My mother’s death occurred almost fifteen years before I learned about it. Her death was a news story. Murdered by a stalker while she lived in Miami. It occurred, of all days, on my ninth birthday, with me thankfully unaware. My mother was a stranger to me—both because of her absence and because of her illness. She was not allowed to see me or contact me when I was a child.
We had once lived together as a family, leaving me with only one real memory. We were living in Bermuda—my birthplace—where I shared a room with my older sister. The small room held only my crib and her bed. In my memory, I stood in the crib eager to be free.
“Do you want to get out?” my sister asked. I nodded with enthusiasm and raised my arms. She reached over and helped lift me over the crib’s siding
Our bare feet padded along as she led me by hand into the living room. It was late afternoon as the light slanted into the half-furnished room—this place had not yet become our home. Still, standing in the middle of the floor were my father and mother, arms wrapped around each other, dancing though no music played.
My sister and I watched this silent display of love before my sister led me in further. In imitation, we began to dance together ourselves. I looked up at my sister, so tall and protective, feeling awe in my heart. It didn’t take long for my mother to notice us.
“Look, Jerome! They are dancing like us!” my mother said. They both turned to look at us, smiles on all faces, the light creating a glow behind both of their curly-haired heads. It is my best memory of us as a family.
Not too long after this my mother’s father died, and she changed. Something broke in her and she needed someone to blame, so she blamed my father. She was a passionate and intelligent woman with a master’s degree from Georgetown University. The intensity that made her successful was also part of her disease—bipolar disorder.
The next few years were chaotic. She took us to live in Virginia until her disease morphed into paranoia, and she lived in fear of being found. This time of upheaval ended with her arrest and then institutionalization. My sister and I went into foster care and then to our grandparents before our father was able to come to us.
During that time of forced separation, my mother died, and we had no idea. We moved back to Bermuda when I was twelve, and my father was waiting for a court order to stop us from being taken out of the country. We didn’t know that she was no longer there to fight the custody battle.
Though we didn’t hear anything, I still hoped that one day I’d see her again. I dreamt a fuzzy, distant dream of what having a mother would be like. Because of this, her death was like a release of held breath—a tiny flame of hope extinguished.
My husband and I had only been married about a year as I finished working the evening shift at the front desk of the local YMCA. As I walked out of the front door, the setting sun dappled the parking lot. I smiled to see him standing there, waiting for me. As he walked in step with me, he said, “I spoke to your sister today. She heard something about your mother.”
I stopped in my tracks and faced him. My sister had been trying to find out what happened to my mother, even hiring a private detective with no success.
“She went online to the archives of The Miami Herald.” He stopped and faced me, looking straight into my eyes. “She found the story of your mother’s murder.”
“What? How did this happen? Why didn’t we hear?” I realized by the agonized look on his face that he couldn’t answer my questions. I called my sister, and she directed me to the articles detailing an obsessed stalker who broke into her apartment and stabbed her. Reading the details felt like reviewing a fictional crime scene on a TV show, not the story of my own mother.
I grieved those few days because I had still hoped that one day we would get another chance. I wondered what she would think of me and whether she’d approve of me. I imagined her being proud of my academic success or telling me how much I looked like her. I hoped she’d see my future kids one day. With her death, I grieved the dream of a mother.
In contrast, with my father I didn’t grieve an idea but a person.
After the stress of living with my mother, my dad’s dependability was like a lullaby—safe and secure. He was a creature of habit, which I needed during my growing years. As an adult, he became more than a father, he became my friend. We traveled together, told stupid jokes together, and debated together.
When I got married and started having kids, our relationship changed. I was busy with a job, small children, and church ministry. I didn’t invest in him the way I used to. Then one day, another parking lot.
My husband texted me while I sat at my desk in the college writing center where I worked as a tutor. He told me to pack up my things and that he would be there soon. I had no idea what it was about, initially thinking he had something fun planned.
When I saw his face, I knew that wasn’t the case. He looked as though a heavy weight was pulling him down, bowing his shoulders.
“Your uncle called me, and your dad had a heart attack. He died in the ambulance.”
I felt I’d been hit by a semi-truck. I am not an emotional person and suffer from delayed responses to most important events. But with this statement, I fell apart. Tears poured from my eyes as I got into the car and drove home.
I don’t remember much of that evening except that friends came with food and to help me pack. The next day, we drove to where my father had lived in Georgia. The days weren’t so bad. I kept busy with my children and organizing the details of his cremation and memorial service. But nightmares plagued my sleep.
