Whenever there is noise that covers the immediate area, Mama’s bird, Pretty Boy, turns on the trills and chops until it pulls my heart towards the memories of another room, sunny and comforting, with a familiar form in the recliner. Mama is listening to that same canary, and there is a smile around her thin lips.
“I love to hear him sing,” she would say. “He doesn’t sing so much, unless there’s some kind of noise, like water running or certain music.”
This week I needed to go out to Country Rest Home. I parked in the front lot, facing the window where Sweet Mama spent her last days, took her last breaths, and from where her spirit took flight to Heaven. I tried not to look at her house, tried not to think, but I knew, I knew that I was going to go over to the house that was first my parents’ home, and where Sweet Mama lived for almost ten years alone.
I finished my errand at Country Rest, and sat in my car for a bit. And then, when I was pretty sure that no one would follow me and that I would be alone in my journey, I parked my van in front of the familiar front porch and looked at the curtains and blinds in the windows and bushes and (now wintering) plants that look just about the same as they always have. Except that there was no light inside. Mama almost always had light.
I stopped at the mailbox and retrieved some mail, and then went in through the front door as I always did. It smelled just like my Mama’s house. Her smell was there. I felt my heart quicken just a bit with the recognition of the sweet, identifiable scent of Alene Yoder’s house. I was home!
I came around the corner, into the living room and it was then that the import of her absence hit me full. The house was empty. From where I stood at the opening into the living room, there was a broad expanse, with almost nothing to break up the space. All the way at the other end, a lone folding chair sat at one table space, and a hickory rocker was pulled up to another. A small, rickety bookcase, that had served as her bedside table for as long as I can remember, was against a far wall, and two recliners were snuggled together inside the short wall to my right like Daddy and Mama were using them when they shared their nightly devotions together. The silence was a roaring noise in my ears. It felt like I should be able to call, “Hey, Mama! I’m finally here!” the way I must have done a thousand times over the last ten years, and hear her respond from the next room, “I’m here, come on in!”
I began the trek across the big living room, into the dining room, my footsteps muted on the carpet in the deserted house. And then I heard the sound of weeping. A whimpering noise was coming from somewhere in my throat, spilling into the empty house, running rivers down my face and dripping off my wobbly chin. The sound in my ears made me only cry harder, and I stood helpless against the onslaught of grief, suddenly fresh and raw and anything but reasonable and restrained. I plodded into the deserted study, hovered at the door of her bedroom where she took her last, catastrophic tumble. The floors were swept clean, and there was no vestige of my Mama there. “Oh, Mama, Mama! You are so gone! I miss you so much. I miss you so much!” I stood where her recliner always sat and wrapped my arms around the empty space and brought them tight against myself as if I could somehow hug the place where she always was, but I came up with nothing.
It was probably in that moment that some things began to sink into my fur brain. I realized that I was never again going to feel my Sweet Mama’s presence in that empty house. I would have memories, and as long as the smell was there, and the shell of the house was largely unchanged, I would remember her, and think of her, and feel the familiarity of this place that held so many good times, but I wouldn’t be able to feel like she was there somewhere, lurking just around the corner. And that was a big enough thought that I decided to not stay any longer.
I picked up the rickety little bookcase and thought I would take it home and see if Certain Man could sturdy it up and maybe it could be useful somewhere in the house. And I got into my van and headed for Milford. Home was waiting, and the afternoon was gray and chilly. I came around the corner at 36 and 16 and considered stopping at Mama’s grave. When all was quiet at Greenwood Mennonite Church and there were no cars in the parking lot, I pulled in and parked beside the brick steps going into the country cemetery, and walked over to the granite marker where we laid her body to rest.
I was crying again, and I traced the letters on the stone. “Why???” I asked aloud. “Why???”
And that was when I felt like I was held gently by my Heavenly Father. “Are you asking why she went to where she is happy, healthy, and free? Do you think she is worse off now than she was when she was with you here?” I looked at the grass, almost totally grown back over the grave, and thought about Daddy’s body, now there for ten years, and thought about why the grief was so unmanageable on this January day. I thought about her there, in Heaven with Jesus and Daddy, with her parents and many, many friends. I thought about what it was like up there, and wondered again just how it would be.
“There’s a city of light mid the stars we are told,
Where they know not a sorrow or care.
And the gates are of pearl and the streets are of gold
And the building exceedingly fair.”
The song rose unbidden in my heart and the next thing I knew, I was singing it in a shaky voice to the falling light. The cemetery was quiet, and the notes were anything but beautiful, but I grew stronger as I plowed on.
“Let us pray for each other, not faint by the way,
In this sad world of sorrow and woe.
For that home is so bright
And is almost in sight,
And I trust in my heart, you’ll go there.
Heaven. Our someday Home. Her present Home. I cannot begin to understand what was waiting for Mama that June night when she left this all behind and stepped into GLORY and LIGHT and PEACE and PRESENCE and ETERNAL LIFE. But this I do know. It wasn’t empty. It wasn’t quiet. It wasn’t full of any memories that made her weep. Mama was Home, and I believe it somehow smelled and looked and felt familiar, but still so far beyond her wildest expectations that it’s unfathomable to us mortals.
I turned away. Homefolk were going to soon be worried. It was time I headed on out to Shady Acres where my life still is, and where the people I love still gather. My tears were over for now. There will be more, and there will be days when the grief feels fresh and raw and unmanageable. I’ve come to know that it’s all part of the process. I don’t like it, but I’m trying to make it my friend. There are valuable life lessons to be learned here, and I don’t want to miss them.
And so, tonight, for the process of letting go, for the part that empty houses and tears and gravestones fill in that process, and for the hope of Heaven and for Jesus, who made it all possible; for this and so much more:
My heart gives grateful praise.