Advent in a Nutshell and with a Splash of Gin
Six years ago yesterday, my Mama died.
Pancreatic cancer took her, it did, which is a horrible disease that wields no mercy and takes no prisoners.
She fought it, of course, even being willing to undergo the dire Whipple Procedure, an option for only a fraction of those afflicted with pancreatic cancer, and itself no summer stroll.
So the disease is wretched.
But to compound its misery, the initial resources for my mother’s palliative care were wretched as well.
Brad, for example (not his real name), Brad is forever seared into the memories of my father and me.
Brad was the nurse at the “Cottages,” a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one, where initially my mama was slated to go for hospice care.
Dad and I, of course, we committed to scoping out the place before we’d commit to settling on the place as being the spot where my mama would die. We knew that we couldn’t protect her from death at that point, but we were bent on ushering her through it with as much comfort, dignity, and tenderness as we could.
But pretty much when the door opened, and there was Brad, dressed in a soiled white uniform, raised to his upper abdomen with his left hand which was simultaneously itching his hairy belly, while extending his right hand in introduction, we knew that these were no ‘cottages,’ and my mama was not going to make her entry into the beyond with Brad by her side.
Which anyway, would have turned out to be true, because when I asked Brad how often he checked on the patients, he promised us heartily that the nursing care always poked their heads in the rooms “every few hours or so.”
This was after he asked what was ailing my mother. When I said ‘pancreatic cancer,’ he said, “Damn, that one is a son of a bitch.’
That Brad was right, of course, was beside the point.
That Brad also said that they weren’t allowed to administer anything stronger than Motrin or Aleve was not beside the point.
After we left, my father and I decided that we needed something stronger than Motrin or Aleve.
So even though it was only 12:14, Dad and I made straight for the martinis at a local pub, which we lifted less to something, and more for balm of the liquid variety to help us cope with Brad, who became the personification of everything horrible about this spirit-ravaging, body-ravaging, energy-ravaging disease.
We even took a picture of the beverages to commemorate our moment of empty despair.
To this day, I will now and again tease my father that he needs to stay on my good side, because I still know where the “Cottages” are and therefore where Brad lives, and where Dad could one day too.
HOWEVER, after we left the brink of Brad, suddenly Mama was able to get into the most amazing hospice in the universe, Avera McKennan’s Dougherty House, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
It was perfection, and I wrote something about the experience, and its perfect timing with Advent, here.
All of this is a lead-up to the following:
I’ve made a habit of checking Facebook Memories every morning.
It’s a wonderful way to start the day, to anchor it in what happened years ago, to see the evolution of people and places and events, to be reminded of joys and laughter and moments with my children who were somehow so much smaller and younger once.
To be honest, I also see it as a cleanse of sorts: I’ve intentionally purged all sorts of unpleasant memories of people and places and events that have neither right nor reason to clutter up my mind or spirits, and it seems to me that there’s no reason why my Facebook account should make room for what in the name of self-care, self-respect, and self-love I’ve opted not to.
It’s a ritual of delight, gratitude, and self-affirmation.
So two days ago, up popped a memory of my mother, whom, for all the world my father and I believed was going to die on December 11.
She had been increasingly telling of the angels with “bony elbows” whom she could see jabbing each other in the ribs to move, to make space, to allow room for my mama who was coming soon.
Even her own elbow was often pulled straight up in the air, her entire bent arm, even when she was sleeping, jerking right on up to the ceiling and beyond. It’s an image I will never forget (and which I fortunately photographed), as if the angels themselves were tugging on her arm and the rest of her to come on home.
At one point, she even asked my father and me if we could also hear one of these impatient angels getting somewhat irritable, insisting in her right ear, “Come on, Marge, let’s get ‘er done!”
As a matter of fact, to honor these angels, these heavenly ambassadors who were clamoring with welcome for my mama, we opted for this image on her gravestone:
But on December 11, she quieted, and if there were any movement at all, it was of that right elbow of hers yanking incessantly toward the sky.
That night, when I left, I looked around, knowing that the end was near.
I figured, with resignation, that in anticipation of her clearly approaching death, I could just as well take some of her belongings, and our own accrued items, home.
So I did.
I packed almost all of it up to make our probable next day easier.
Among the random assembly of things to bring home was my mama’s gin.
Mom loved her gin.
That night, I hardly slept, waiting for The Call.
But amazingly, my phone stayed silent.
So the next day, I went back to Dougherty to see my mama, not knowing whether she’d be sleeping peacefully or being bothered by her angels.
I gently let her know I was there, and that I was going to make some press pot coffee. Would, I whispered, she like some?
Yes, she said, yes she would.
So I made her some coffee, and offered it to her dipped in a swab, after which my mama opened her eyes, smacked her lips, and said how so very good that tasted.
