Earlier this month I spent a week in north Georgia with the Johnsons, who for 15 years have provided loving care for my aging mother in their home. I had planned the trip to coincide with a publishing conference, but hospice workers urged me to come sooner. “She might not make it to her 99th birthday,” they said. “She could die at any time.”
That first day, I awoke at sunrise in their basement guest quarters. Soft morning light filtered through the trees as cheery birds announced the new day. I opened a book I had brought along for a Zoom book group: In This World of Wonders, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a renowned Christian philosopher who had taught at Calvin College, Yale University, and the Free University of Amsterdam. After writing many acclaimed works of philosophy, a few years ago Wolterstorff published this personal memoir, which revisits a scene that haunts him still.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1983, Wolterstorff got a call from Germany, where his eldest son Eric, 25, was doing research for a doctoral dissertation on architectural history. “Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. Mr. Wolterstorff, are you there? You must come at once! Mr. Wolterstorff, Eric is dead.” An avid mountain climber, Eric had slipped and fallen to his death on a spring climb in Austria.
Years ago, I had read Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, which lays bare a father’s suffering and grief. Now, during my week in Georgia, I began each day with reflections on the mystery of suffering, penned by one of our finest philosophers. Then, as soon as I heard the footsteps of others in the household, I’d climb the steps to my mother’s room to find out if she had survived one more night.
What follows is a kind of mental dialogue between me and Nicholas Wolterstorff, with his words (italicized) taken from the memoir I was reading. “Nick,” as he asks to be called, actually joined our Zoom book club as a guest that week. At 91, he seemed as spry and intellectually alert as ever, quite a contrast to my mother upstairs, who was fading in and out of consciousness. He was reflecting on a grief wound four decades old, whereas mine was unfolding in real time.
[Wolterstorff began writing Lament for a Son in the waiting room of a Luxembourg airport on the way to claim Eric’s body.] Why did I write? Out of helplessness. I had brought along some reading material from home, but I could not read. I could only think of Eric’s death. What else was there to do but write?… I composed Lament for a Son over the course of the following year. It consists of fragments—with lots of space between the fragments. Rather early in the process of writing I tried to join the fragments into a continuous flow, but it didn’t work. My life had been fragmented, so my lament would have to be fragmented as well. …Lament for a Son is not a book about Grief—it’s a cry of grief.
There’s a huge difference between the grief from losing a 25-year-old son, so full of promise, and grief from losing a mother who has lived one year shy of a century. I well understand, though, what you mean by “What else was there to do but write?” I recently wrote a memoir, Where the Light Fell which, like yours, reflects a style different from anything else I have written. In it, I tried to piece together the fragments of my own life. Writing allows us to impose some order on what we experience in a seemingly random sequence.
I never knew my father, who died of polio at the age of 23, the month after my first birthday. With a start, I realize that he died even younger than your Eric. As I read of your grief, I put myself in my mother’s place: widowed just three years after her marriage, left with two young sons and no real training for a career. My brother and I were raised by a single mother who would have a hardscrabble life.
I waited forty years to write my own story, mainly because I knew it would spill secrets about my mother: the disjunction between her public image and the mother we knew, her strange ideas about child-rearing, the fits of depression and outbursts of anger. I now see that she never found a way to express that cry of grief. Her theology did not allow for a response of disappointment or anger with God. Yet you, a rational philosopher from a Calvinist background, had the remarkable freedom to express those emotions and more, and to leave your questions unresolved in mystery. Like the psalmists and prophets. Like Job.
[Wolterstorff reflects on a dinner he shared with a professor in the medical college of the Free University of Amsterdam.] Somehow, the conversation got around to the instructions he gave prospective nurses concerning how to engage mothers whose babies were stillborn or died shortly after birth. “I tell them,” he said, “that you need two eyes. With one eye, you have to check the IV; with the other eye, you have to cry. I tell them that one eye is not enough. You need two eyes.” I have used this moving and profound statement as the theme for some college commencement speeches I have given. You, college graduates, need two eyes, the eye of competence and the eye of empathy. One eye is not enough. You need two eyes.
Daily, nurses and caregivers stop by from the local hospice organization. Autumn checks my mother’s vital signs and monitors the proper morphine dosage to control pain. April bathes her and expertly changes the bed sheets without moving her from the bed. She keeps up a steady conversation: “I’m just going to roll you a bit to the left now, Miz Yancey. You let me know if anything hurts, OK?”
Nurses, doctors, and health workers are leaving their jobs in droves, burned out by the pandemic and by the crush of modern, depersonalized medicine. Not hospice workers, though. As my wife, a former hospice chaplain, explains, “I feel we’re on sacred ground. We’re permitted to enter some of the most intimate moments of life, and such care could not be more personal.” Hospice workers bring comfort to family members at a time of fear and vulnerability. At least in the South, they greet you with a hug. Sometimes they cry. They have two eyes.
