The room is tiny, but cozy. The walls are studded with photos and paintings that have been carefully curated by family members who know the room’s occupant well. A few ceramic roosters occupy spaces on shelves and bedside tables, each one lovingly selected from an overflowing collection gathered across the course of a whole lifetime. The blinds are pulled almost shut, hiding away the Portland rain, and the lights are dimmed. Peaceful piano music merges with the rhythmic hum of an oxygen tank – one of the few things that marks this room as “medical.”
In the very center, stands a hospital bed, surrounded by a rocking chair, an easy chair and several folding chairs. These seats are usually filled with visitors, who talk in soft tones and pray and sometimes cry. But mostly, they trade stories with the woman in the bed. She is tucked in beneath a fluffy white duvet so cloud-like it almost looks as if Heaven has come to meet her halfway.
Loretta is 87, but I’m pretty sure her mind is still 24. Named after a movie star, she is as aware and intelligent as anyone I have ever known. Her dark hair, fair skin and dancing blue eyes hint at her heritage, and when she speaks, there’s no doubt – traces of Ireland and Brooklyn lace and lilt her words. She has impeccable grammar and beautiful handwriting. She has an old world charm about her that is impossible to fake or to shake. Gracious. Elegant. The things I wish I could be, but I was born in the wrong era and the wrong country. I’ve seen the pictures of Loretta when she was young and they tell the clear story of a beautiful woman who loves fashion, loves fun and loves life.
Now, as I enter the room where she is living out her last handful of days, she is still that woman. Though she is in a great deal of pain, and though I am the newest member of her family, her eyes sparkle when she sees me. She takes my hand in hers and says, “Oh Bo, pray with me, please.”
I’m always struck by the way our lives gather in around us when we are nearing the end. Mostly, what gathers here is: people. Her people. Her six kids and 34 grandkids. My kids joined that big grandkid number when I married her son in 2019, and she did not hesitate to claim them, and me, as her very own.
I start to pray…”Jesus, you’re welcome here…” but I’m struggling. She’s struggling to breathe and I’m struggling to pray. The moment is thick with the weighty presence of things I cannot see. Anticipation for eternity. A little fear because this is uncharted territory. Hope for the healing that is coming. I am undone, as I consider all that is waiting for her just outside the confines of this hospital bed. I grab my phone and pull up Psalm 139 and start to read out loud. Oh, Lord, You see me and You know me. I see her breathing calm and her expression settle into something that’s not quite peace, but also not fear.
Throughout the morning, her kids come and go and so does her awareness of what’s happening in the room. Medication and illness have clouded some of her quick wit, but not much of it. When she wakes from a five-minute sleep, she almost always has something clever to say that makes us laugh or cry or pretend to be shocked at her faux-swearing (“It’s a melluvahess”).
When Cliff and his sister leave the room, she crooks her finger, motioning me to come up close. She looks me straight in the eye and says, “Bo, my children…I just want my children to be fine…”.
I smile and squeeze her hand gently. “Oh, mom, your children will be better-than-fine. I’m sure of it. You don’t need to worry.”
She fades from me for a minute, because holding focus is so difficult at this stage of life when sleep is always reaching in to steal her away. But her eyes flutter open suddenly and she lifts her head from the pillow and says straight to my heart: “I LOVE your husband.”
I want to cry. Partly because we share the very same feelings about my husband, but mostly because I am also a mom.
I have agonized over four humans more than I have agonized over anything. I have prayed and cried and thought and planned and manipulated and failed and forgiven and been forgiven a thousand times over. I have held their broken toys and their broken hearts, boldly promising that we can fix them both. I have felt like the best mom and the very worst. I have dreamed a thousand dreams for them and fought some ill advised battles for them. Now, I have added another six to the same space in my heart. When my story moves toward the door of heaven, and my life begins to gather in around me, these are the faces that will hold my attention. They carry the full weight of my love in a way that no one else does, no one else can.
