In a chilly cafeteria, under cold florescent lighting, my mom and I washed down our dry breakfast biscuits with strong coffee alongside nurses and technicians who were rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. We shared a most unusual slumber party the previous night. I joined her as she sat vigil waiting for her husband of seven years to die. All night long, we would wake up and check to see if Ken’s soul had finally managed to wiggle free from a body that had been slowly deteriorating over the last three years. He remained unchanged for several hours, so at around six in the morning, we decided to get some breakfast.
Sometimes a person will unexpectedly catch a whiff of an old perfume or cologne that immediately transports them back to a moment twenty, thirty, or even fifty years ago. Grief, like some unwelcome fragrance, has that effect on people. Smack in the middle of losing one husband, my mom unexpectedly began to muse about how hard it was to lose her first marriage. “You know, when I married your dad, I married him for life. Even now, I miss that young man who captured my heart.” With that she fell silent as her tears quietly rolled off of her chin and softened the dry biscuits on her plate. In her quiet dignified way, my mom was surveying the hole that an accumulation of grief had dug into her life.
This Sunday’s readings (Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16) were all about the indissolubility of marriage. If you ever doubt the truth of these scriptures, spend a few minutes interviewing someone like my mom who worked for years and years to hold a troubled marriage together. Once two have become one, there will always be a kind of phantom pain when a spouse is amputated from one’s life through divorce.
After my mom and dad’s divorce, periodically the Lectionary would cycle around to the readings from this Sunday. Whenever that happened, my brothers and sisters and I would wince knowing that a silent and somber ride home awaited us. After a mood swing or two, mom would usually manage to climb out of the emotional hole into which she had fallen. Mom never intended to get a divorce. Maybe that is why it took her two decades to get an annulment.
When my mom remarried Ken, after twenty-three years of single life, she made him promise to stay alive for at least ten good years. Half way toward a decade, Ken began to break this vow. It all started when a succession of life-threatening diseases and syndromes began flirting with him. First, there were the blood clots that lodged in his lungs and legs. Over the course of the next three years, it would look like he was going to get better, but just as he appeared to be improving, his body would betray him with another illness out of nowhere.
Lymphoma, prostate cancer, post-polio syndrome, kidney failure, and a degenerative bone disease attacked Ken’s body like a pack of carnivores. Ken was tough. I am convinced that, like an old moose, he could have conquered any one of these diseases if it showed up for a fair fight. But just as he would make headway against one circling, snarling, biting, ailment, along would come another. Finally through a concerted effort, this pack eventually pulled him down. He died several days after mom and I sat vigil together.
Throughout the course of those three years, my mom turned herself into an audiovisual demonstrating what, “for better or worse,” looks like in real life. Without benefit of medical training, like Abraham Lincoln reading law books by firelight, she taught herself about drug interactions and home remedies. She became an impassioned champion for her enfeebled husband in countless emergency room visits. She tried every crème and lotion found in her local pharmacy. In the end, she triumphantly beamed, “You know, in all that time, he never had a single bedsore.”
Confronting the physical limitations of her husband provided the stage upon which my mom’s true colors could be displayed. But those colors have always been there for anyone with eyes to see. When it comes to someone else’s life and vocation, this Sunday’s readings about marriage invited you and me to take a healthy dose of humility. Only God has the perspective of seeing the human heart from the inside out.
In an earlier era, my mom was forced to accept that she was a lot like the Samaritan woman at the well (see the Gospel of John, Chapter Four). She came to the painful conclusion that the man she had been living with for twenty-eight years, was not her husband after all. The ingredients necessary for maintaining the Sacrament of Matrimony had gone missing.
This same woman, three decades later, escorted her second husband, Ken, to the threshold of the kingdom of God. Whenever anyone described her fidelity as heroic, she brushed the accolades off as if she were shooing away an annoying fly. “He was worth it,” she would say.
All around us are quiet heroes like my mom. Let’s pray for one another that we can hold ourselves open for the grace to live out the vocation that we have chosen, or the vocation that we have had to learn how to accept.