Where the land lacks curvature, it may cause its inhabitants to imagine that the earth is indeed flat. Such is the case with the landscape of the Arkansas Delta where I grew up. There are certain redundancies to the Delta where I frequently return to visit family and friends, as I did last week. These redundancies include its utter flatness as the horizon disappears into the sky. The cycles of life and death are abundant in the decline of its cities and towns, with the increase of fresh grave sites populating local cemeteries, along with the certainty that I will one day occupy a grave myself, if I don’t fall over the edge of those flatlands first.
Growing up in the Pentecostal Church, my cousin Linda would often sing the old spiritual “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down.” Linda sang it powerfully and with conviction. The memories of this song flooded my mind, last Sunday on Father’s Day as my mom, brother Ron, his wife Rhonda and adopted son/grandson Kason wandered about the grave yard in Blytheville, Arkansas, trying to remember the exact location of my Father’s grave, who passed away last November. We decided to go for a visit to Daddy’s grave, after Ron had ventured out earlier that day to visit and deposit some flowers, and had failed to find it. My brother Ronald is thoughtful and sentimental in a way that perhaps few would guess by just looking at him, but if you know him, this is exactly the kind of thing he would do. The thought to do so hadn’t even crossed my mind, but it was the right thing to do on Father’s Day. So, following Ron’s lead, I suggested we all load up and try again.
Our collective venture came at the end of cooler June afternoon as we all enjoyed a watermelon that Ron and Rhonda brought over for us to eat. My mother, approaching her nineties, sat beside me and listened intently to our conversation. Ron and I talked about our earliest memories of life on that beloved patch of flat land we refer to as “Loydsville” Ronald told me a story that I was too young to remember. “We had come down for a visit from Illinois, (where he had moved and gotten married) I was about twenty and you were probably five or six,” he said. “I was getting ready to leave and you ran over and gave me a hug, you held on tight and wouldn’t let me go! I got in the car and we stopped at a gas station before headed back out of town, and I went into the bathroom and bawled like a baby! It was tough leaving the family.”
Reflecting on my brother’s emotional story of family loyalty and devotion, it struck me that time has a way of bringing clarity to the emotions we may not understand when we first experience them. I’m convinced that we often don’t have the capacity, experience, or wisdom to process what we are feeling in a way that is healthy. Emotions are like that, we just feel -often without context or understanding. But as we grow, change, and evolve we gain perspective to appreciate and accept what we have felt or are presently feeling, even if the understanding escapes our grasp.
I think my mom, even with all of her life experience and wisdom, is now experiencing these kinds of evolutions in her emotions and thoughts. As I sat with her for hours this past week, and spent days in her home, observing the difficulties that limited mobility and advanced age bring upon all of us; I observed something else about her. I observed her devotion to reading her Bible daily, actually several times a day and found this inspiring. Although mom and I have some disagreements on how we should interpret the meaning of Scripture, we both agree that the Bible can be a source of encouragement and inspiration. She finds it helpful to still read those well worn pages and I’m grateful she finds hope within its pages. Speaking of hope, mom and I had an interesting conversation about this elusive gift. I shared with her that perhaps the best resources to cultivate hope in our lives isn’t in the past, as much as we may love our memories. Neither is hope found in thoughts of the future, especially for us religious folks who can get lost in imaginations of a heavenly city to come. But hope is in this present moment, enjoying what we have, instead of perpetually lamenting what we’ve lost or what we have yet to gain. I’m not sure mom agreed, and that’s ok. It was good to just have the conversation, and several others like it. I empathize with the difficulties she is having and know that at times she must be incredibly lonely and afraid. However, I believe that she never doubts she is loved and pray that in this love she does indeed find hope. As hope, like love, can be difficult to define but easy to feel and see. Most often in the little acts and small words.
