Birth day, Resurrection day

What a sweet day.  Friday, November 25, my birth day, dawns clear and bright after several dreary days of steady rain.  I go for a run on the familiar back roads of southeastern Pennsylvania, which is the place of my birth, the site of my childhood wanderings in the woods, and the genesis of my spiritual formation and call to ministry. 

I pass the house that I called home for many years, the creek along which I took early morning walks before school, the meat packing plant and former turkey farm and chicken hatchery across the road, and the homes of childhood friends.  Progress has made its mark on the rolling hills, fields, and farms, yet my spirit cleaves to this beautiful land where my Anabaptist ancestors settled several centuries ago.

At noon my father, our son Garth, and I visit my mother, who is in the nursing wing of a continuing care facility where my parents purchased a cottage 15 years ago.  Alzheimers has progressed to the point where my mother rarely talks, and we’re not sure if she recognizes us.  I notice that one of Mom’s teeth is missing as well as her glasses.  No one knows where they went.

As Mom slowly and persistently feeds herself, we chat.  “Mom, do you know what day it is?  It’s my birthday, Mom.  I want to thank you for giving birth to me on this day many years ago.  You and dad were the best parents I could possibly have, and I am so grateful.”  No response.

My father begins talking in Pennsylvania Dutch with his friend Curt, who is fed by an aide at a neighboring table.  “Schmachts gut?” Dad asks.  Curt smiles.  It is difficult for Curt to talk, but he understands.  Gladys, who sits next to my mother and looks out for her, tells me that Mom always drinks her juice but sometimes dips chips and ice cream in her drink.  I am amazed at the tender, compassionate, and excellent care that my mother receives from the nurses and aides.  They know her likes and dislikes and treat her with respect and dignity.

Every time I visit Mom during Thanksgiving week, she does not respond to conversation until today.  “Mom, guess what?  For my birthday, Dad, Garth, Jenny (my sister) and I are going to the city to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra.”  Mom visibly brightens and says, “Oh yeah?”  I said, “Yes, Mom.  You and Dad have always loved classical music and have been attending the orchestra for 60 years.”  Mom looks at my son and says, “Garth.”  After that exchange there is no more response.   

On my birth day, the day that my mother released me into this world after nine months of safety and warmth inside her womb, my son, sister, father, and I celebrate activities that my parents loved to do together.  We drive to Philadelphia and walk into Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s), one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.  As we sit in the magnificent entry area waiting for the annual Christmas light show, including the playing of the world famous Wanamaker pipe organ, a hidden memory surfaces in my 84 year old father.  He says, “When I was just a little boy my mother would take me to Philly on the train so that she could meet with buyers for her dress shop back home.  She loved bringing me to Wanamaker’s, and I still remember this eagle sculpture (we were sitting next to the eagle).  80 years ago in Philly, Wanamaker’s was the place to be, and people would always say, ‘I’ll meet you at the eagle.’”

We then walk into Reading Terminal, which is the oldest continuous farmer’s market in the United States.  As we browse, I comment on the number of Mennonite and Amish stalls, and my father says, “I just remembered that I used to come here as a 12 year old boy.  A farmer in Souderton would hire me to work Saturdays in his vegetable and meat stall.  We’d stop at a local dairy to pick up some buttermilk to sell by the cup, then I’d sleep in his car all the way down to the market.  The shop where I used to get ice cream is still here!” 

We eat dinner and head to the Kimmel Center where, 3 years ago, my parents and I attended what turned out to be my mother’s last orchestra concert.  It is a magnificent performance, and I sense my mother’s presence beside me all night.  What a sweet day it is: my birth day.

Four days later, on Tuesday, Nov. 29, I receive a call from my brother as I am driving to a 2 day cabinet meeting.  A nurse found my mother to be unresponsive when she came to wake her up.  As the day unfolds, we learn that Mom is likely in a diabetic coma.  I am on the phone with my father and siblings at every break, and we decide to honor her wishes by declining treatment.  Extended family and my parents’ pastor gather at Mom’s bedside in the late afternoon, and my own prayers join with theirs.  It could be several weeks until she dies, the doctor says. 

What a sweet day.  Wednesday, November 30, my mother’s resurrection day, dawns clear and bright after a blizzard covers the Lansing area with 7 inches of heavy snow.  I retrieve the voice mail message from my brother in my hotel room and weep.  The angels have led Gwen Hartzel to Paradise where she is resting in the arms of her Savior.  My mother lived a long and fruitful life, birthed and nurtured 4 children, and adored her 7 grandchildren and 4 great-grandsons.  She fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.  Most of all, my mother allowed herself to be a vessel for God’s love and grace to pour out into our world. 

It really hurts, though.  I have been with hundreds of families at the time of death, but now I’m on the other side.  It’s surreal, as if I am wandering through a dream.  After all, I carry a great deal of my mother inside of me.  I am flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone.  How could I have become who I am without her?  “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) 

I slip in late to the cabinet meeting because of many phone calls that need to be made.  My colleagues sense that I am okay but not okay.  At the right time, Bishop Keaton, Bill, Neil, Bob, Tamara, David, and Anita surround me, and we sing “Nearer My God, to Thee.”  When we get to stanza 3, I hear my mother’s voice, “There let the way appear, steps unto heaven; all that thou sendest me, in mercy given; angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to thee; nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee.”  The floodgates open as Bishop Keaton prays for my family, and I am strengthened by hugs and tender words from my friends.  A sweeter moment I cannot imagine.      

