I checked my eighty-two year old mother into a hospital yesterday. She’s been slowly losing weight, and the doctors haven’t found a cause, other than her lungs, which have been lousy for some time. Now that she’s down to seventy pounds, they want to admit her for more tests, even though they’ve been doing tests for months. As we were waiting for them to assign her a bed, I reminded her that the children and I are scheduled to go to a big Quaker gathering at the beginning of July, providing she’s well enough for us to leave town.
“What are you going to learn there?” she asked with what I heard as a critical tone.
“I’m taking a workshop on prayer,” I responded. “And the children will have different activities.” I kept my tone even and waited for a reaction. My mother has never understood my decision to leave the Roman Catholic church and become a Quaker. The practice of worshipping in silence seems strange to her, as does the idea of spending a week at a workshop on prayer. Although she has faithfully attended mass her whole life, it’s been out of habit and superstition rather than devotion. She says she’s remained a Catholic to hedge her bets, “just in case the nuns were right.”
“How do Quakers pray?” she asked. “They don’t say anything, like the Hail Mary.”
“Silently,” I answered, unsure how to explain what I do for an hour every Sunday.
“So they just talk to God,” she concluded. “Do they tell him how mean he is?”
There it was, I thought, the theological abyss between us. My mother is not sure she believes in God, but if she does, he’s male and mean, deaf ears to complain to. For me, prayer is more about trying to listen to God, a God that is neither male nor female and generous rather than stingy. I don’t actually know what I’m doing in prayer; I think I’m meditating more than anything, trying to empty my restless mind. I’m definitely not telling God how mean he is, and I feel sad that this is how my mother conceives of prayer.
“Have you been praying more lately?” I asked, knowing she has been thinking a lot about death.
“No,” she said. “I can’t concentrate.” Then she added that she wanted to get death over with. I’m not sure what to do with this other than to listen. My mother is a practical woman, and she appreciates practical expressions of love. So I check her mail and do her banking and her laundry. And I try to assure her that she’s not a “pain in the ass,” as she puts it, which is part of why she wants to get dying over with. Dragging it out just seems inconsiderate to her, like guests who linger too long after dinner.
Meanwhile I’m trying to prepare myself for whatever unfolds, which might be a quick death or, more likely, a slow one. (None of us expect her to recover her old independence.) This is calling me to let go of my need to make plans. Already we’ve cancelled our trip to Wisconsin this Saturday, and the rest of the summer feels unpredictable. I didn’t mention to my mom that the Quaker conference costs over a thousand dollars, which we’ll lose if we cancel at the last minute. Instead I’m trying to trust that all will work out, which brings me back to our differing concepts of prayer. Instead of complaining to God about the inconvenience of having a dying mother or asking God to work some miracles for us, I feel like what I need to do is be still and listen so I’ll know what to do at each turn in the road. Right now, what I need to do is be present to her and willing to hear whatever she needs to say.