For example, the Saturday before our Sunday excursion to Daddy’s grave, mom and I were sitting on the porch and she said something about wanting some trees trimmed. I’m not all that handy with a saw, but thought I could manage cutting down a few limbs. Ron offered assistance in providing a saw and I went to work. After cutting a few limbs away, I turned around to see a snake starring back at me. Harmless I’m sure, of the variety that is a threat to rodents but not to humans, nevertheless I was having none of it. I scurried out of that tree quick! Ron came to the rescue and killed the snake, likely unnecessary, given its benign nature, but it put my mom’s mind at ease that it wouldn’t somehow find its way into the house. We all had a good laugh, and the adventure will serve as a memory to five year old Kason who in shock was heard to utter “Oh my God!”
I wish that solving all of my mom’s problems were as easy as killing that snake. I wish I possessed the ability to solve the everyday issues of aging, the challenges of caring for each other, or being able to navigate all of the myriad of issues that come with deeply loving one another. But in order to really love someone you have accept that with love comes a depth of pain and suffering that everyone on this planet experiences without exception. This is the price of admission for being a human. Without the pain, without the suffering, it is unlikely we would appreciate the joys of loving another person without condition. As unconditional love says “No matter how difficult, I choose to love and accept you for who you are and not who I wish you to be.” This is the definition of family.
After leaving my mom’s house to return to Oklahoma, I made one more stop to have lunch with my son Haden who lives a couple of hours away. Over the weekend we joyfully experienced my granddaughter’s first birthday. It was wonderful party for her, complete with a pool, a sprinkler, a cake my son baked for her and balloons that popped in the summer heat. Hannah and Haden generously invited other children of various ages to partake in the festivities, and it was a beautiful party. Harlow Jane is such a happy child, due in large part to the love and care lavished on her by my son and daughter in law, who are doing a wonderful job at being the kind of parents we should all aspire to be.
I should disclose that Haden and I have had some difficulties lately. I love my son and he loves me, but I made some mistakes as a parent in his formative years that I regret. Haden is a thoughtful and reflective person, who is now endeavoring to set appropriate boundaries, as he should, as he has a wonderful wife and beautiful daughter that are his first and most important priorities. Additionally, he is working through some difficult feelings, some of which can be traced directly to me and the mistakes that I made as a young parent. As with any deep and meaningful relationship, the relational problems we are working through are far more complicated and don’t exclusively find their origins in my inexperience as a younger parent. Because I’ve made enough mistakes for a lifetime, and I fully acknowledge my responsibility in getting so many things wrong, and know that I still have much to learn, along with behaviors that need to change. But I’m grateful that Haden agreed to meet me for lunch, as this gesture of kindness on his part is what it means to evolve, grow, change and love without condition.
Our conversation was at times difficult but also enjoyable as it has been a long time since we had one. The details are personal, and perhaps one day with his permission I’ll share more. But suffice it to say that I’m grateful for the honesty and courage of my son, and I’m grateful for his forgiveness as we move forward in our relationship, love, and mutual respect for another. I credit him with insights and maturity that I didn’t possess at his age. We aren’t a perfect family, but a work in progress. A work that is exemplified by how all of us, immediate and extended family and friends alike, relate to and love one another -often in through very difficult seasons.
For instance, earlier in the day on Father’s Day, before Ronald, Rhonda, Kason, mom and I visited Daddy’s grave, five year old Kason had pulled me aside and said “Happy Mother’s Day to you, I’m giving you a hug!” He gave me a big one, and although he had most everything wrong in that sentence, he got the hug right and I was thankful to be on the receiving end of it. Much like his Pappy Ron was on the receiving end of mine decades earlier. I too almost bawled like a baby.
What the flatlands of the Arkansas Delta lack in curvatures, they possess abundantly in character. Character that binds generations of relationships together. Relationships of aging mothers to adult sons, elder brothers to younger prodigals, and imperfect fathers to courageous children in bonds of unconditional love.
If that Delta land is indeed flat, may we all fall over its edge, grateful for the moments we lived there and in hope of a resurrection to come.
“Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down!”