It was a rainy, humid Monday in June when I walked into her room for the first time since her stroke, which had occurred just three to four days earlier.
Since the stroke, her eyes had been closed, her left side had been paralyzed, and she had been on oxygen. I was struck how much she looked like her own mother when she, too, laid on her bed having had a stroke. I realized that if family genes had any say in the matter, this would be how I would appear when I became her age . . . I have been told after all, “You look a lot like your mom.”
As I sat by her bedside, I related to her about my graduation since I had just graduated on Friday with a Master of Divinity. When I relayed the story of my husband yelling, “That’s my wife” as I received my degree, I saw a small smile appear on her face, signaling to me that she had heard me. There were other signs, too. When I asked her questions like, “Do you want more cranberry juice” or “Do you want the radio on,” she responded, “Yeah, sure.”
If her verbal interactions were minimal that Monday, they were even less the next day. And by Wednesday, we were placing her on hospice, not knowing if she would live days, weeks, or months. I cognitively knew what to expect as the staff explained about hospice since my husband was a hospice chaplain; however, my acquaintance with hospice did not mitigate the pain of this grim situation.
Placing her on hospice was a harsh reality-check: my mom was dying.
When the phone rang at around 8:00 AM on Friday, I instinctively knew it was about Mom. The nurse on the other end of the call informed me that there was increasing evidence of my mom’s impending death. As she described the new developments, a sense of urgency rose in her voice as she spoke. If the family wanted to say their goodbyes, now was the time for Mom would probably die that day or the next.
As a friend and I walked into the room with the nurse that Friday morning, it was evident that death was in the shadows, standing in wait. Perhaps it was death’s loitering that induced us to sing Christian hymns at Mom’s bedside. Former professor, David Augsburger said to me later when he heard of this: “You sang your mom into glory.” And sing we did. Hymn after hymn after hymn. As we sang “Blessed Assurance” (a song I no longer can sing without thinking of Mom), I smiled as I saw her lips move. She was aware of her surroundings. When her pastor and his wife came, making the duet into a quartet, we sang “Victory in Jesus” and witnessed her lips moving once again. When the song was over and knowing my mom loved quartets, I said, “Mom, you just had a quartet sing to you!” I smiled with pleasure as I watched her raise her eyebrows in response.
By mid-afternoon, I was exhausted. Waiting is exhausting and perhaps waiting for death’s door to open even more so.
As my dad and I waited by her bed, only the sounds of Mom’s breathing alongside the muffled clamor of the noise outside her room could be heard. We watched as her chest went up . . . down . . . up . . . down. Then . . . it didn’t. We waited . . . My dad was the first to break the silence: “Is she gone?” But before I could answer, Mom responded with a shudder while she took another breath. Her breathing had slowed so that 10 to 15 seconds passed in between breaths.
Wait . . .
Just as quickly as her breathing had slowed, it stopped. No announcement proclaimed, “This is the last breath.” Only a void of breath remained as death had emerged soundlessly from the shadows.
No tears were shed as feelings of ambivalence washed over me. Joy, sorrow, and peace simultaneously entwined around my soul. It felt surreal as my words still to this day fail to form an adequate rendering of that moment.
Her breathing had been mundane . . . until it wasn’t.
A sense of the sacred flooded my soul. As if I was in the sanctuary of an ancient cathedral, this sacredness demanded silence, and if I had to speak, it was not to be above a whisper. On this day, June 18, 2010, I stood in the presence of something profoundly holy, the moment Mom died.
I have told the above story of my mom’s death multiple times in various versions.
The hyper-abbreviated version of “My mom died” was reserved for strangers, such as the unfortunate man who sat beside me in the plane or the clerk at Target. Longer versions were relayed to acquaintances, but the most extended version was told to close friends, such as my husband, to whom I repeated the story again and again. Despite his hearing it over and over so that the story became more or less unremarkable, not once did he say, “You said that already.”
Unfortunately, this is not the case for many of us as we have a propensity toward impatience with repetition. We are more accustomed to changing channels when a television story becomes too pedestrian. We will say to no one in particular, “I have seen this show multiple times” while we click on the remote in search of something more novel and fresher. For many of us, repeatedly hearing the same story borders on pedestrianism. The newness has long worn off, leaving us longing for an imaginative and vibrant quality.
