Today, just before members of St. Ambrose gathered to do the Stations of the Cross, it began to rain. The rain was gentle and cool. The weather is already getting oppressively hot here in South Florida and the rain was welcome. It’s been a tough week and I could imagine myself standing in the rain, letting the grit and grime of these days sluice off me. And then I thought of that incredible young man who hung on the cross on a day like today, thought of gentle rain washing the tears away, and the blood, washing him clean of the hate and fear and despair that drove those days we remember together this week.
Before my mom died, I read a book called Here If You Need Me, written by a woman chaplain who works with search and rescue teams in Maine. Her passage into ministry happened after her husband, a state trooper, was killed while their children were still very young. In the last two years of my mom’s life, perhaps I thought I could inoculate myself against grief by reading as much as I could about death and dying. Perhaps there’s some element of voyeurism in all of us when it comes to this particular truth about life. It was also just a very good book and one of the places that moved me deeply was her description of washing her husband’s body down after he died.
About a week after I arrived in Panamá last year, and some ten days before my mom died, her physician asked my brother, dad and me if we had made all the arrangements we needed to make because the blood transfusions that had given my mom new life would start losing any effect soon and the end would come quickly after that.
Lifelong habits kicked into gear. When I was a little girl, my parents did a lot of entertaining—my dad was Swedish consul in Cali and I remember my parents hosting an unending number of cocktails and dinners. My favorite was when my mom would serve High Tea. Last Sunday, I pulled out some of the napkins I remember her using on those occasions. This was no high tea—it was one more church meeting; nonetheless, it was fun to play house. But back to last year: starting that very evening we did what I remember my mom doing endlessly: making lists and planning. We’d sit out on the beautiful porch in my parents’ house, in the evening, after mom was asleep. It became a ritual. My dad would pour us each a small glass of Bailey’s Irish Cream and we’d talk through what needed to be done. We were determined to honor my mother in her dying by avoiding mess, or chaos, or anything unpleasant. It also gave us some sense of control when our world was spinning and wobbling. Each of us had moments during those evenings when we simply lost it and the other two were able to be the strong ones for that particular night. We had a way to walk together through the valley of the shadow of death.
One night we began to plan what we would do after my mom died and before her body left the house. She had a fraught relationship with her sister and we were determined to keep Mom safe from an overbearing older sister who was used to running the show. Mom also had a dear friend who’d lost another close friend just a few months before and seemed especially in need of tending to my mom. We agreed that those two women would help me wash my mom’s body down and put the clothes on her that she had told us she wanted wear when she was cremated. I envisioned the quiet, gentle, dignified ritual, as old as humankind itself, a circle of tending and being tended to.
When the time actually came, this part of her death was the antithesis of everything we’d hoped and planned for. I realize now that I was in shock. The other two women went into such overdrive that there was manic mayhem around my mother’s lifeless body. The images are pretty awful to consider, even now, 10 months later. And then, it was over, we were waiting for the hearse and I was fixated on the fact that no one had put shoes on my mom but I couldn’t bring myself to do it either. How very strange, this business of death.
As the rain came down this morning, I was reminded of that night last May. I was also reminded that a few days before, my mom had been complaining that she so wished she could wash her hair, that she was so tired of sponge baths instead of the real thing. She was still able to move from her bed to a wheel chair and then to her “throne” in the living room for most of the day. Seated strategically where she could see everything going on, she bossed all of us around, almost to the end. Since she was still that mobile, Hans and I figured out a way to get her into the shower in one of the bathrooms in the house. We planned and prepared without telling her and then wheeled her into the bathroom and got her in the shower. The water was already running, we were in there with her, having even found a way to respect her enormous modesty, mixed now with shame over the ravages cancer had visited upon her. What we saw was her face: the peace, the joy, the pure pleasure as she tilted her head and allowed that warm water to wash her clean. I washed her hair and Hans rinse her off. Somehow, the whole thing came off seamlessly and after she was dry and dressed in clean clothes, she slept for a long time. That evening she was her drollest, funniest self for us.
I understand baptism now, at least a little bit. How it is a death we go through from life to life. Michelle Frankl, over at Quantum Theology, reminded me this morning that the season of Lent is not so much about the sacrament of confession as the sacrament of Baptism, a yearly reminder of how we are transformed as we make that passage. The water that rained down in that shower one Wednesday morning when the dew was still out in my mother’s garden, the water that bathed my brother, my mother and me, washed away years and years of fighting, misunderstanding and estrangement—the stuff of families. Even my mom’s body, by then so brittle and broken, was made new. It doesn’t matter any more that the night of her death got so crazy on us—everyone around her was simply trying to get through. The real sacrament had already happened.
I am not quite sure yet, how this all relates to Good Friday. Except that I’m glad for the rain this morning. Glad that what I could do for Jesus was imagine the soft rain washing him clean. I felt glad too, for the loving hands of his mother, and his unexpected friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who were there to receive and to tend to his mortal remains carefully and reverently. Finally, glad that in my own way, I share kinship with Mary and with Joseph. Glad to have been able to receive death as well as life and to know that somehow, they are inseparable.