years, all the tenderness. I remembered a few arguments, tense moments. I remembered laughter and meals around the table. I remembered love. Through tears, the words that spilled out over and again were only this: ‘thank you.’

A friend recently passed Kahil Gibran’s words to me: When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. And this is true. Sometimes you also weep because of regrets or things that will never be. But somehow it is true that if you trace those things back far enough they do somehow work their way to delight, to hopes, to joys you knew or joys that lingered as you searched for more. In the strange twist, grief and gratitude seem to walk together.

As I say goodbye, for now, the only words I have are this: Mom, I love you, and I thank you. 

The Blessing over Mom’s Resting Place

mom's stone of blessing

We buried my mom today, and a craftsman chiseled this blessing into the stone that greets you as you enter the grounds. This blessing reminds us that this soil, like all God’s earth, is hallowed. I am so thankful for my mom’s life. We have now returned my mother to God’s care and her body to the earth, where God’s very ground will cover her and surround her with the fullness of love.

The Spirit of God is around you
In the air that you breathe
And his glory in the light
That you see
And in the fruitfulness
Of the earth and the joy
Of its creation
He has written for you day by day
His revelation
He has granted you day by day
Your daily bread

Mom’s Fight

She sat next to me on that gray and blue upholstered couch, the one that pulled out into a bed whenever guests stayed overnight. She sat next to me and stroked my hair, my hair wet with sweat from a fever that revved to 103º and was still pouring on steam. It was a Sunday night, strange those hazy memories: 60 Minutes flickering on the screen, heat, fuzzy, dizzy. I felt like I was trapped in a kaleidoscope.

But my mom sat next to me. I don’t remember anything she said. But she sat there, and she fought the fever with me. She fought it for me. She loved me. Because I’m a father now, I know that she was fighting harder than me, that she felt a kind of pain my little, feverish body couldn’t yet know.

With the fever still climbing, my mom put me in the bathtub with cold water and ice. I shivered and ached while she poured all her love and energy and fierceness into that fight. And she won. The fever cried uncle.

Today, my mom battles cancer. She’s tenacious and strong; but she’s got a real brawl on her hands. I wish I could sit with her on the couch and hold her hand and let her rest while I fought for her. I wish I could do more than pray to God, more than text a line of love or plan a visit a few months away. I wish I could say more to my dad than I love you, and you’re not alone. I wish I could get my hands around that cancer’s neck and squeeze the very life out of it. I wish I could make that bastard cry uncle.