My dear father, who cared for my mother so valiantly for many years, is heartbroken.  How can one even comprehend separation after 61 years of marriage?  Gary and our 3 children are so attentive in asking how I am doing and offering to help in any way.  By afternoon the emails start coming, dozens of messages from friends and colleagues, expressing their care and love.  The very next day cards arrive at the house.  Each one brings tears to my eyes once more.  When I share with my oldest daughter, Sarah, how blessed I am to be supported by so many people in the church, she says, “You are really lucky to be surrounded by so many people who care.”  Never underestimate the power of the Connection. 

As I drive back to Grand Rapids I wonder.  Was it coincidence that my mother died 4 days after I saw her last?  Did my mother wait to die until I had a chance to see her since I am the only child who lives far away?  Did she need to see me once more, or did she know that I needed to see her?  Who understands the mystery of grace?  I head west into a gorgeous sunset, pondering the mysterious circle of life.  What a sweet day it is: my mother’s resurrection day. 

On my birth day my mother gave me the gift of life and unleashed a wild, beautiful, tortuous, and magnificent journey of possibility as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  On my mother’s resurrection day, she has offered me the gift of gratitude and possibility and challenges me to ask once again, “To what does God want to give birth in me as the journey continues?”  During this season of Advent, there is no more fitting question. 


13 thoughts on “Birth day, Resurrection day

  1. What a story of hope and promise! Yet grief & pain as well. So sorry, but appreciative of the sharing , seems to be the story of Advent. The light that is your mother will now shine brighter!

  2. Laurie, My heart grows as I read your entry, causing me to re-live and remember my own parent’s journey home. I’m praying for you in even stronger measure each day now, as you continue to experience the blessing of your mom, and bask in the glow of her love. Although the sun stands still for these days of grieving, God grows so many things in the SON light. Peace to you. JIM NOGGLE

  3. Laurie: I’m not sure how you find the words to pen such a beautiful tribute to your mother, in the midst of great grief. Remarkable. Much God, I’m sure. You continue to be in our prayers, for all the unspeakable, unsearchable, and miraculous things that your heart will go through in the days to come.

  4. Dear Laurie,
    I know that this might initially sound very strange, but it helped me upon the death of my father, so I want to express myself in the same way. I am sorry to hear of the loss of your mother’s physical presence. I know the crushing feeling of loss it initially brings. I had always dreaded and tried to steer clear of the visitations at funeral homes that come next. They were places where I had to make my usually sluggish sense of conversation and memory work to the “nth” degree as I met and chatted with others. This was so until my father passed and I was at his visitations, where I found comfort in loving memories of his life as I shared them with family and friends. The following week I was in my bedroom, when a sudden and strong sense of my father came over me. I felt every molecule of his love – past and present…..and eternal! It occurred to me that he would live on in me in the precious memories of father and daughter. I hadn’t lost what really mattered! I just needed to adjust to the change in his presence (physical presence). Now the importance of presence has taken on a new meaning, as I pray for those who have lost a loved one to death: “Lord, please comfort and strengthen these loved ones, as they adjust to the physical absence of ________.” I have found this helpful and pray that you do, as well.

  5. Laurie, My heart and prayers go out to you and your family at this time. You were there for me and my children when my husband was dying and I was going through my cancer treatments. I know the importance of being surrounded by those who love and care for you. I only hope that you feel my prayers like I did yours when I needed them most. Your story really spoke to me again even 9 years later. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for sharing your journey Laurie. Although you’ll miss your mother’s love, you are so blessed to have so many people that love and care about you. (Me included).

  7. A beautiful — and fitting — writng … those who have written above have expressed many of the thoughts and feelings which I also would share … thank you, Laurie, for sharing this writing, and your own ministry of God’s love.

  8. Laurie,
    thank you so much for this precious reflection on life, faith, and the profound meaning of motherhood (and daughterhood). I pray that you will continue to find comfort in your grief. There will always be that empty place where your mother once resided. Thankfully we are people of Resurrection!

  9. I am sorry to hear of the passing of your mother, Laurie. Your description of the last time you saw your mother seemed to portend an earthly tragedy for her. I enjoy reading your weekly “Leading from the Heart.” This issue really was from your heart.

  10. My thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family in this time of grief. I appreciated so much your sharing the events, the feelings, the memories of this time. Like you, I have spent many years and countless hours grieving with and comforting families. I have never felt adequate to the task and never felt like I knew what to say. Yet as I simply sat and listened and prayed and loved and practiced the power of presence, the words always seemed to come when needed and to silence me when not. May you continue to be open to the blessings others bring to you, even as you have brought God’s blessing to so many others.

  11. Sorry to hear of your mothers passing. What a great letter of your birthday and the story of your mother. It was just like it was all in a plan that God had for you. Have a Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year. I am so glad our paths crossed. God Bless Loretta

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