Tag Archives: Mary Potter Engel

Life and Death Choices

Another pithy statement that helped to shape my life was, “Breathing is not living.” When my mother first said it, one of my great-uncles was entering the terminal stages of an illness. I was too young to understand his disease, but I did understand that big questions were being discussed. Machines. Nursing homes. Death. On the way home from one of many visits to the hospital my mother sighed and said to my dad, “Breathing is not living. They need to understand that Uncle Bob will never be happy again if survival is all that is left.”

The same statement reverberated through our house when Mother’s father became ill. He had never been ill at any time in her memory. Unlike everyone in our house, Granddaddy Liddell was never sick. He didn’t have fevers. He didn’t throw up in the middle of the night. He didn’t have rashes of unknown origin. No palpitations. No ulcers, bruises, or headaches. He simply was not sick at any time, until he was. When he got sick for the first time at the age of 77, he did not know what to do. He had to be driven to the doctor almost at gunpoint, and then to the hospital, protesting every step. Mother and her brothers got him admitted and into a hospital gown and into a bed, but he simply did not know how to be sick. I will never know his symptoms. I was too young and too completely disconnected from all the “stuff” that old people did. All I do know is that he became sicker every day, and there were those conversations again. Again my mother said, “Breathing is not living.” Then my mother’s father died of causes unknown. They never could produce a real diagnosis. Mother said it was better that way. Granddaddy hated every minute in the hospital, and every time people turned their backs, he struggled out of bed. He fell more than once simply trying to put on his own clothes so he could go to his home. When the hospital called to say that he had died in the night, mother said, dry-eyed, “Breathing is not living. He wanted to live.”

When Mother finally convinced her doctor that, unlike her father, she was actually sick, she proceeded to go downhill for forty years, always on the verge of death, but always appearing to reject any attempt to put her somewhere that people could care for her. She had more medical books than her doctor possessed, and she always took one, liberally marked for study, to her medical appointments. She chose her medicines more often than her doctor did, and when people suggested that she might need a live-in assistant to keep up with her medicines, she said, “Breathing is not living.” She alleged to want to be free and have adventures, but perversely, most of her adventures involved new prescriptions and side effects. She was still breathing, but it didn’t look much like a life to me. It looked a lot like Lazarus coming out of the tomb, still tied up in the grave wrappings.

Then the day came that my father died. Mother was left alone with nothing but pill bottles and medical books. One day, she couldn’t deal with them anymore. She threw them all away, and suddenly, the woman who could not walk from the door of her apartment building to the parking garage, could hike a mile for a Hawaiian barbecued pork sandwich. The woman who was unable to tell anyone the place where her husband used to take her shopping could take a bus ride involving two transfers in order to reach a museum she wanted to visit. Her past, in which she breathed but did not live, disappeared like the morning mist and she lived two exciting, blessed years, suffering intense loneliness, suffering, but living far beyond the measure of breathing, before she stepped out of time into eternal life.

In the book, A Woman of Salt, Mary Engel digs deep into Lot’s motivations for suggesting to the angels that he be permitted to flee to Zoar instead of running away to the dark, terrifying mountains. Engel examines the possibility that in Lot’s mind, “not to die seems the same to him as living.” This thought is the opposite of my mother’s axiom–the one she did not live by. Engel suggests that Lot simply wanted to stave off death, and call that state “living.” Like my mother with her medicines and her books, Lot would “escape” death without entering into life. Zoar would not be home, but it would not be death, either. He thought it would do.

However, as Engel observes, Lot did not stop with the simple request. He tried to justify it, and every word of justification emphasized that mere continuation of existence in Zoar would not be life. In the end, even though Lot persuaded the angels to spare Zoar, he and his daughters fled to the mountains after all. Apparently, even for Lot, “breathing is not living.”

I don’t spend much time thinking about death, because I love living. I love adventure and routine and surprise and tradition. I am fortunate to be seldom sick, and to date, my body hasn’t abandoned me. I still come and go more or less at will. I still have the opportunity to try to understand whether my mother was right when she said that “Breathing is not living,” or if Lot was perhaps correct to think that “not to die [is] the same . . . as living.”

The rest of Lot’s story gives the lie to that notion, and the rest of the Bible continues to say the same thing. Lot was not really living, even though he was in Sodom where he thought he had the high life, much superior to Abram’s nomadic wanderings with his herds. When Lot chose the well-watered plain and left his uncle with the dry uplands, he really did not want the plains for his flocks and herds. He wanted Sodom. He could have told the truth to Abram. Abram was an agreeable man. He would never have told a grown man he should not live in Sodom. Yet Lot did not have the courage to tell the truth. He pretended to want the same life as Abram and shut Abram out of the well-watered plain unnecessarily. Lot died to truth right then and there. If you doubt that he was dead already, just read the story of Lot and his daughters in their “new life” after Sodom. Clearly, not to die is not the same as living. Judas learned that lesson, too, when he discovered that he was “alive,” but Christ was sentenced to the cross.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus said that he was “the way, the truth, and the life.” The fact is that people who don’t know the way or the truth cannot possibly know life, either. Just ask Lot. He was still breathing, but it is very clear that he was not living.