When Loretta Brady looked in my eyes and said, ‘I love your husband,” she was trusting me with something so dear to her, so invaluable and incredible that has always belonged to her in a way that he has belonged to no one else. But now, as she prepares to make her great escape to eternity, she wants to make sure that I am on her team. With the knowing and the dreaming and the fighting and the fixing. She has been a daughter and a wife and a cousin and a friend – but first and foremost, she is a mom. And moms do not let go until the very end – and maybe not even then.
The road to his resting place is not long or winding, but my stomach is in knots as I drive. I feel carsick and heartsick. On impulse, I turn into a grocery store parking lot to grab some flowers to place on his headstone. I’ve never done this before, because I hate the way they die and add to the sadness of cemeteries, but today I want to carry beauty into this space, if only for a day or two. That’s how life is anyway. We show up, we blossom, we fade, we bloom again – but only on the other side of sorrow.
Today would have been my husband’s 60th birthday. I feel the weight of the milestone-that-will-never-be creating an ache in my chest for the party we will never have. I miss the years that didn’t get to be, even though he’s been gone long enough that I can no longer build detailed images in my head of how they might have looked. This is so disorienting to me. In a world filled with plenty of hard, cold, tangible pain, it’s frustrating to process something so nebulous and ethereal that still has razor-sharp edges.
I know exactly what flowers to buy. Red roses. We had an ongoing argument in our relationship about roses. I like pink best and he felt pink roses were “something you give your grandma.” He loved the romance of red roses; the passion. I grab a single rose and resist the urge to explain it to the cashier. “These are for my husband,” I want to say, “it’s his birthday.” But I don’t.
Back on the road to the cemetery, my heart beats something fierce. I take a deep breath and try to name what I’m feeling. Fear. Sorrow. Both at once, a chaotic chorus flooding my brain with warnings to run. Go get coffee! Go visit a friend! Target is right there! I can’t figure out why this is so hard. I am not sad for Steve, I know he is living his best life. I know he is not really buried six feet deep. I am not sad for me, exactly, because my life is truly lovely. And yet – I am wary and I don’t know why.
Lost in the spinning of my own mind, I drive right past the entrance to the cemetery and have to backtrack and that little mistake presses on a raw nerve, adding anger to an already overloaded emotional bucket. I let out an expletive just as “I’ll never be more loved than I am right now,” floats through my headphones. I pull over and breathe those words in deep. I close my eyes and visualize that truth making its way through the hallways of my heart, knocking on a secret door, and settling into the place that needs it most. If you asked me, “What place needs it most?” I couldn’t tell you, but I’ll know soon enough. Because, turns out, I’m going to run into an old friend here.
Aside: Apart from losing someone I love, the icons surrounding death are the hardest part for me. Grave stones. Funeral homes. Caskets. Mausoleums. These images create a surreality around Steve’s absence that casts a weird haze over everything.
Steve’s headstone is simple and lovely. It took six months after he was buried for me and my kids to decide on which words we would etch into stone, the words that would capture the miracle of his life and his love and his faith. I still don’t know if we did it, but his stone simply says: Father. Friend. Faithful. I run my fingers over the white letters as image after image rushes through my brain like a grainy reel-to-reel movie. Our wedding. Holding our babies. The first night in our first house. That day in a doctor’s office. The day he held his grand baby. The day he flew away Home. Image. Image. Image. Finally, the movie stops on one, and I know it well. It’s a literal photograph that lives on my instagram.
Thirty years after becoming a wife; ten days after becoming a widow.
I see her pinched face and I know: this is why I’m here. She is the one I’ve come to meet. Our relationship is complicated. I admire her and I’m disappointed in her. I’m proud of her and ashamed of her. She is my secret frenemy. But today, I realize, is the day I set her free. So I walk through the rows of graves, and I talk to that scared, sad widow. I tell her all her emotions are valid. I forgive her for not being enough. I thank her for stepping up to the plate, no matter how imperfectly. I tell her, for the first time ever, that she is not responsible for as much as she thinks she is. Her kids, her husband, her friends – they are all held within the love of God and it’s not up to her to keep His reputation safe for them. Finally, I tell her that we’re both going to be okay. Even better than okay. We’re going to find love, we’re going to heal, and we’re going to hope again. Not everyone will like the way we do it, but we’ve cared way too much for far too long about what other people think and there is so much beauty coming.
