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.