She was not in the mood to eat anything, and that’s when I knew that her cancer was severe.
Every summer, my mom, my brother, my dad, and I would go to this dive restaurant, Bum Rogers at Seaside Heights in Jersey, to devour some garlic crabs. My mom always ensured she got most of the crab claws. She would rob them and leave the bodies for everyone else to eat. She would be kind and leave the littlest claws for everybody else and take the biggest for herself. But this summer in 2015, she didn’t eat any crab claws at all. She just sat there watching us all feast. Despite the bright sunny day at the Jersey Shore, that evening turned ominous.
Two years before, her cancer had returned. I thought it was fine. She survived the first round about ten years ago, so she could just beat it again, right? After this beach excursion, she went to the hospital, never to leave. She was there for a few weeks. My dad practically lived there beside her, only returning home to take showers and to feed the parakeet. She didn’t want me or my brother to come and see her in this state. I came by once against her wishes, but we kept our distance until one day, my dad called, saying that we needed to come. My brother and I arrived with our respective girlfriends and a motley crew of friends, neighbors, and relatives to see her. She was gasping for life, practically unresponsive. We laughed and shared stories about her, like when a tour guide made her hold that baby alligator on that swamp tour in Louisiana. Other moments, we were crying because we knew this was near the end for her. We got a chance to speak with her in private, not that she could respond. I shared with her that night something that had been on my chest for a while: I wanted to get married to my girlfriend, but I still felt God calling me to the priesthood. I didn’t know what to do or how to go forward.
My brother, his future wife, and I came back the next day around lunch. My dad was exhausted from staying the night. He decided to go home and take his usual shower, and we were there to relieve him. And it was us three sitting around my mom. My brother was holding her right hand. I was holding her left. Suddenly, she started breathing very hard, and then in a matter of a minute, she gave her last breath.
This is not possible. How could I lose my mom in a time like this? I was about to start my last semester of undergrad student teaching. I was simultaneously working and about to start a Master’s program. On top of all of that, I had to think about what I was going to do with my life. What vocation will I pursue? How could I do all of this – or any of this – when my mom had just died?
Every year around this time, with the memory of my mom passing, I’m reminded of death. August always has a certain sense of death. You’re always getting ready for the next stage of life. Vacations are over; school is about to begin, and work picks up after the summer break. Something new is about to begin, but that means something old is passing away. In various moments of grief, where is God with me? What’s God up to with all this?
My life as a Jesuit reminds me of this moment a lot. As Jesuits, we regularly say goodbye to certain seasons and people while welcoming new ones in the midst of that sense of loss – while still grieving. Many times, a Jesuit moves to one place only for a little bit. As soon as we get accustomed to the people there, the culture, or the community, we move away. We go and fall in love, and then our hearts are broken because we have to leave. Regularly, there is a sort of death that occurs.
In a Gospel story, Jesus is asked by a synagogue leader to go to his house to heal his daughter, who is sick. Jesus, of course, goes with the man. As soon as he gets to the house, they find that the ill daughter has died, yet Jesus says that the girl is sleeping. Everyone laughs and brushes it aside. They take it as a joke. Maybe they hear it as superfluous religious language like we sometimes hear at funerals or hospital rooms, “they are sleeping” or “they are with God now.” Sometimes this language can come across as deflecting our emotions of grief. Sometimes folks like to explain away our suffering to make it feel better instantly – like Tylenol for the soul. Flowery language can return us to normal even though something abnormal has happened that will impact the rest of our lives. There’s a mismatch between what is said and what we feel. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t just offer nice words to comfort a grieving father and family. Jesus invites them all to clear the room so he can be alone with the daughter. Jesus takes her by the hand and brings her back to life.
Jesus is present in our grief and pain by being with us in these challenging moments. I like to believe that he was present like this with my mom on her deathbed. Although my mom physically died, he used my brother and me to hold her hands and – maybe in some way – guide her into eternal life with him. I do find it odd timing. She was in the hospital for about three weeks with my dad, and she could’ve gone any time. Even though she was on morphine, it seems that she wouldn’t have known that we were there. But at that moment when she died holding our hands, I sense that she did find peace, real peace. She found the peace that helped her move on to the next life. My brother and I were my mom’s whole world. Just by being there and holding her hands, we helped her have life even as it was being taken away from her by cancer.
Often, we hear people ask where God is in these difficult moments. Why couldn’t God have taken away my mother’s cancer? Why did God abandon me in my grief? Why couldn’t God let my mom live seven more years to see her first granddaughter? Why couldn’t God keep her alive to see me take my First Vows as a Jesuit? We always look for a miracle like what Jesus did with this daughter who died. And we say the same thing that Martha tells Jesus at Lazarus‘s tomb “if only you would’ve come earlier, my brother would’ve lived.” I always wonder about these gospel figures, such as Lazarus or this daughter. They must die someday, right? They might have passed even the day after. How many years afterward: five, ten, fifty? They are still mortal. They still die. And so, I don’t think Jesus‘s job is to prolong our time on earth to the maximum extent possible. He didn’t come to make us immortal in the physical world exclusively. Jesus is the one who comes beside us in these moments of grace and suffering. He is next to us in these moments of transition – in these moments of death, symbolic and real. Jesus always accompanies us in those times. He is at our side. He’s walking towards us as we lie sick. He’s holding our hands as we are dead. He brings us new life.
I’m reminded of my mom’s death while starting a new semester this August. I trust that Jesus is by my side like he is at the synagogue leader’s house or in the hospital room. Jesus takes my hand as I held my mom’s. His touch brings me that peace that gives me the strength to make it to tomorrow. His peace brings me from death into life.
Photo courtesy of the author.