This is a brief retreat, first time ever at Holy Cross Monastery on the Hudson. A beautiful spot. And real peace.
I’ve been reading words I wrote or quoted from others while I was on retreat, back in the spring of 1998. Some of those words belong to the inimitable Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory. This evening I saw again words I copied out of his book on consolation, written after the death of his mother.
I suppose I should have expected what came this evening. This is my first moment of retreat since Mom’s death last December. Sitting in the monastery church tonight in the minutes before Compline, waves of grief rose up, and many tears. I miss her so much, all the time. Life goes on, to use the phrase she always used, but it’s not ever the same. Evenings are hard, every day. Just at the end of the day. I just want to see her, to hold her hand, to hear her voice again, to kiss her goodnight. All once simple everyday things. Now all of them, impossible.
The other day, before retreat, I found myself thinking of both my parents in their last days. The stories of their going-forth differ. Dad had five weeks of weakness, illness, treatment after his diagnosis with cancer. Mom had an extended period of weakening, an a-symptomatic experience of Covid, and a second positive test just days before her death.
Neither of them complained. Neither ever asked anything resembling, why me, why now. Neither of them spoke negative words. Both seemed to accept the gateway coming near. I remember Dad standing in his hospital room before the mirror, his eyes catching mine as he said of his 72 years, “It’s been a good run,” and repeating the words again. I remember Mom, the afternoon before she died, there with the intake nurse from hospice. Mom lay in bed at 91 years, listened as best she could, responded, and smiled. She smiled gently at this new friend, and at me.
From both of my parents came the same very last words I ever heard them speak in this world. They said, “Thank you.” After all the joy, all the struggle, all the sorrow, all the laughter, it came down to gratitude, to thankfulness. It came down to saying yes to life and to the hope for new life. And the other day, remembering, I thought and prayed: Lord, grant me a share in their strength. Just a portion.
They are forever my heroes.
Henri Nouwen, so many years after his own death, speaks to me tonight in my own handwriting from 1998, these words he wrote in contending with death as his own mother went forth from this world:
Our lives can indeed be seen as a process of becoming familiar with death, as a school in the art of dying. … When we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.
Mother’s death is indeed an invitation to surrender ourselves more freely to the future, in the conviction that one of the most important parts of our lives may still be ahead of us and that mother’s life and death were meant to make this possible.
Yes, a silent, joyful waiting. No panic, no despair, no screams, no tears or wringing of hands. No shouts of joy either. No victorious songs, no banners or flags. Only a simple quiet waiting with the deep, inner knowledge that all will be well. How? Do not ask. Why? Do not worry. Where? You will know. When? Just wait. Just wait quietly, peacefully, joyfully … all will be well.
[H. Nouwen, A Letter of Consolation]
And so, I wait.