In the worst dream, I stood at our freezer pulling out half-thawed pounds of ground beef that had spoiled. My father stood behind me trying to speak to me, but I ignored him because I was angry about losing the meat. I even accidentally hit him on the foot as I threw them on the ground. This doesn’t sound like a horrible dream, except when we returned from our trip, I found the door to our freezer wasn’t completely closed and that our meat had spoiled. It felt like a confirmation that I was a terrible daughter, too consumed with whatever was happening at the moment to pay attention to what I had.
This became the refrain of my grief—guilt of not loving him in the way he deserved. His death was sudden with no chance to say I’m sorry or I love you or please forgive me for being so selfish. All of a sudden, as I threw meat around, my time with him was done.
I still have these two pains rattling around in my chest: the unfulfilled dream of having a mother and the fear that I failed as a daughter. I cannot know if I will ever see either one of them again. I do know, though, that the impact my father made in my life carved out a Dad-sized cavern in my heart, leaving me changed, but also leaving me in pain.
When we think of love, we don’t often picture the pain that love causes. Without love, death would not hurt. Without love, we would be unwilling to endure hardship for the sake of others. Yet we know love, even with its pain, is what we were created for. It is the glue that holds the world together even when it feels like it is exploding. Without it, we would be lost.
In the sci-fi thriller Interstellar, the main characters Cooper, Dr. Brand, and Romilly, must decide which planet to go to next. This decision is crucial because the wrong choice could mean the end of human life. They only have enough resources for one trip to find a new planet for humankind to inhabit. Dr. Brand suggests the planet where the man she loves is. When they mock this as a bad motive to make a decision, she explains.
“I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”
In fact, it is not just her love, but Cooper’s for his children, that against all odds propels them forward, to ultimately bring salvation to those left behind on the dying Earth. Somehow, love tells Dr. Brandt the best planet for them to go and enables Cooper to go back in time to communicate with his daughter.
It is hard to imagine the far-reaching implications our acts of love can have. Love is often in the background compelling us to actions we don’t understand. Ruth, a widowed foreigner, follows her mother-in-law and her God into a strange land because of the power of love. Her famous words resound through the ages, “. . . where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” She had no idea she would be the great grandmother of a king and the descendent of the prophesied Messiah. She simply obeyed the love.
This seems easy, but to obey love when it calls us into dangerous terrain requires a courage I often feel I lack. I am not ready, like Ruth or Dr. Brandt, to venture into the unknown—to face certain danger in the pursuit of love. My hand has been burned by abandonment and by death, and I loathe to reach towards the warmth again.
I am beginning to learn that real love isn’t the stuff of Hallmark movies, but the stuff of battlefields. Dan Allender in his book Bold Love explains that,
Bold love is courageously setting aside our personal agenda to move humbly into the world of others with their well-being in view, willing to risk further pain in our souls, in order to be an aroma of life to some and an aroma of death to others.
This is the love modeled for us by Christ—the epitome of selfless, sacrificial love meted out in the most hostile of circumstances.
God doesn’t let us get away with weak love either. Having blazed the path for us, he presses into our fears and into our woundedness, forcing us to confront love. We face it with the loss of loved ones, in love disappointed, in love betrayed, and in love rejected. There is no path around this. In Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explains it this way
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
Lewis warns us that there is no easy way out of love. We are not safe when we dare to be vulnerable and love, but we are less safe when we close our hearts to love. The choice to cease to love, however, is the most dangerous of all. While the risk of love will hurt and stretch us beyond what we want or are comfortable with, the lack of love hardens our hearts, cutting us off from the redemptive work of God. We jeopardize our own souls when we refuse to take the risk.
Though we often can’t see it, love is also doing a bigger work in us. Paul says concerning love, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Our experiences of love, however meager and transient and marked by death and separation, lead us home. Love stands like a beacon, pointing the way to what is eternal. Even limited by our frail bodies and by situations we cannot control, it is an echo of something greater—something that transcends dimensions of time and space.
I am grateful to have known both my mother and father though time was brief and the circumstances hard. They were my first exposure to love and its power. They were only a tiny reflection, though—a spark compared to the sun of God’s love. This spark, tiny as it is, gave me a glimmer of the supernatural love that guides all the world—a love that transcended time and space to save a dying people, and to save me. The path is lit now. Not an easy path with a heart protected from further pain, but a path that will change me in the deepest parts of who I am.
Cover photo by Caleb Rogers.