Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


To Sally, the Valiant and Beloved

My mom is just about the bravest person I know.

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Two months ago, after first making a huge move to England to be with me and help me through Lilian's early days, having also just seen me through Lilian's adventurous, snow-bestormed birth and the stressful early days of nursing, my mom catastrophically injured her eye. She randomly tripped one evening and fell straight on her eye, landing with her full weight on the sharp corner of a table. The injury was severe; a deep cut, a corneal ulcer, and a raging infection within days. Since her injury, my mom has lost most of the sight in her right eye, endured almost constant, throbbing pain, countless early morning trips to a London eye hospital, round the clock eyedrops that meant weeks of almost no sleep, and a total inability to read, write, work, or for awhile, even watch a movie.

You might think that such an avalanche of trial might get her down. Not my mom. I have watched her wrestle through her exhaustion every day, still strolling down to bring me a scone and make me a cup of tea and delight in Lilian's smiles. I've watched her gamely buy sunglasses to wear indoors while determined to keep on cooking us meals and enjoy holding her grandbaby. I've watched her rock back and forth in pain while still managing to keep up a conversation, to laugh, to tell us to light the candles and get the music going. I've watched her struggle toward joy in moments of deep discouragement by remembering Scripture, by opening the windows to the Oxford spring air, by listening to music one more time. Her prognosis is unclear. But not her courage; it's clear and radiant as a diamond. She hopes. She loves. She trusts God to be good.

My mama is a marvel. I wish I could write a more eloquent tribute, but at the moment, I have a baby sleeping in my lap (only place she'd settle today) and I'm typing this with one hand because I dare not move and wake the little (darling) terror. I wrote the piece below years ago, so it will have to do for now. The courage and generosity I glimpsed in my mom in those early days of childhood has become an image of what I hope I will be able to give to Lilian in the years to come.

Here's to you, sweet Mom. 

Dear Mom,

I have a story to tell. Perhaps you’ll think it an odd one for a tribute to your motherhood. A workaday tale it may be, but in my mind it is a bright, unfading gem. For what you gave me one Texas morning almost twenty years ago remains a grace that forms the bedrock of my heart. Memories don’t get much better than that, odd or not. Here goes.

I stood with munchkin nose pressed hard against the back door glass. Outside, the skies tumbled and fought, the rain fell in torrents for the fifth day, and the roar of newborn creeks called me even through the panes. Behind me, you gathered books and pencils for a morning of school work, switching on the lamps to battle the outdoor gloom. But even as you did, the boys slipped beside me, glued their noses to the window too and when you called we turned three small, grieved faces away from a world that seemed tailor made for splashing and exploration.

“Aww Mom,” we groaned, timid but yearning for that alluring realm beyond, “can’t we just go outside and explore today?”

I still remember my startlement at your “yes.” The way you were silent for a second, took a deep breath, pushed the books aside, and put your hands on your hips.

“Old shoes and old clothes on before you go,” you ordered and we hastened for our gear, grabbing boots and jackets, hearts pattering in elation at this wholly unexpected day. We were back in two minutes, and behold, so were you. A tiny jolt touched my heart at sight of you decked in scuffed shoes and old jeans, intent upon joining our expedition. I hadn’t expected that; the Queen would lead the adventure, a queen who would also wash the several loads of muddy clothes resulting, mop up our bootprints on the kitchen floor, and defend our bedraggled state to my grandmother when we returned. But I was too little to know all of that. All I knew was that your presence hallowed the adventure. And ah, there was so much we longed to show you.

Out we tromped into a world all a-whisper, the air tingling with rain, the sky swift and changeful as the rivulets below. In an ecstasy of abandon we jumped in every puddle to be had within the first ten feet, twirled and whooped and ran all out, limbs loose and swinging, to the pasture gate that led to the flooded tank. There the real drama awaited, a real flood down by the giant oak, now up to his waist in new-made rivers.