But it is precisely in this ordinary retelling of a story of loss and grief in which something sacred occurs . . . healing. That is, the telling of the story appears mundane . . . until it isn’t . . . as healing emerges.
When there is a death or a trauma, our being is unable to acknowledge the reality of what has transpired (see When There’s an Empty Chair at the Table). We struggle to make sense of that which has just occurred. From having an embarrassing moment to having an up-and-close-personal encounter with a moose (ask me about that someday and I will tell you the story . . . again) to experiencing a death, our whole being needs to make sense of it and what has happened. And so . . . we tell and retell the story.
I heard from one grieving woman that the most important thing that she had learned so far in her grief journey was, “The telling of the story again and again. It does not matter if you have told it previously because it is in the retelling of the story that the brain processes the death.”
The telling of the story appeared mundane . . . until it wasn’t.
And really . . . one does not relate the same story twice. As my husband commented once after hearing me tell the story of Mom’s death yet again: “Each time you tell the story, it is told a little bit differently.” Part of these differences in telling is also linked to the one who is listening. Lisbeth Lipari writes about research that demonstrates speakers are dependent on the listener’s body movements when they relate a story. The more attentive with his/her body that a listener is, the more the speakers remember about their stories and the better they relay them. Research also indicates that the listener and the speaker tell a story together. That is, a good listener becomes a partner in the telling of the speaker’s story. In short, physical attentiveness matters in listening, no matter how prosaic the story may appear to the listener. The telling of the story may appear mundane . . . until it isn’t. This is difficult to grasp amidst today’s techno-focused world in which we continually seek for something newer and more invigorating.
Yet, ironically, we tell the same stories or enact the same rituals every year during our holiday seasons.
From American Thanksgiving to Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanza, rituals and stories are repeated annually. Many of us draw comfort from the rituals and the repeated telling of stories surrounding them.
As one who celebrates Christmas, I am not only struck by the retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ, but also the mundane aspects that appear both explicitly and implicitly, which are weaved within the story, such as in Luke 2:
- A census issued by a government
- A crowded city
- A stable
- A feeding trough
- Labor pains
- A cry
- A nursing baby at his mother’s breast
- Shepherds watching their sheep
Many of the above details are so commonplace that they are omitted in our annual storytelling. The version is frequently sanctified and spiritualized to avoid the mundane and center on the WOW-factors:
- The dark sky brightly illuminated
- Angels appearing
- Angels’ declaring (not necessarily singing) that a Savior is born, Christ the Lord
The sign to the shepherds, however, is rather commonplace: a baby wrapped in strips of cloth. New Testament scholar James Edwards comments,
“[A] newborn is commonplace . . . Apart from the angelic announcement, this sign could easily be overlooked or mistaken for something other than it is.”
The sign from God was in the mundane, a human being, and it would be a sign that would be rejected (2:34). Edwards notes “that signs are ordinarily given to resolve contradictions,” but this sign will be a focus of the “contradiction.”
Luke’s use of the word “sign” in his Gospel, as in the other Synoptics, demonstrates being “skeptical about the value of signs for faith” as it includes people seeking a supernatural sign, the WOW-factor:
- 11:16, 29, 30—The people ask Jesus for a sign, but Jesus responds, “[This generation] looks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah”;
- 23:8—Herod “was hoping to see him perform some miraculous sign.”
However, the sign is the appearance of the mundane, a human being, where healing comes to the world.
The story in Luke, then, not only informs us of the WOW-factors where we find an encounter with God, but it is both in
- divinity and humanity
- eternity and time
- supernatural and ordinariness
. . . where God is encountered.
Similar to the people in Luke’s Gospel, I too continually long for the supernatural (after all, I am pentecostal), but may I not miss God in the pedestrianism . . . the ordinariness . . . the mundane of being human . . . such as in the retelling of a story again and again . . .
It is here in the appearance of the mundane . . . which really isn’t . . . one may experience healing . . . that is, God.
 Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), loc. 3376-3384, Kindle Edition.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 2015), 78.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 77.