This week I’m writing about a recent road trip I took with my parents. The essay reflects on loss, anxiety, and a deep experience of hope I had with my mother. I hope you are encouraged.
Please pray with me as I return for a new semester of service in Ethiopia tonight. I’m excited for the good work ahead.
Do you ever fear that you are losing your past or that the best is behind you?
Six years ago, my mother had a serious stroke. It was a Thursday – October 17, 2013. After that night of anguish, her life – and ours – has never been the same.
Mom’s physical abilities, appearance, and personality all dramatically changed. The person who loved spending time with others, who engaged in deep conversation and prayer, who worked out, rode horses, and practiced massage largely transitioned into memory burdened with a deep sense of loss.
Mom is still with us and full of love. But she has become increasingly sedentary and reclusive. She speaks much less and can no longer control the muscles in her face to smile. When we take short walks down the driveway, she often asks me, “Do you think God still loves me?” The doctors say it’s a miracle that mom can even talk, because the left side of her brain was flattened by the stroke.
In the last six years, I’ve discovered a profound gift hidden in mom’s brokenness. Her “new normal” – a phrase she despises – has revealed my dad’s unconditional commitment to being with her and for her, come what may. Dad hasn’t skipped a beat in essentially becoming her full-time caretaker: her driver, cook, shower assistant, pill preparer – anything that requires two functioning hands and feet, which mom no longer has. For dad, mom has remained exactly who she always was, despite these changes: his beloved wife. There is a profound lesson here for every husband and lover.
A few weeks ago, mom proposed one of her crazy larks to dad: a road trip to Maine before my return to Ethiopia. Maine was our paradise growing up. We journeyed there every summer for the first twenty years of my life. Many of our happiest memories are housed there. It had been fourteen years since I last visited.
Doing the numbers, the trip would require a 2400-mile (3862km) marathon for less than 24 hours in Maine. We would get there, spend a day together, and drive back for dad’s medical checkup.
In typical fashion, dad was up for mom’s adventure, and I wouldn’t miss it. This felt like perhaps our last chance to make this cherished pilgrimage together after so many years.
As we finally crossed the border into Maine, my anticipation gave way to anxiety as my heart started racing. What if this place isn’t as I remembered? Or what if it is but our time is too short to do anything but make me miss the past? What if I can’t capture this experience, and it becomes another haunting memory of something I love that slips away – like I fear mom is becoming?
I’ve found that anxiety is often a coping mechanism that distracts and distances me from something that makes me feel vulnerable – a depresencing. It’s like a child hiding under the covers from the darkness or an alcoholic having a drink in a stressful situation. Being anxious, hiding, or drinking changes nothing and actually increases our vulnerability. But these distractions offers a temporary break from what troubles us.
I’ve started a practice of responding to my anxiety by writing simple prayers. So as dad drove down Route 1, I wrote, “I thank you for the gift of being here and release trying to capture it. Thank you for the gift of the past, for Maine, for mom and dad. I celebrate simply being here.”
Those twenty hours in Maine turned into some of the most sacred time in my life. And following tradition, the center of this sacredness was taking a long walk with mom down our old Hills Beach Road – a finger of land straddling Biddeford Pool and the Atlantic Ocean.
Fourteen years and a stroke later, mom was no longer able to walk the road. But our walk/wheelchair-ride was a precious gift full of peace and joy. We talked about the water, the houses, the flowers, the islands, the people we knew there, the memories we have there. It was holy and beautiful.
As we walked, I found myself breathing deeply and effortlessly. The ocean air was entirely unchanged from decades ago, mixing ocean salt, seaweed, pine trees, the sand, beach roses, and love. Breathing it made me feel alive, free, loved, and hopeful for everlasting life – like breathing the breath of God at the origins of our humanity. It revived a radical happiness inside of me. I could taste heaven in the wind, even as our bodies age and mom can no longer walk the road.
Breathing that healing wind – so deeply past and so fully present – reminded me of the irreplaceability of presence. I can describe all of the wind’s ingredients, but the description is not the wind. I cannot conjure it in my mind. I must breathe it – come to it, be in it, and let it enter me. There is no replacement for presence. The wind also reminded me that the presence of past goodness is real; it was still there and enlivening, even though it had been so many years since it filled my lunges. I simply needed to return to it.
Our walk reminded me that God is like this wind, as Jesus said (John 3:8). I cannot capture or conjure God in my mind. In some seasons of life, I can’t remember what God’s presence is like. In those times, I can describe it, but the description is not the presence. In hard times, that presence can feel like a decaying memory slipping into unreality. But the description points to the presence and reminds me that God’s presence is real, alive, and radioactively good.
On Hills Beach Road, my fear of losing the past – Maine, my mother, my self, God – blew away in the ocean breeze. I could embrace afresh that the Absolute is alive. The Permanent is personal. The Presence is real, even if it comes and goes – or we come and go. When we return, fourteen years later or beyond the grave, God is there, and we don’t need to fear loss. All the goodness in our past – however tantalizingly intangible and inaccessible it sometimes feels – is only the scent of an everlasting presence, a fullness of time and togetherness in which gifts past and future are perfectly at home in joy.
God’s unconditional presence will overcome all catastrophe, returning us to our deepest happiness without separation or loss. This can be trusted and breathed as we walk into the fragility of our future and remember the past.
“I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:20)