And then, the next thing you know, my mama sat up, and she had a cup of coffee, and then had some lunch, and all the while Dad and I were looking over her to each other in amazement, totally having to switch gears of expectation.
“Well,” chortled my father, “next thing you know, you’ll ask for some gin!”
I shot him a horrified look, too, too late.
”Oh, that would taste soooooooooo good!” my mama said. “Could you pour me a splash?”
”So, Mama,” I said, gulping, hoping and trusting that even though her body was withering away, her sense of humor was still intact, “So, Mama…there is no delicate way to put this, so the upshot is that I pretty much was convinced that you were going to die this morning. You weren’t doing so hot, yesterday, to be honest, so I…I…I packed up your gin. Yes, yes I did. I took your gin home because I thought you were going home too, and figured you’d have more than enough gin there, probably offered to you on the rocks by one of those angels of yours.”
I went home, and brought back the gin.
And the next day, she died.
As I wrote, then, “while I held my mother’s hand, Dad and I reminded her about joyful reunions, and we sang her Shalom, and Silent Night, and even warbled Willie Nelson’s “I’ll Fly Away,” and we told her of Jesus’ and the angels’ reassurances to not be afraid, and we made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and of course we raised our gin, each of us tipping our fingers in the libation to share on her lips our toast to her with her, and her breath became gentler, and lighter, and at 9:39, it stopped.”
The Psalm for tomorrow, Advent 3, is Psalm 146.
It goes like this:
1Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
“I will praise the Lord as long as I live.”
Advent is the season of the perfect fusion of the already and the not yet.
I love that my mama died in Advent.
She was already dying, but she was not yet dead! (Also, someone needs to do a mash-up of this scene from Monty Python, and this one from the Princess Bride)
And who among us is not, I ask, already dying, but not dead yet.
I do believe that there are two ways to protest death: joy and justice-seeking.
Death recoils from both.
For this reason, Psalm 146 is the perfect psalm for Advent’s perfect fusion of the already and the not yet.
I am still living, so therefore I am still praising God.
I am still living, so therefore I am still being faithful to God and God’s agenda.
The psalmist praised God precisely because God is not a God of death.
Instead, the psalmist’s God, our God, is a God of life.
The psalmist’s God is also a God who rejects death, and, in related news, ruins those who embrace it.
What does it look like to embrace death?
To withhold help to the oppressed, to withhold food to the hungry, to withhold healing from the sick, to withhold welcome from the stranger, to withhold sustenance to vulnerable children and women.
(Sweet Jesus I hope it doesn’t include withholding gin from one’s dying mama! And if it does, I hope God noticed a) that it was a mistake; and b) I went back to fetch it!)
If you don’t see the political connections, and the partisan connections, then you are neither paying attention to the news nor to Scripture, and not just in Advent.
And if you don’t take the warnings seriously, well, I’m not sure what my mama’s angels will be saying to you, because the entire body of Scripture has not a single kind word or much hope to offer to or for people who oppress, who reject, who build walls, who withhold help to the Least of These, who are wealthy and see that as a personal accomplishment rather than random privilege and something to be stewarded and even given up, and I am so not making it up.
People like that really piss God off.
Now, free will and all, you can, of course, choose to “put your trust in princes” (and privilege and power etc), but, as the psalmist (and the entire body of Scripture) says, in them/that “there is no help.”
ORRRrrrrrr, you can be like those who are happy because their “help is the God of Jacob,” their “hope is in the Lord their God…”
That’s Advent in a nutshell.
There are so many ways to be happy (as defined by the psalmist) and to praise God: enjoying beverages and singing Willy and sitting by the fire as I am with my dogs while my children are playing together and laughing and listening to music and gathering with dear friends and lovemaking and good food and snow ice cream and sand in toes and simply savoring every breath you take.
And there are so many ways to serve God: writing letters to the editor and talking about difficult topics with family and friends and posting your refusal to accede to the powers that be and giving money to righteous groups and calling up and calling out your Representatives and if you are called to preach the gospel well then actually preaching it and refusing to stay silent.
Activities like that really piss Death off.
It’s the message of this Psalm.
It’s the message of Scripture.
It’s the message of Advent.
It’s the message of God.
And tonight, I invite you to raise a gin, or a beverage of your choice, to my mama, who did, indeed, praise the Lord as long as she lived, indeed right until her very last breath, one which carried the faint but wonderfully holy whiff of gin.
Anna’s new book, I Can Do No Other: The Church’s New Here We Stand Moment, published by Fortress Press, is on sale now!
Consider offering a stay at the Spent Dandelion Theological Retreat Center, or consulting sessions with OMG: Center for Theological Conversation, as holiday gifts! Follow the links on these sites, or contact Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 605-521-6284.
We remember her lefse and her wonderful Christmas parties! It was a blessing to us to have known her.