Presence with a Difference: Reflections on my mother and the Ascension of the Lord

Does the Lord’s Ascension have something to say to Mother’s Day? I meditated on this last week as I celebrated the first anniversary of my mother’s death on May 9. The Crucified and Risen King ascends His throne to shouts of joy, and—somehow—He brings the ones He loves with Him. But how?


My mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in the first half of 2016. After undergoing chemotherapy and a mastectomy, we all celebrated in August when the doctors told us that the cancer seemed to be gone. A routine X-ray in January 2017 revealed, however, that it had returned to her lungs, had spread to her brain. Two months later, her doctors gave her a prognosis of six months to a year. When she went into the hospital early in May, it quickly became evident that she would not leave.

It was the end of my second semester of teaching, when my dad called me with this news. I left Indiana alone and overwhelmed, entrusting a friend to proctor my final exam. I arrived on her 61st birthday. We spent the day around her hospital bed. Our parish priest gave her the sacraments. She was aware of her surroundings, but unable to talk much. For an hour that afternoon, she just told us, over and over again, “It’s time to go.” My brother and I kept vigil beside her that night, relieved that she was able to go to sleep around 1 in the morning. She did not wake up after that. My mother died the next day. Sunshine was streaming into her room, lighting my whole family’s tear-stained faces as we encouraged her to go.

That day and its aftermath presented strangeness after strangeness. At my mom’s bedside, I grasped her hand and found myself moaning with grief, inconsolable with what was happening, sick with myself for not being there sooner or taking advantage of the time we could have shared. At her wake, I stood to remember her, but found myself empty-headed and tongue-tied at the lectern, unable to say anything coherent. Sitting with my spiritual director and then a therapist, I tried to share where I was at, but only found myself either self-consciously weeping or hurt, withdrawn, and unwilling to share anything. I found myself in a lot of places: wondering how I was supposed to feel, to grieve, to move on, even as—all too often—I couldn’t find her.


The question I opened with is one I’ve wrestled with. Could there be anything to celebrate in my mother’s death? Does the Lord rule His kingdom in a new way, now that my mother is fully present to Him?

Over the course of the last year, I’ve slowly found something other than strangeness, grief, and absence. It’s hard to describe, but it is almost as if my mother’s love—the atmosphere of our home, the soil for my growth, an unnoticed water that I swam in—moved within me, as if her voice and the voice of the Spirit spoke together, as one. And they spoke, over and over again, of love and peace.


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My mom and my dad with my daughter on the day of her Baptism

My mother was guided, almost instinctively, by love. Everyone who knew her could testify to this. She was the one who stopped you in the grocery store to ask about your sick kid. She was the one who hugged her CCD kids on First Communion Sunday, bragging about how much progress each one had made over the past year. Her love was tangible, evident, sometimes irritating, and likely to cause unexpected delays. It defined her the way a light draws moths, a puddle invites a rain boot, a clean space entices a toddler. It gave her a unique power of attraction. It was more work to refuse her friendship than to let yourself be drawn to her. And her family was the center of that love.

In this, my mother and I were very different. From as early as I can remember, I have always been a legalist: with myself, with others, with the Lord. Born a North Dakota Lutheran, my mother was puzzled by my casuistry, my scrupulosity, my worries. She would tell me, “You need to see more than black and white. Love is more important than rules.” To which I would nod, exasperated, and change the subject.

This is why, while making Ignatius Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises,” I wrote something which was altogether unthinkable and yet has become almost self-evident since last May: “The biggest surprise of this retreat has been experiencing the profound love of God for me personally.” Not law or its quid pro quo expectations, but love: sheer and free, offered like a mother’s (Isaiah 49:15). In receiving this gift, my first reaction has been to give it, not only in the abstract, but to love everyone I meet as joyfully and self-forgetfully as my mother would. It would not be too much to say that, in this unexpected turn, I’ve felt her alive in me.


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My little family with my mom and dad, shortly after my mother finished chemotherapy

My mother was filled with peace before God and her death, to the point where her last few months have become an enduring gift to us. On an almost weekly basis, I’ve remembered a conversation I had with her just a few months before she died. I’d finally gotten the courage to ask her how she felt about her prognosis, and she said, “You know, I’m at peace. I didn’t expect it, and I’m asking for a miracle, but I’m ready for whatever happens.” I told her, “Mom, I’m not; I can’t be at peace right now.” She said, “That’s okay. It will come.”

For several months, that did not seem to be the case. But she was right.

Peace has come this year. In fact, it’s flooded me. This has been overwhelming and constant and unexpected, tied to her in a mysterious, unexpected, and gratuitous way. It is almost like a new gravitational alignment, pulling me out of worry and anxiety and desolation, into the Lord’s deep peace.

To be clear: it is not that these experiences of love or peace make living without her bodily presence easier. They do not erase the difference or the grief that marks that difference. But, even so, I can feel her presence with this difference.


And isn’t that what we celebrate when we celebrate the Ascension? The Lord Jesus was dead, and now He is alive. The Lord’s resurrection appearances showed that He is alive—indeed, more alive than ever—to His disciples. Yet even these intermittent flashes of risen presence came to an end. The Ascension marks the last time His disciples see Him in the (risen) flesh. He is present, albeit with a difference.

But He has not left them—or us—orphans. No, the Crucified and Risen One Who longed like a mother hen to gather His chicks beneath His wings has not taken His throne to rule at a distance (Luke 13:34). He has become king to live and reign within us. His mission becomes our mission. His works become our works. His life becomes our life. We are His Body, and in and through us, He is present to the world.

It is the Lord’s Ascension which makes these experiences of my mother’s presence intelligible. My mother is alive with the Lord. I am convinced of this. Her love and her peace, her gifts and her mission, are alive in me with the Lord’s Spirit, and nothing can take that away. My body is a place where her love and peace can continue to live. And for all my grief, I am flooded with gratitude that the living Lord has let me experience my mother’s presence in this way: her presence to Him, to me, to my family, and—through us—to the world.

 

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