I don’t know how long I am there, but it’s awhile. I stay, silently waiting until I feel finished. I want to feel better, but I don’t really; not yet. I am sad and I hate feeling sad, but I’m learning to let myself feel it instead of trying to fix it. Finally, I lay my roses on the headstone with the three words and the name of someone so dear to me that I could never capture the love I feel in a million words or a million years. I am grateful. I am exhausted. I am loved.
I do not for a minute understand the way life twists and bends and turns. I only know that every single stretch of the road we are on is significant and sacred. The beauty. The battles. The sorrow. The triumphs. These are the days ordained for me, and this is the story He is writing. I can trust Him with the pen as I allow myself to fully feel and live all of it… all the way Home.
I read a quote that I loved today (or maybe the quote read me:)
“The fears you don’t face become your walls.”
I am easily shut in by fear – I’ve been dealing with it all of my adult life. I’ve tried praying it away, rebuking it away, denying it exists and berating myself into bravery. None of that had any long-lasting impact. What has – and continues to work miracles in my life – is a little trick I learned a few years ago.
In every scary situation when I feel fear closing in on every side, I ask myself: Where/what is the door? Sometimes it’s an honest conversation. Sometimes it’s a visit to a doctor. Sometimes it’s an appointment with my therapist. Often, it’s a finding a piece of truth about the love of God that has gotten pushed to the background of my life. But there is always a door – and the thing is, the door almost always feels scary too. So I usually have to get to the place where the fear of staying locked up is more intimidating than the fear of taking the next right step to get free.
Do you feel stuck in a suffocating room of fear today? Maybe start with this question: Where is the door? Where is the truth that will set you free? All of my experience in those dark spaces makes me certain of this: Our great God will lead the way to your liberation and give you the courage to follow. I can’t wait to see who you become on the other side of that beautiful, dangerous door.
We are in such a talky time. We talk to be heard. We talk to gain power. We talk to defend our positions. We talk to defend God. We talk to process our own pain. We talk with voices. We talk with pens. We talk with keyboards.
Jesus said: I can’t do a solitary thing on my own; I listen, then I decide. (John 5:30* The Message.)
Jesus, who already knew the answers, made listening the priority.
Jesus, who only had a short time to save the world, made listening the priority.
Jesus, who could have talked anyone into anything, made listening the priority.
I make a living talking, but I’m learning – more than any other thing right now – that listening is the better part.
Talking has often gotten me in trouble. Listening never has.
Listening is teaching me more about God than I’ve ever known, and it’s teaching me so much more about people. Listening to people AND THEN to God about what I’ve heard is one of my newest and fondest spiritual practices.
I love what I’m discovering as I listen between the lines to the people I love without simultaneously preparing my response.
I am learning about fears and joy and passion and pain.
I am learning about dreams and hurts and doubts and delights.
My ears are turning my heart so soft.
Last night, after an exasperating round of stubbornness with our puppy, I heard Cliff call her “My little pudding pop.” And that made me fall in love with him all over again. Four words reminded me of the way Cliff loves his people and his puppy. Four words showed me parts of his heart that not everyone else can see. Words carry so much weight, but they are meaningless without someone to listen.
Listening is beautiful and it is a weapon in the war against hatred and indifference.
May we grow ever more passionate about hearing His voice more clearly than all the other noise, and hearing each other with Spirit-fueled grace.
