On the life and death of a mother

My mother passed away on Tuesday morning. Many of you have known her, or know about her. I mentioned her illness a while back. Yesterday, I wrote a message about the impact and significance her life and death has to me, but had a feeling I needed to write this intro to put things in better perspective. The one thing my mother and I agreed on recently, is that through all our differences, we had the deepest respect for each other. We certainly loved each other, even though the nature of that love and the amount of it was at times in the middle of the struggle we had. In this message, I look at both my father and mother’s life and draw some parallels with the nature of the cancer cell as I see it. By doing this I do not want to say that cancer is purely a question of psychology (there is a whole sub-story that I do not go into here, of my mother’s refusal to receive chemo therapy and alternative treatments that did contribute to add quality to and prolong her life). But I do want to say that there is a correlation. Getting this disease is about more than genetics, carcinogens and physical weaknesses. My mother ate rather healthily and did not have a family history of cancer. She did not have the strongest skin, but that in itself cannot cause cancer (she had skin cancer). What interests me here most, is the interrelatedness of spirit and body, calling forth questions of life, death and faith.

I wrote three other posts around her passing, two more personal ones in Afrikaans – one just before and one just after her death – and then one focusing on our music relationship. In this HA!News message, as usual, I take a wider, more analytical look, also being rather open about my own spiritual outlook.

I want to add that through these last months, I could not have asked for someone better than Joke to share the process with me. We shared so many thoughts, probing meaning and knowledge, finding insights. We shared laughs and tears with each other and with my mother. She herself was very close to my mother. We also shared those unfathomable silences in the face of death. And finally, it is through the mirror of myself that Joke presents me with that I often had to make painful but fruitful realizations.

I trust this would be meaningful to you.

On the life and death of a mother

All her life, since I chose to pour my own life into sharing my gift for music (and creativity in general) with others, my mother carried a struggle with me – in private, in public with other believers, and directly relating to me. Long, long letters, deep conversations, shouts and tears.. To her, I was a son literally lost, as I broke the bond we had since my father died. Perhaps her own death starts with the death of my father – they both died from cancer. My father was a “firebrand” evangelical Protestant minister, having had a dramatic conversion experience as a teenager, then dedicating his life to spreading the Christian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. My mother came from a minister’s family, where this faith was more in-grained and settled. Meeting my father infused her faith with a certain dynamism and she always referred to him as a “man of God,” who preached “the Word” with a passionate love for the person of Jesus. As he died – an event which, in her deepest of hearts, she found very hard to accept as God’s will – she burst forth, took the banner and after her retirement went to France to spread this Gospel amongst children there.

By her own admission, she over-worked herself. Besides raising four children and never re-marrying (she treated God as her husband, inspired by a Bible passage), she studied to finish her doctorate on top of a full-time job as a lecturer, she accompanied young musicians in her free time, conducting choirs, running an organization dedicated to my father’s legacy and more. She regularly woke up at three, four o’clock in the morning and always made sure that she comes out of her inner sanctuary being strong and presenting a living fulfillment of all those biblical promises like, “you will be like an eagle, never tiring,” or, “I can achieve anything through Christ who empowers me,” or “with God, nothing is impossible” – verses she would often repeat to us. Even death itself would not slow her down, as ”death has been conquered” and as my father would be waiting for her in heaven, looking at our bodies as but transitory vessels from which we will ultimately be delivered.

As long as I believed these things with her, we enjoyed a closeness which went somewhat beyond a normal mother-son relationship. Even though my mother was very vocal on the equal treatment and value of each of our four children, it was me, the eldest son, and one close to her character and musical gifts (of which she had plenty), that she most often turned to, unburdening her heart and some of her frustrations at work. It was me that she made music with most often, it was me that listened to her most often – to the point that I felt like running away, and it was my musical creativity that gave me a hold on a very sensitive part of her feeling world.

It was also me who broke down in my early twenties, no longer able to uphold all these pillars of faith that constantly tried to defy human limits. For 15 years I did not cry for my father, as I upheld the belief that as he is in heaven, there is no reason to be sad. I totally misjudged my body, a body that produces tears, a body that has feelings like clouds bringing us rain. I did not see the dam of sorrow building up as my eyes were consciously diverted heavenwards. But that wall did come breaking down. The flood of tears did eventually rip through my physical body. The effort to uphold an eternal future did cave in. And I was lost. Lost and found. Lost to the warm hearth of the faithful and my mother’s praying presence. But found in this bodily “vessel” that can feel, can sing and dance, “dies like a dog” and experiences timelessness in the peak of the sexual act.

I told her this: “Ma, Pa did not die of cancer out of the blue. His faith was emotionally built on a teenage-rebellion, with a lot of deep questions remaining unanswered. He carried doubts that he did not dare to reveal to you, his congregation or even his God. He was giving himself tirelessly to others, suppressing those feelings, resulting in an unhealthy restlessness to do more than his maximum. His lymph was injured in a car accident and that is where the cancer took the opportunity to start spreading. It is as if his bodily cells followed his own example: they began to defy their limits, thinking that they can live eternally.” But to my mother, my late father was already living in an idealized realm and she replied: “Pappa never did doubt. His faith was a shining flame, followed by many. No, God took him away for his own reasons, also to strengthen our faith. Pappa is praying for you right now. You don’t want to disappoint him, do you?”