I sit by my mother’s bedside for long, mostly wordless, stretches. The first few days, she has periods of lucidity and can carry on a simple conversation. Often, in the midst of a thought she will simply turn her head on the pillow and fall asleep. “There are three things I want to say,” she pronounces at one point, and just as I lean forward, on full alert, she slips into unconsciousness. I never hear those three things. Once she rouses up and asks, “Why do I have to go through this process?” On the day she turns 99, she says simply, “I made it.”
Other times, she hallucinates, mumbling about “my little friend, with red hair and freckles who has to go first before I go.” Occasionally she calls out “Mama!” for her own mother, who died at the age of 102. As the week progresses, though, she stays mostly silent. I learn to tune in to her breathing: the sharp sounds like snoring as she struggles to pull air into her lungs, the quieter clicking sounds from the back of her throat, and the shallow breaths I can only detect by the slight movements of her chest.
Early in the week I play the piano just outside her room, and Janet and the Johnsons join in on hymns familiar to her: “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Love Lifted Me,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and—this being the region of country music—“I’ll Fly Away.” The crease lines in her forehead visibly relax, even when she shows no sign of consciousness. “Hearing is the last sense to go,” say the hospice workers. “So keep talking to her, even if she can’t let you know she hears you.”
The Johnsons’ six-year-old grandchild darts in and out of the room, and this too brings a slight smile to her face. With no comprehension of death or grief, he studies the adults for clues on how to react. Ah, those years of youth, naïve to the burdens of life.
In grief, wanting collides with knowing. I desperately wanted Eric to be alive, but I knew he was dead and could not be brought back to life. Grief is banging your head against the wall. If you are frightened, you can run away or hide; if you are angry, you can vent your rage. When you are in grief, there is nothing you can do, other than altering yourself by getting rid of the frustrated want or by repressing your awareness of it. By virtue of wanting what you know or believe to be impossible, grief is irrational: it makes no sense to want what you know cannot be. …
People often ask me how my grief has changed over the years. Usually, those who ask have just recently been cast into grief, and they are wondering whether the dark cloud will ever lift. At first, my grief was always there, if not in the forefront of my thoughts, then in the felt background. Gradually, it was no longer always there. But it’s always ready to return. Anything in my experience, no matter how innocuous—a chance remark, a piece of clothing, a work of art—bears the potential of triggering a chain of associations that culminates in renewed grief. Initially, whenever something reminded me of Eric and of his death, wanting him back surged through me. Now that happens less often. What happens now is a feeling of deep regret for all the promise that never came to be. My lament now is more sorrow over the good lost than grief over the evil of Eric’s absence. …
Again, grieving for a 25-year-old is different from grieving for a 99-year-old. Few who sit by an aged person drifting in and out of consciousness think of banging their head against the wall in protest. Hospice workers are trained to facilitate “a good death,” with as much comfort and relief of pain as possible. After several days of unresponsiveness, my mother’s nurse observes, “She’s clinging to life, even as her vital organs shut down. Is there someone she needs to hear from before she lets go—some broken relationship perhaps?”
Oh, yes. My memoir tells of a kind of righteous “curse” she put on my older brother from which he never recovered. She even walked out of my wedding reception when the photographer suggested a photo that included her and her two sons. Over the years, my mother and I made peace, something that never fully happened between her and my brother.
For decades I delayed writing my own memoir, not wanting to cause pain to those I care about. Our family secrets remained secret. But when I exposed them, a most surprising thing happened. After I turned in the book manuscript, as she entered her late nineties, my mother asked if I could arrange a three-way phone call with her and my brother. He agreed. It was the first time she had heard the voice of her firstborn son in more than fifty years.
Ultimately I arranged four separate phone calls. Each one proved slightly less tense than the previous one, although none of them led to a reconciliation. She couldn’t refrain from preaching sermons, and he gave mostly one-word responses. And then, out of nowhere, she received a card from my brother that contained only three words, written in his stroke-afflicted scrawl: “I forgive you.” A Catholic priest and a Buddhist friend had convinced him that only through forgiveness could he remove the chain of resentment that hung around his neck.
During my week in Georgia, many people post tributes to my mother on social media. A studious, hard-working Bible teacher, she has influenced many children and college students who now write notes of affection and gratitude. In the process of writing my memoir, I have gained deep respect for her remarkable journey: a bereft young widow who had experienced little love herself became a mentor of young people with their own griefs and family dysfunctions. That journey took its toll, a toll mainly inflicted on our little family of three.
And so, following the nurse’s advice, I get my brother on the phone for one last communication. I hold the speaker to her ear to hear Marshall say, “Mother, I just want to tell you goodbye.” She never regains consciousness, and two days later, at one o’clock in the morning, she passes from earthly life.
Things have gone awry in God’s world. I do not understand why, nor do I understand why God puts up with it for so long.…God has not told us why there is natural and moral evil in the world, has not explained to us why we do not all flourish until full of years. I live with that. What we are told is that God is engaged in a battle with evil and will eventually win the battle.
No one escapes this life unmarked by suffering. We broken people live on a broken planet, and grief is part of the price we pay. I look back on my mother’s life with great gratitude. Like Nick Wolterstorff, I have more sorrow over the good lost—the promise that never came to be—than grief over the evil of death. And I too trust in a future when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”