*Sheesh, the gospel of John is working me over right now. I started with the Johanine letters they show so much of John’s heart for people. Now I’m reading his gospel through the lens of what I learned in his letters and – holy Moses! – this is beautiful. Just wanted to share that down here in the footnotes for anyone who might be looking for a reading plan. Also wanted to share it because most of the words you’ll see or hear from me for the foreseeable future are plagiarized from the apostle John.
We have counted on preaching and teaching
to form the life of the Christian. But this strategy has not turned out well.
The result is that we have multitudes of Christians who
can hardly get along with themselves, much less others.”
~ Dallas Willard
For me, 2020 was the best of years and it was the worst of years. Newly married and loving my life, beauty stretched out over a seemingly-endless horizon. Then came the pandemic. Then daily riots broke out in my city. Then the 2020 election cycle. All these things converged at the same time churches were forced to suspend in-person gatherings in an effort to keep people safe. Church attendance has been a pillar of my life and I did not find online worship to be at all compelling (but I love and respect churches SO much for pivoting to that format).
Had you told me five years ago that I would go months without stepping inside a church building, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now that I’ve lived through that very reality, I’ve discovered something important and it’s this: The Church, as it stands right now, cannot handle the full weight of spiritual formation. In fact, I don’t think it was ever intended to. The Church is built for equipping. A ski shop can outfit you with all the essential equipment you need to tackle those slopes, but the ski shop cannot make you a great skier. That’s on you. That takes practice. That happens out there on the steep, steep mountain. Or, to use a metaphor I can actually relate to: A cookbook and a chef’s hat cannot make you a great cook. Only real time in the kitchen with a lot of success and a multitude of failures can do that.
2020 & 2021 have been exactly that for me: Time in the kitchen. It has been a time of reorientation, as the corporate Church was forcibly removed from the very center of everything I do, and the life and way and words of Jesus became a truer and more reliable compass. During this time, I ran into an old book by Dallas Willard called Renovation of the Heart and it has upended so many things while also setting so many things right. I won’t go deeply into the book’s content because it’s very dense and hard to capsulize, but I will say that it has led me to a more intense and intentional discipleship practice than ever in my 56 years of living. And it has been unbelievably difficult and unendingly beautiful.
Each morning, after reading something in the Bible, I sit down with my journal and the Holy Spirit and I get really, really honest about the Big 6. The Big 6 are the six things that comprise my whole life. They are:
3. Decisions (will, spirit, heart)
4. Relational Context
These six things are the rooms of the house where I live – and they will only be as healthy as the thing around which they orbit. Every day, I ask: Are my thoughts oriented fully around You and Your way? Are my feelings? Are my decisions? Is my body? Is my soul? Are my relationships?
And every day I discover stuff in myself that is incompatible with His way and His love for me. BUT…and this is big, every day I discover something more beautiful about Him than I’ve seen before – and that beauty covers my wounds and my failures and my inadequacies with grace, while still calling me to a higher, better life. Each day, I find that the Bible offers direct insight into WHO Jesus really is and WHO I really am – and when I bring those two truths together – boom! – real change is possible. And, wow, I feel that change happening – in the peace I have at night, in the way I respond to conflict, in the way I view my enemies, in the soul-deep joy I feel in spite of this season of global unrest.
Allowing His heart to form inside of my heart is not producing anything marketable. I’ve never written less or been less relevant in the Christian marketplace where I used to schlep my words, but it is producing so much LIFE. It’s life I thought I already had, but now I realize there is always so much more to experience of His love for us. I’m finally understanding that I will never get to the depths of His goodness, but I will happily keep drowning in it for all of eternity.
If you are longing for the life of Jesus to come alive in you and to work through you, could I suggest you start with your Big 6? I still love the Church fiercely, but going to church will not be enough. Listening to great teachers will not be enough. Paying your dues will not be enough. Spiritual formation is all about spending honest time with the Holy Spirit, letting Him examine our hearts and show us His way. It’s about inviting Him into road trips and long walks and quiet mornings to let Him do the work He came to do: Counsel and comfort.
Oh, how He longs to be with us. Oh, how He loves us.