On the recommendation of my friend and colleague, Scott Waalkes, this week I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming. I think I get 80% of my reading list from Scott, and every one is a gem. Last month we hosted Rod on campus for a lecture series. It was the same week that his Benedict Option came out and was featured in CT, and there was quite a buzz. We had a wonderful time; he is a great raconteur and seems to have read everything and know everyone. I was a little embarrassed that although I had read about them, I had not actually read any of Rod’s books. I’m glad it never came up during our conversations, but I wanted to rectify the situation as soon as possible.
If you have interest in reflections on family, struggling with terminal illness, and place, I would recommend The Little Way to you, too. Scott warned me that I should keep a box of tissues close by, and he was right. The Little Way is a memoir about Rod’s sister, a small-town girl who never really left home but put down deep roots in the community. She was a beloved daughter, wife, mother, friend, and elementary school teacher who died from lung cancer while in her early 40s. The central point that Rod makes is that family, place, and stability are crucial to building a life that is worth living. This is an important counter-cultural message for a society which seems to value only the mobility of bright lights and big cities.
I finished the book on Good Friday. I’m sure it was Holy Week, but I was thinking about what makes a good death as much as I was thinking about place and community. And I was thinking about my Mom. Easter Sunday is such a powerful reminder that this life is not all there is.
My Mom’s birthday was last week. She would have been 74 this year. She died in December 2015 after struggling for years with various manifestations of cancer and other maladies. The beginning of the end was in August, when what appeared to be a stomach flu turned out to be an appendicitis. Because of the emergency surgery, the physician decided to take her off her blood thinner, and things were never right again. Between my wife and I, we made four trips to Colorado that fall, and we got to know Littleton Hospital and its wonderful staff really well. I was on the speaker phone with my Dad and the doctors in early December when we decided to move her home with hospice care. I ended my semester early and we flew to Colorado.
When I was praying in my study earlier that fall, for some reason my eyes fell on a little black New Testament on my bookshelf. I opened it in curiosity. I have a ton of Bibles. Why would I have kept this one? The title page had my name in my Mom’s beautiful handwriting. It must have been a gift from her. So that’s why I kept it. And then I turned the page: the inscription was from her pastor at her confirmation in 1958. Among the verse citations listed, only one was written out, Rev 2:10b: “be faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life.” I held the little Bible in my hands and cried. After her death, when I was helping my Dad go through their pictures, I found the picture of her confirmation, holding that Bible.
My Mom is in the front row, second from the left
When we went to Denver in December to be with them during home hospice, it was the only Bible I took with me. I read the Psalms to her, in the same King James English that she taught me when I was little. Eventually Darla had to go home and it was just my Dad and me. She was really struggling toward the end and we had such a difficult time moving her that Dad finally decided to order a hospital bed. We waited all day, and finally they delivered it at almost midnight. Dad and I decided that it was too late to move her and that she would sleep one more night in bed with him. He told me he thought it would be her last night, but I didn’t think so. As I said goodnight, I read her every one of the verses in the inscription from her confirmation Bible. I told her that she had been faithful indeed, and that no matter what happened, a crown of life was waiting for her. Dad woke me up about 5:00AM and said that her breathing was labored. When we returned to her side there was only a few short breaths and that was all. There could not have been a better death: in her own bed, with her husband and son, so peaceful. I am so grateful to have been there.
And I am so grateful to know that this is not all there is. I am certain that I have been given my sense of adventure and my love of running from my Mom. If there would have been women’s athletics when she was young, she would have been a runner, too. As it was, we never ran together. But someday things will be different. Some day she will be healthy and vibrant again. Some day I will run with her “further up and further in!” This is the hope of Resurrection Sunday.
This week has been a rough one in terms of my training. I was trying to wean myself off the orthotics that I always wear. When I was training for marathons in 1998 I developed severe plantar in both feet. I kept trying to push through and ended up hardly being able to walk. This has been a weak spot in my body ever since. And somehow I blew it. This week I have been trying every trick in the book, but the pain was too intense. I missed workouts on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Missing the second day in a row hurt a lot. I was dressed and jogged about 100 yards before I gave up. I find few things as frustrating as running injuries. It is one thing to wimp out on a workout; it is entirely another to want to run, but to be unable. On Easter morning before church I decided to give it another try. The weather was beautiful. Spring is finally here. All I could think about is the power and beauty of the resurrection. And I was able to run. Thanks be to God.
I am so thankful that this is Holy Week. Because even in running, sometimes there has to be suffering and death before there can be resurrection and new life. Death to self, death to selfish desire. Yes to whatever cup the Father has given me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine. I am so thankful that in running also, this week is not all there is.
In our society we tend to celebrate our holidays so much in advance that when the actual day comes we are sick of them. But in reality, today is the first day of the Easter season not its conclusion. Let me encourage you to celebrate the resurrection. He is not dead! He lives! This is not all there is! Let today be a fresh beginning for you. Could there be a better way to celebrate than going for a run?
Tues (speed) 4