“Come on Mom!” we screeched above the roar of the water, picking our way through the mud of the old cattle-trails, ducking beneath cedar branches and wintered vines. You came. Smiling, eyebrows arched in interest at every fossil we pointed out, every yell of false-alarm when a branch turned out not to be a snake. You came right into the streams, splashed us with the cold, swift water, and when we eyed the swiftest torrent with daring, hungry eyes, you nodded your permission. In we went, right up to our short little waists, fighting against the current in an overjoyed grapple with the one joyous fact of the water.

I remember that for one instant I looked back at you. Already in the current, I turned and sought your face. I was a little in awe that you would let us dare the flood. I was proud that you were there to see us do it. And if I was also a little afraid of the torrent, well, I had you at my back. You caught my eye. And to this day I cannot forget the glint of fun that blazed in your glance. Then the slight nod of reassurance that told me I would never be out of your sight. Then the smile, like a whisper between those who know the great camaraderie of adventure. I laughed. And dove straight in.

And that Mom, is one of the clarion moments for which I will thank you all my days.

For in that instant you gave me your own heroic view of life. I know now that courage was always your mark. You were a dreamer; lover of the underdog, a missionary in communist Poland, a writer, a teacher, daring in faith and fierce in friendship. And even when three squirmy children invaded your life, you kept that courage strong. You brought it right into your motherhood and determined that we should learn it too. That rainy day adventure was a lesson in valor, in gladness, in dreams. You wanted your children to taste the haunting grace of the world, so you freed us to heed the cry of the rain. You knew that danger is always close, so you came too. You knew that life is full of risk, so when we met the dare of the water, you let us hope, and reach, and try, and you taught us the boldness with which this thing called life must be met.

Only now, grown up as I am with the demons of oughts and shoulds ever breathing down my neck do I understand the import of the choice you made that morning. You could have said no. You could have resolutely shut that door, glared down our yearning little hearts, rebuked our impractical imaginations. You could have insisted on an ordinary day and a checklist of chores. But you saw that our hearts were ripe for the forming. You saw that holy hunger for far horizons, you saw our need to try, to dare, to reach for something just beyond our grasp. So you opened the door. Be bold, said your eyes, be joyous. Be brave with my blessing.

But you also gave us yourself. Your presence was the strength at our back, your laughter the song that sent us leaping through the rain. You stood there on the creek bank, eagle-eyed, cheerful, strong, and the sight of you glimpsed through the splash and rain sent a courage like blood pulsing through our veins. We tried all the harder because you were there. We dared because we knew you would await us at the end. And when we tromped home, gloriously wet and utterly exhausted, it was you who sat us by the fire, brewed the cocoa, and lingered with us in the flickering light. Your interest made us heroes. We told of the current that nearly got us, the branch that nearly broke, the newest fossil found, and it was your admiring words that turned us into knights at battle’s end, triumphant and ready to fight again.

To know that life is a great quest is one thing. To be given the love to meet it is another altogether. You, my precious mother, gave us both.

Courage in living and love that does not fail –  these themes defined my childhood. That one bright day was a note in a larger song. When life was dark, you lit candles. When times were grim, you made a feast (even if it was only homemade bread and cheese). When the battle I faced was doubt of God, you looked me in the eye and said “He’s bigger than your doubts.” But then you took my hand; “don’t worry, I’ll have faith for you until yours lives again.” When sickness came, when friendships failed, you challenged me to write, to love, to hope with every fibre of my being. When Oxford seemed a dream beyond all grasping, you said “just try.” And when once there, I thought for sure my essays would be flops, you ordered me to take a good long walk, drink tea, and “give it one more go.”

Meet the battle and face it with a song. Light a candle and lay a feast in the very teeth of darkness. Dare, always, to try once more. To love again. That’s what you taught me.

So here’s to you beloved and valiant mother o’ my heart. You make me think of Tennyson’s line in Ulysses, “we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts.” To have shared your heart and learned your courage is a gift that will follow me all my days. I hope I learn to be as brave as you.

Happy Mother’s Day.



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