In life, the moment arrives when the children must become the parents.
My sister and I accepted the responsibility for our aging father and mother. As his only son, I took charge of caring for Dad in his last few years. We laughed together much more than we cried.
After my father's death, my sister and I sat down with our mother to have “the talk.” My mother had recently fallen trying to get up the steps to her home, hitting her head and breaking her pelvis. The incident had been frightening for all of us.
With her health and safety in mind, we broached the subject, saying something like, “Mother, after your fall, and as you get older, we think it is time for you to move into a retirement community in Birmingham, near your daughter.” My sister and I spent virtually the whole conversation trying to formulate just the right words to convince Mother that the move was in her best interests. The negotiations got difficult since Mother felt uncertain about how to begin a new life in Birmingham after living in Mobile for many years. I told Mother I would do whatever she asked, if she would make the move. She finally acquiesced.
Just before her move, Mother asked me to take her to Dad’s grave. Of course, I readily agreed, and at the graveyard she asked me to kneel beside her as she said her goodbyes and prayed. Just after her “amen,” Mother asked if I would promise to call her from Dad’s graveside on my cell phone, every week or so, in her exile city of Birmingham, so that she could talk to him. Riddled with guilt and wanting to make her happy, I agreed. That moment began a strange comedy of attempting to live out my faith in a very unusual way.
As clergy, I continued to officiate at many funerals at this same graveyard. Families tend to linger after these services, and clergy usually leave before they do. After my final condolences on many of these occasions, I began to make a hasty detour by my father's grave to make the phone call to Mother so that she could talk to him. Each time, I was carefully instructed to hold the phone over the grave, and not to eavesdrop as she talked to Dad about her life. Unfortunately for me, my father’s grave is very close to the graveyard’s main entrance. Families would leave after their final goodbyes and pass where I was standing, observing me leaning over the grave, cell phone in hand, trying to look nonchalant. Their horror and disbelief is burned into my memory.
In spite of my promise to Mother, it became impossible not to eavesdrop. I was privy to her rather one-sided conversations with Dad. Many of their phone calls were reminiscent of their past. She often included hilarious stories from her life at the retirement village. Sometimes I had to stifle a laugh; sometimes I had to choke back tears. The conversations were poignant and beautiful. Invariably, she told him about my sister and her family, and she included stories about my life with my wife and children. In essence, she kept my father informed about everything that occurred to her. Bless her heart, she was especially long-winded when the weather was below 30 degrees or above 90. For six years, this favor to my mother was what I deemed “Conversations with the Dead.”
As Mother experienced several health crises and became increasingly frail, her worries about her impending death caused her understandable anxiety. One Saturday, a week before she died, I was doing a funeral at the graveyard in Mobile. Before I left, I called and said, “Mother, would you like to talk to Dad?” I had tears in my eyes, suspecting that this would be their last conversation in this way. I knelt over my father's grave and held the cell phone down to where I supposed his head would be. Then I turned on the speaker phone so that I could hear her words. She said, “Charles, I think I am at the end of my life.” There was a long pause, as her emotions overwhelmed her, as did mine. She continued: “Charles, if you are in heaven, tell Jesus to come get me.” She paused again, and then, with trepidation, added: “If you are not in heaven, don't mention my name to anyone.” In my preacher’s suit, I fell to the ground laughing.
God gave us the great privilege of expressing our faith by loving best our families. How precious those memories are to me now.
The Rev. Chip Hale is senior pastor of Ashland Place United Methodist Church in Mobile, Ala.