Preparing for this moment has been a learning experience for me … some lessons learned for the first time … some which needed a reminder and reinforced … some lessons which hadn’t hit home in a while. And, boy, let me tell you, a funeral service is a good time and place for things to hit home.
I hope your pastor is always learning and growing regardless of his or her age; I hope your sons and daughters never stop learning and growing, regardless of age.
Here is some of what I’ve learned or have been reminded of since Thursday morning, October 26, when Mom was found ill and disoriented in her bed at Sunrise Senior Living in Baton Rouge.
First, I learned once again how finite and fleeting time is, and how time is something we cannot reclaim and use again. We must seize each moment, each opportunity, each kiss and each hug.
You might find this lesson odd when discussing someone passing after 88 years and nine months on this earth. There was more than enough time for everything you wanted to say and do. And that’s true. But a funeral service – even for someone 88, and even for someone who lived within a mile or two from me for over sixty years – still teaches us that time is finite and fleeting. It always runs out, leaving us wanting more.
For Mom, and for each of us, those 88 years were over so quickly, so suddenly and so unexpectedly, and it may be for you or someone you love. So be prepared, and seize each moment. Don’t take anyone or any time for granted. We won’t always have the person and the time around. Or heaven, we may not be around. How many much younger friends and family members preceded Mom in death, suddenly and unexpectedly?
Melanie and I had lunch with Mom each Sunday. Sometimes I kissed her on the forehead as I left the table; sometimes I did not. After our last Sunday lunch, I did not. On the day before she became ill, I had taken one of her fellow residents to play piano at another facility. When we returned, I thought about going upstairs to say hello to Mom, but I did not. If I had, perhaps I would have noticed something different about her, or perhaps she would have said something that made me realize she was not feeling well, and that something bad was about to happen. I’ll never know.
I don’t beat myself up over the past, but I do try to use what I learn from the past for the future, and I urge you to do the same.
For Christmas, 1971, I gave Mom a daily diary, or calendar, for 1972. You say, “Wow, Dave [I was Dave, or ‘Little Dave’ to Mom from day one], you knocked yourself out with that present!” But actually, this was a special diary: I had hand-written poetry or song lyrics or a quotation for each day in 1972. Friday, May 26th’s entry was on mind then, and it was on my mind Thursday, October 26, 2017. It is song lyrics from David Gates and his band, Bread: “Is there someone you know? You’re loving them so, but taking their love for granted. You may lose them one day. Someone takes them away, and they don’t hear the words you long to say.”
Secondly, I learned in Mom’s death that we can learn a lot about a person from what she leaves behind that others find and see as we clean out their house, their apartment, or their room.
In Mom’s case, some words she wrote down, some exclamation points here and there, some newspaper clippings torn out –never cut with scissors, but torn out – [ Mom was the only resident at Sunrise who read three papers: the Shreveport Times, the Bossier Press-Tribune and the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate] — things left behind taught me some attributes about Mom that I didn’t know or fully appreciate.
Mom left some neat things behind, including very importantly, my sisters and me. And she left behind in us more than just being height-challenged! If Maureen Melville touched your life in any way, she left something behind in you as well. One person I visited with this week remembered an act of kindness from Mom in 1974. He hadn’t seen her a great deal since then, but acts of kindness have a way of hanging around. Another person remembered an incident from May 21, 1984. She hadn’t seen Mom a great deal since then either, but the memory of that particular morning is as new and fresh as the morning sun.
Mom definitely left behind something at Sunrise Senior Living Center that we didn’t cart away and give to the Salvation Army: the feelings of warmth and friendship and conversation before October 26 by residents and staff, and the grief, sadness and genuine missing her presence by residents and staff since October 26, is palpable indeed. As Mom would iterate and reiterate, even at 88 she was the youngest there, she was the leader of the band, and she was the only sane one there. The Medical Director at Sunrise was visibly shaken by her death and told me he had never before felt the way he felt at Miss Maureen’s passing. And he has seen a lot of people pass away.
What will you leave behind? Your legacy matters and will influence others and hang around longer than you realize. On another of those yellowed pieces of paper found in Mom’s possessions were the words, “All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds we sow today.” The beautiful flower you were given as you entered the chapel today is only beautiful because someone sowed its seed in the recent past. Who knows when? It only matters that it helps us remember Mom and lifts our spirits today.
A third lesson I’ve learned in what has taken place since October 26 has to do with love. I don’t go as far as the man in the moon from Conway Twitty’s song, who sang, “I don’t know a thing about love,” but from watching you all in your relationship with Mom, and in your response to her illness and death, I need to learn more about unconditional, agape, Christ-like love. My love is too often dutiful love, as in the words of the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” But that Old Testament love was expanded by Jesus to mean loving one another, warts and all. Mom had her warts; we all do. There’s probably a country song about warts.
In Conway Twitty’s song, the man in the moon doesn’t claim to know when love will grow or when love will die. The man in the moon acknowledges being able to move oceans’ tides and influence nature, but he admits that “in all matters human, remember there’s someone in charge of those things way above you and I.”
Jesus knew a thing or two about love. He lived it on earth, He lived it while dying, and He left us a good lesson to follow in our relationships with family members, with neighbors, with strangers, and even those belonging to a different church denomination, or to a different political party! Love one another.
And the final thing I’ve learned in saying good-bye to my mother is the same thing I’ve learned in saying good-bye in every funeral or memorial service I have officiated: eternity awaits us, which is a lot longer than 88 years, and we ought to prepare for eternity with just as much thought and effort as we prepare for each milestone in life. Why do I have to be reminded about that mystery and that reality at every funeral service I have the honor and the privilege of officiating?
Mom had a long, full life. She had the privilege of growing up in a large, loving family … twelve brothers and sisters. I don’t think she even knew the name of her oldest sister and what she looked like, there were so many years apart! She had the privilege of getting an education, marrying, having children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Along the way, Mom took care of her spiritual business as well. One of those notes in her handwriting with an exclamation point, and left behind in Room 216, said succinctly, “God’s gift of love to us all is eternal life!”
Mom was a believer and gave Jos, CeCe and me the chance to believe. I have often said, including in her presence, that I am a pastor in large part because of her … although she probably would have preferred me to be a Southern Baptist!
Pastor Rick Warren has influenced millions with his book, The Purpose Driven Life. Like so many, I quickly purchased a copy to find the answer … to find the purpose in life. Yes! Finally, the purpose in life would be explained, simply and easy to understand. The Holy Grail! Would Rick reveal that success in a particular non-religious vocation should be our purpose? Would it be answering the call to ordained ministry? But would that mean preaching, or serving as a missionary somewhere far away? Is our purpose in life to cloister ourselves away in a monastery? Warren’s simple answer surprised me: our purpose in life … whether one day in the neonatal intensive care unit, or 88 years in the state of Louisiana, is to know and serve God and to prepare for meeting God one day in heaven. Life is a dress rehearsal, if you will, for the real play. This week Melanie and I attended our grandchildren Caroline and Emma’s school play. This semester has been consumed by rehearsal after rehearsal, and then, finally, the real play. Another death – this time, of my own mother – has reminded me that her life … my life … your life … is simply a rehearsal for what’s to come. Let’s start practicing today!