A common house fly–well, a rather large fly to be more precise–prompted the most recent wave of unexpected grief to wash over me. This spring the purple burst of the first wild violet I saw brought delight and tears.
Toward the end of a non-stop day, the fly seemed to be bouncing off surfaces all around my office. He was nudging my blood pressure even higher. Yet when it landed on my computer monitor, instead of dispatching the insect, I cupped my hands around it, carried it to the door and contorted my fingers to keep hold of the fly while unlocking the door to let it fly free. Mission accomplished. In a flash, memories of my mother returning countless flies and spiders to the outdoors rushed into my mind.
My mother died last November.
Her death wasn’t entirely unexpected. Earlier in the fall, she’d celebrated her ninety-second birthday. On that cold, snowy Saturday morning, she’d gotten up as usual. Forever a Southern lady who always wanted to be well dressed and face the world with her makeup on, especially lipstick–always a shade of pink, she’d showered, dressed, and sat down in her easy chair, where she died a few minutes later.
For her, I’ll forever be grateful for the apparent ease of her death. For my siblings and me, despite her age, we were caught a bit off guard.
As my husband and I headed toward my family home, thoughts of the hours and days ahead emerged. The next morning I was to officiate the funeral of a longtime church member. In the earliest stages of grief, doubts about my ability to do so struck hard. As I was about to call our interim pastor to check on his availability, a message popped up that he was sick and wouldn’t make our worship service. I didn’t want to turn over the funeral to someone who didn’t know this delightful ninety-three-year-old and her wishes.
The same was true for my mother. She wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but, if she knew I was preaching, she’d come. My siblings suggested a former minister of her family church. He hadn’t seen her in ten years. I’d known her nearly fifty. She’d brought me into this world; it seemed only right that I accompany her as far as possible on this earthly journey.
Moments come occasionally when I wonder about my calling, but not the next morning when I placed my hand on Millie’s casket, or the next afternoon when I stepped beside my mother’s grave and laid my hand on her coffin. I’d assured myself that if my voice wavered or tears fell, they were simply signs of love. They didn’t come. Grace did.
I wanted my words to be a gift to my mother and a reassurance of God’s presence. I hope they were, but, in God’s amazing way of radical reversals, the gifts came to me. From adolescence on, I often struggled with mother’s inability to express affection in the usual ways. I longed to hear her say, “I love you.” As I looked at my mother’s life as best I could, I saw the young woman whose heart was broken when her first husband was killed in the Philippines in World War II. I saw the poverty of the Depression. I saw a lost baby. I saw a woman who persevered. I saw a woman who could grow a garden and cook or preserve everything it produced, and loved to study astronomy and stare at the heavens. I saw a woman who loved to read and ensured that her children were never without a book. I saw a woman who rescued critters of all sorts, even flies and spiders. I saw abundant love.
My voice was strong during her service. The dam broke the next day and I cried with few interruptions. Tears still come, and I hope always will.
For now, a quiet voice is suggesting that I’d look more polished if I’d put on lipstick–in a shade of pink.
Stephanie Porter-Nichols is the associate pastor of Marion Baptist Church in Marion, Virginia.