I’ve seen where many people wish Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary or post other heartfelt greetings to their deceased loved ones on social media; and if that works for them, that’s fine. But I can’t help but wonder – why?
When my mother’s birthday arrives in three weeks, I won’t wish her Happy Birthday on Facebook nor will I post it in any other public place. Because if the Bible is to be believed – that the dead know nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:5) – then mother won’t know that I wish her a Happy Birthday anyway. And as much as she expressed her disdain for social media when she was alive – by the off-chance that there is Facebook in the hereafter, she surely would have nothing to do with it.
My mother’s chosen religion forbids their members from acknowledging birthdays and other so-called pagan holidays; so when she was alive wishing her happiness on such an occasion often led to a repetitive interchange between us.
Mother would say, “You know I don’t celebrate (whatever the holiday in question).” And I would protest, “But I do.” The conversation usually ended there, until the next time. Yet, to my pleasure, she never refused to accept the cards or gifts that I gave her on those days. And she always (perhaps begrudgingly, although she didn’t show it) acknowledged the gesture with a polite, “Thank you.”
I regretted the fact that mother would not allow me to take her out to dinner, to a stage play, or someplace special on her birthday, but it bothered me more on Mother’s Day. Even before I became a mother, I relished Mother’s Day and considered the day to be a special occasion for honoring and showing reverence to all mothers and especially good mothers like mine.
Since my siblings and I were adults when mother decided to convert her faith, I have wonderful memories to cherish of earlier times of family get-togethers at my parent’s home on holidays like the Fourth of July (Can you say crab fest?), Thanksgiving, and Christmas. And for a few years, even after my siblings and I married and had families of our own, we’d all bring our kids to the grandparents home on festive occasions. Unfortunately, those happy get-togethers dwindled and eventually stopped; too soon.
In three weeks when mother’s birthday arrives, I won’t publicize it on social media. I will acknowledge it privately. And before the day is over, I know I will smile with tear-filled eyes as I remember a recurring dialog that she and I shared many times in the years before she died.
“You know I don’t celebrate birthdays.”
“But I do.”
At my mother’s funeral service a few weeks ago, I read a tribute to her which I wrote. Some remarks from the tribute are referenced in this post. In the days after the service, several people told me what a good job I’d done with the tribute and how nice it was. Considering the occasion, I aimed to do the right thing. But what many people didn’t know was that – although I always loved my mother – I had been mourning her loss for years before her demise.
Although her Anglo-Saxon name – Mildred – means gentle strength, my mother was an incredibly strong-willed and self-sufficient woman. She was also more controlling than a drill sergeant indoctrinating new recruits. Mother ran a tight ship. Not only were her offspring required to abide by the “my house, my rules” dictate that many parents – rightfully so – impose on their children, we also had to contend with a mother who was very strict and sometimes overbearing.
I recall an occasion during my adolescence when mother was upset with me about something. I honestly don’t remember what it was. Probably something that I wanted to do that she wouldn’t allow. Or perhaps it was something that I did that I shouldn’t have. Nevertheless, I was moping over whatever was bothering me and mother was trying to get me to talk about it. I refused. I just sat there on the sofa beside her, teary eyes lowered, saying nothing.
“Why won’t you talk to me when something is bothering you?” mother asked in her typical demanding tone.
When I mustered up the nerve to answer I replied, “Because you always talk like you are fussing, and I don’t want to be fussed at.”
“That’s just the way I talk,” she said in a manner that I perceived to be serious attitude, causing me to again revert to silence.
Mother had a quick wit and an even quicker temper. It didn’t matter who you were, she would not hesitate to give you a take-no-prisoners tongue lashing when she felt it was warranted. So rather than risk drawing her wrath I kept my emotional distance. When I recall past conversations with my siblings, I think that perhaps mother never knew how to talk with her children on a level that did not alienate us.
Granted the teenage years are a time when most teens find it difficult to communicate with their parents, unfortunately sometimes that lack of communication extends into adulthood. And since mother was not one to pull punches, when she and I had tense conversations, out of respect, the best I could do was bob and weave to deflect the verbal blows, or erect an emotional firewall. Over the years, the latter became my refuge.
During the last month of mother’s life, my sister and I took turns spending alternate weeks at mother’s home – bringing her meals, meds, and tending to her other needs. It was a difficult period, but it allowed my mother and me to spend more time together than we had shared in years.
In spite of the fact that — prior to her illness — we talked on the phone nearly every day; unfortunately our busy and dissimilar lifestyles barred us from spending much face-time together.
Mother was the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister and she had been raised in the Christian faith. Sometime during the mid-1970s, she joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her conversion not only changed our family dynamics, it splintered our family unit. Gatherings at Thanksgiving, Christmas time and other holidays, and even the exchange of birthday greetings were curtailed and eventually ended.
During the final days of her life, mother’s voice grew gradually weaker until even her whispers could not be understood. I recall one day, as I sat beside her bed, she murmured, “Why can’t I talk?” Although I suspected that the lung cancer had spread to her throat, I just slowly shook my head side-to-side implying that I didn’t know.
Like any dutiful daughter who assumes the role of caregiver, I did what I could to make my mother comfortable in her last days, even to the extent of neglecting my own obligations and putting my life on hold.
The short weeks during mother’s hospice, allowed she and I to spend time together, to share some laughter and a few brief, but long overdue, lighthearted conversations. And although there were many things that I wanted to say to her, when someone is on her deathbed is not the time to bring up and rehash bygone discord. Therefore, many things that I would like to have discussed calmly with my mother before she died were left unsaid.
When I was growing up – and even as an adult – mother and I had several conversations about religion and family. We even discussed cults, especially in the days following the Jonestown massacre. Yet, the time ultimately came when I perceived that mother did not heed her own advice. In that regard, the thing that I regret most that I never had a chance to say to my mother is this: We should never allow people – or institutions — to speak to us so loudly that we cannot hear ourselves – or to command us to such loyalty that we lose ourselves.
“You are not an accident. Even before the universe was created, God had you in mind, and he planned you for His purposes. These purposes will extend far beyond the years you will spend on earth.” Those thought provoking words are from Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life.
As Baby Boomers come closer to the end of our road, some are pondering our objective for being here. Although I once had a firm conviction about purpose, I am beginning to question my own thinking on that subject.
For years, I have been among those who believe that every individual was created by our maker for a specific purpose; and I suspect that our personal goals are secondary to the purpose for which we were born. I also wonder, are our personal goals commingled – unbeknownst to us – with our purpose for being here? And, if we do all have a purpose and the purpose of some people is to do basically good things – like strive for world peace or, on a smaller scale, improve a chaotic society – then what is the purpose of evil doers?
September 29, 1995 was the deathday of atheist, Madalyn O’Hair. O’Hair became famous – some would say infamous – in 1960 when, after declaring that it was unconstitutional for her son, William, to be required to participate in religious activities at school, she filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore school system. That suit eventually led to the Supreme Court decision that banned prayer in all public schools.
Twice married, O’Hair had two sons, Jon and William Murray. Prior to becoming estranged from William, Madalyn adopted his daughter, her granddaughter, Robin. William incurred the wrath of his mother in 1980, when