Malignant growths were already suspected with my mother in her late forties. Later, one was found in her neck and removed, long before the diagnosis of skin cancer. Gradually our relationship grew more balanced as my own career grew and as she entertained some men over time as potential life partners. Yet she always retained God as the most intimate presence in her life and always saw herself re-uniting with my father, for which she laid out a double grave already in 1973 (her ashes will be laid there to a final rest on her 75th birthday, July 9th of this year). I rambled on about cancer to her a lot of times (as I did in this newsletter before), how our whole western and now global culture has strong cancerous traits – from giving kings absolute and limitless power, to thinking of ourselves as beginning and ending with abstract thought, to the belief in endless progress and endless economic growth and endless technological possibilities, to the obsession with scientific knowledge, forever trying to bring all of ourselves and broader reality under measurable control. Not to mention the foods we eat and the chemicals we throw in everywhere, the air we pollute and biological worlds we destroy. I told her that to die like a dog is not humiliating, it is simply to acknowledge certain limits. That we as humans are not endless. There is even a verse in the Bible that supports that – which I quoted to her – but her faith was about more than reading the Bible in such a critical way. Her faith was about a personal relationship with a body-less and borderless spiritual entity, a relationship that she regarded as being superior to a relationship with a another human being like herself.

Over the last two years, the cancer tendency picked up pace and by July last year we started to sense that her end was in sight. When I left her in September for the North America tour, I took it as the last time I would see her. In my last “deep” conversation with her, I brought her back to the day my father died (I was 7 years old then), the day she told us four children that our dad would never be sick anymore.. and when we happily asked, so where is he??, she said: in heaven! with Jesus! I reminded her how that move of hers blocked my emotional life for so many years, how it put my creativity on hold. This time however, she said, why don’t you cry now? And there we were, my mother and I, crying bitterly, holding each others hands, an avalanche of mutual tears. I could hear in her crying that something in her was not holding back anymore. That made me cry even harder (oh the blessing of crying in such waves, tearing through your whole body!). She cried for my dad. I cried for her. I cried for my mother’s life nearing its end.

But she was still alive in December when Joke and I returned to her Bushveld abode. She was still active, still watering the garden, writing, making plans. Yet she also helped us all a lot by preparing for her death in practical and systematic ways. By early January she could not stay in her own house anymore and we moved her to my brother Johan and family in Richard’s Bay. My sister Marie also came over from the States to take the lead in so many little and bigger matters, as did my youngest brother Pierre. As the end drew closer, we all drew closer to each other, and THIS I will cherish for as long as I live: that my mother showed us herself more and more as the filters came down. There was no inner sanctuary anymore to emerge from all shielded and armed. She even let go of some of her bodily shame. She walked around in public with no sleeves, showing up the ugly cancer growths, letting herself be photographed like that. Her creativity – painting and piano playing (for its own sake) – made poignant returns and in stead of retreating into her head or into prayer when faced with intense situations, she became beautifully present in moments – touching and remarking on my sister’s curly her, or my “sporty legs” (haha), let rip of the most hilarious remarks and increasingly enjoyed the beauty of nature around her.

Joke and I sat in her room, on Tuesday morning around 3h30, minutes after she passed away. I could then look at her face, the face I knew so well, at the incredible stillness that now possessed it. What is cancer, but a desperate cry from the body to say: You shall be still now! The death of both my parents call on me to seek more stillness and to stay in conversation with a culture that tend to kill stillness, but at the same time yearns for it intensely.

When I improvise, the music falls flat if I try to run ahead of it; it loses its power when I try to hold onto something beautiful; it wanders off if I lose my sense of being physically present. A cancer cell is the most ecstatic of cells: it lives as if there is no end, it acts as if it is not bound to the body. But the result of this ecstasy is one of the most horrible of deaths, the scourge of our time. None of us are entirely immune to it, but this I take from my mother (as she pleaded for right at the end): to seek out a certain balance.

What balance? The moment I treat the future as a goal, as something to hold on to, to live towards, and not only as a creative possibility, I lose presence, I lose the present. I drift away from my body. That is what cancer cells do. They leave the body, and by doing so, they kill it. Balance, to me, means to remain present, as in truth we are always in the present and nowhere else. It is to balance oneself between the concreteness of the past and the openness of the future. Staying in the flowing present is psychologically the most sure bulwark against cancer.

Faith, as I gather its meaning, is to enter the unknown (and the unknowable) with trust. Faith is not to lighten the darkness of death with tales of eternal or recurring life. I enter the sad and premature loss of my dear mother only with a trust that the seeds of her dying will bear fruit in a new tomorrow for us who are still breathing. A great blessing was that my mother did not try to convert me when she could have exploited her last hours to do so. Even that kind of stretching beyond her limits relaxed, surely also because next to me now is a woman with whom I can share my own deepest self, something she missed for so long. (Deep down in her very sensitive and gifted spirit, my mother was lonely. Over-working was a way of compensating for that..)

The many messages that streamed in after her death, is a testimony to the special person she was and the often incredible things she achieved in the field of faith she gave her life to. But her common humanity was strong enough in the end to let me go and be responsible for my own choices, a fact that helps to open up of a new phase for Joke and myself. As we grief, we also trust, that the experience of her life and death will continue to feed into the sounds and words we will share with you.

Death is life’s ultimate limitation. And it is only within effective limits that true freedom can be found.

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