My mother passed away yesterday, November 24 2011, Thanksgiving Day, after a decade-long battle with cancer. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, her death doesn't spoil Thanksgiving. In fact, there's something profoundly right about her going home for good on this day.
On October 3, 1789, president George Washington issued a proclamation officially designating a national Day of Thanksgiving. In that proclamation he urged Americans to reflect on and thank God for the many blessings He had bestowed on the fledgling nation. At one point he referred to "the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war," meaning the ways God had intervened against human odds in the Revolutionary War. Thanksgiving is a time to remember and express thankfulness for the times God has intervened in the normal course of human events, and brought about good for us.
Which is what makes mom's death on Thanksgiving Day so fitting. Contrary to what might be expected, I don't find that mom's passing is a taint on the holiday; some dark and ugly bruise that we must now dress ourselves up in order to cover and hide beneath a crisply-pressed exterior, and around which we must gingerly move through our future holidays so as to avoid re-aggravating that tender spot. No, no bruise this. This is gratitude erupting from the very midst of loss, and joy making sure that no matter how much grief sulks and loudly insists on being heard, that it will not have the final say. The hand of a "favorable interposition of God's Providence" is at work here.
In some ways I have a unique perspective on my mother, because I'm the only human being on the planet who knows from personal experience what it's like to be her son. She wasn't a perfect mom, but she was far closer to being so than she could ever bring herself to believe. A couple thoughts on my mother's death this Thanksgiving Day:
The Nature of Love
Mom defines for me the essence of what love is. Her love for me was unbelievable: pure, unwavering as a granite mountain, tinged with a fierceness that added a little spice to the gentle tenderness of motherly care. Being loved like that cannot help but change a person. As a pastor I find that many people have a hard time believing that God loves them unconditionally, and this keeps them from knowing Him deeply. Whatever my other faults may be, I never had that particular problem. I've never had difficulty believing and trusting in God's love, and I think one major reason I find unconditional love believable is that I experienced it.
I also enjoyed watching mom's love for me spread to my family. I know my mom would have worked hard, with some success, to love and accept anyone that I chose to marry, but she poured her heart into my wife as if Amy were her own daughter. My gorgeous bride has reflected on that relationship herself.
And the grandkids! She reveled in them, carefully observing and adoring every aspect of their character. Mom was always coming up with silly little ideas of how to have fun, like the "Christmas Band," or hiding the pickle ornament on the tree (whichever grandkid found it got to open the first present), and playing the Jelly Belly Game with Jalapeno Jelly Bellies so the spiciness would make us cry. Most often these silly ideas wouldn't turn out nearly as well as she had planned, but we laughed anyway. And she kept coming up with new ones.
A Touch of Class
Mom was the one who brought fun, taste, and class into our home when I was growing up. My sister was never much into the finer or "girly" things, preferring horses and cats to tea parties and lace. And my dad and I were, well, Guerino men (which says it all according to my wife!): rational, task-oriented, strong-minded, introverted. Mom's love for finer things revolutionized what would have otherwise been our dull trappings. My mother drank beauty in like water. Some of the clothing, furniture, and decorations that came into our home made my dad and I shake our heads, but the teasing mom had to endure from her men was tinctured with respect. We knew that she was our connection to this strange yet essential world of artistry, feeling, aesthetics, and relationships.
A Doxology in Darkness
My mom's story wouldn't be complete without acknowledging the role that pain played in shaping her, deepening her, and cementing her faith in Christ.
One example is the father-shaped hole in my mother's heart. Mom was abandoned by her father when she was too young to even know him, and was raised by a single mom in her early years. My grandmother re-married and my Grandpa Jack was a great step-dad for my mother, but the abandonment from her biological father permanently shaped her. For her whole life she remembered vividly the deep, throbbing ache to know her daddy that is one of her earliest memories. And when, as an adult, she did find her biological father many years later she was profoundly disappointed. She wrote eloquently about all this herself, and how she clung to the Bible's promise that God would be a father to the fatherless. You can read her short blog posts on this topic here: part 1, part 2, and part 3. People in pain either blame God and run from him, or they trust God and run to him. Mom did the latter, and that shaped both the person she was here, and the person she is now in the presence of her true Father.
One of mom's favorite photos is this picture of me and my beautiful daughter Elizabeth. Mom loved her son and loved her granddaughter, but she also found a profound sense of healing in the fact that her son is a loving father to her granddaughter, and mom and I spoke of that often. The grace of God amazes me. She put her trust for full healing - even from her father ache - in Christ. In return not only does He give her the promise of eternal life, but even some soothing of that father ache in this life, by seeing her son be the father to her beloved granddaughter that she never had herself. She once told me that in some way, my relationship with my daughter Elizabeth "redeems" her own fatherless pain. God is like that, turning death and pain on its own head and bringing life into valleys full of dead bones. He's a master at orchestrating favorable interpositions of His Providence in the most unexpected places.
For these and many other reasons I find that mom's death on Thanksgiving Day is entirely fitting. I am thankful that my mother is no longer battling cancer. I'm thankful that she's now awash in the river of life that flows from the throne of God. I'm thankful that her father ache is completely and utterly gone, and that even now as I write she is no doubt squealing with delight (as only she would) in the presence of the true and only Father, the one Father toward whom all her earthly father-longings were really pointing all along.
Will Thanksgiving Day be a tainted holiday for me in the future because of my mother's death? I don't think so. For this is was the day that real life began for her. And it's a day for the rest of us to commemorate, remember, and be thankful for the favorable interposition of God's Providence into our lives that was Judith Marjeanne Guerino.
Happy Thanksgiving indeed.