Simultaneous conversations filled my mother’s kitchen, as the extended family gathered to celebrate her birthday.
“Quiet!” Her voice held an authority that immediately stilled our chatter.
“Spoken like a true man.” My father beamed.
“Actually, spoken like a true woman.” I corrected.
Though my mother did not look in my direction, the twinkle in her eyes and the sudden smile acknowledged the compliment.
In the ensuing silence, the blessing was prayed.
Once again, my parents outdid themselves with their generous hospitality. A scrumptious and bountiful three course dinner left us satiated. We pleaded time to let our dinners settle before we indulged in birthday cake. In the recess, their seven grandchildren headed outside to play in the soft summer evening. My parents visited with two of their cousins in the dining room. I sat at the kitchen table with my three siblings and our respective spouses.
It was the first time in my remembered history, where siblings and spouses all sat together. More commonly, there would be three or four conversations going on in different corners of the room. And there were the inevitable squabbles between kids that needed to be settled. At the very least, one of us would be attending to the need of a child. Therefore, it was quite amazing to spontaneously gather at the kitchen table after dinner that evening. Without conscious thought, we were soon engaged in a communal conversation, swapping stories and sharing laughter. It was a while before we even realized there had been no interruptions. It was my childless brother who silently slipped away for a moment to check on the remarkable phenomena. He came back to report that
all seven kids, from my two year old nephew to my fourteen year old son, were playing together and having a really good time. Three sets of parents sat back in astonishment.
My mother came into the kitchen. She stood apart and quietly observed us for a while. A smile of sweet contentment played across her face. That was the image I would recall ten days later.
* * *
Looking back, the first clue to the uncharacteristic nature of the evening was the circumstance of the gathering itself. It was the only time our family had all come together to share my mother’s special day. At the time, I imagined it was simply coincidence. I assumed the get-together was about meeting my parent’s guests from Europe. Still, the extraordinary harmony of ‘the crowd’ (as my dad affectionately called us) caught my attention before desert had even been served. The flowing conversations, the camaraderie between the kids, and the image of my mother . . .
Ten days later, we gathered around her as she lay in a hospital bed. She appeared to be in a deep and restful sleep, yet she was unconscious to the world. Instinctively, I knew she would never wake again.
“Too late,” the neurosurgeon said shaking his head. “The bleed was too severe.”
As I recalled the image of my mother’s contented gaze on the eve of her last birthday, I became aware of that moment as a precious parting gift. Her life work had been to hold the family together with the bond of her love. She prayed for us daily without fail. In times of need, she was always present. And she was very diligent about keeping in touch to catch up on the latest news and to offer encouragement. As I memorized her face, peaceful in its final rest, I knew the definitive gift was one of ineffable grace. One last time, before she was called to her eternal Home, she witnessed the fruits of her work and her heart’s longing – the wellbeing, happiness and unity of her family.
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