So, are you alive?

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Looking Backward

Several years ago I read a book that made a big impression on me. A major part of the impression was the discovery that I was not the only child on earth who felt that her mother saw or foresaw evil whether it was there or not.

My childhood memories include more than one spanking that proved to have been for crimes not committed. Mother thought I had done something wrong, or she thought that both my brother and I had done something wrong. She dispensed justice despite our frantic protests, and when she learned the truth that we were innocent of the “crime” for which we had been punished, she simply said, “It wasn’t a lick amiss. I’m sure you did do something I failed to punish you for. It will do for that.”

Before you judge my mother to be a monster, know that she had many valuable qualities, many endearing qualities, and if you weighed her good deeds and evil deeds in a balance scale, I doubt hers would be evil in a greater proportion than yours, or anyone else’s. She was a very normal saintly sinner who was sometimes a sinful saint.

In A Woman of Salt, Mary Potter Engel tells a profound mother-daughter story, with parallels to the story of Lot’s wife, who became a pillar of salt when she disobeyed God’s direct order and looked back at the destruction of Sodom. It is a book worth reading if for nothing other than the interpolated midrash. Reading these midrash taught me that there might actually be more than two sides to any story. That discovery all by itself is a valuable insight when applied to challenging relationships.

The central character, Ruth, looks back at her childhood and remarks that “my mother’s eyes [were] everywhere, watching for the evil she saw inside me to emerge.” As she turns to look at her past, she asks if she might be better off if she escaped her past, and then she asks if perhaps it is a good idea to look at the past as long as she looked with the hope for a sign of God’s mercy. Then she asks, was that what Lot’s wife was doing?

I look at my past with that hope, too. I play and replay scenes from my past in my mind, asking if God’s mercy was at work in dark and painful interactions with my mother. Fortunately, God has not turned me into a pillar of salt. Happily, I have actually found some hope.

I did not find my hope until after my mother died. The traumas that marked our relationship made it hard for me to grieve. People need to grieve the dead, but I could not grieve her death until I had made peace with her life. Several months after her death, I made it my Lenten project to forgive my mother. I had learned enough to realize that forgiveness would be much more about pulling poison from memories in my heart that it could ever be about telling her that I forgave her. I could not tell her anything, because she was dead, but the poison in memories of her was corroding all my memories. I was able to see only one side of my entire life story. I needed some new perspectives, perhaps a midrash.

I felt exactly what Ruth, the central character of Woman of Salt felt when she said that her mother was always on the alert for any sign of evil in her daughter. My mother was alert in the same way. She accused me of wanting to hurt her when I failed at a goal she set for me. She accused me of trying to kill her when I invited her to go with me to a movie that scared her. She put me on a diet when she thought I weighed five pounds too much and quizzed the mothers of girls I visited overnight to find out if I ate outside my diet while visiting. (The mothers found those questions peculiar enough to ask me if my mother were well.)

For many years, memories like these were the only memories I really knew I had. I thought the miserable memories were the only ones. That is why I finally realized that I had to forgive my mother. I could not go on thinking of her as a vindictive person who hurt me. I needed to be able to remember that she had also blessed me. I needed to remember that she searched high and low in three counties for a specific pair of shoes I said I wanted. She stayed up all night making a dress for a church festival, literally sewing me into it five minutes before we left for church. She stretched an already stressed family budget to send me to college, not wanting me to work, for fear it would hurt my grades. She taught me that the will to succeed makes any goal achievable.

My experience learning to forgive involved a lot of prayer and meditation on Bible texts. I wrote poems about my experiences and my feelings, and as the weeks of Lent passed, those bitter poems became prayerful. Some might even have qualified as nascent midrash, the bare beginnings of my own midrash. I was beginning to see more than one facet of my experiences. As it happened, our church scheduled a service of healing and reconciliation the Wednesday before Easter that year, and I attended.

I did not know what to expect, but I came full of hope that my effort to forgive my mother was finally about to bear fruit. Toward the end of the service, people were invited to the altar if they wished the pastor to pray for them. I went forward, and I expected the pastor to ask me why I was there. He didn’t. Instead, he looked me in the eye as he marked the sign of the cross on my forehead with oil, and then he prayed. When I heard the words, which I do not now remember, I burst into tears. They were about my relationship with my mother, and he could only have spoken those words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Grief for my mother’s death welled up inside of me and flowed out in streams of tears. I forgave her with all my heart, and as the poison of my anger and pain flowed away, I remembered a thousand reasons to love her.

After that experience, I discovered that forgiveness is never a done deal. As my mother would have taught me, it takes will to succeed at anything. When you lose the will to forgive, for example, you stop forgiving. You start poking at old wounds and simmering over old anger. To forgive requires a commitment to do it and do it again and keep doing it.

I still know that my mother’s eyes, like those of Ruth’s mother in Woman of Salt, were always “watching for the evil she saw inside me to emerge.” However, because I have forgiven my mother, and I am forgiving my mother, and I will forgive my mother, I also know that she was alert to the evil of sinful human nature in me, because she wanted to teach me how to reject evil and choose the good. It was her hope that in me, the evil would not dominate my good qualities and destroy them, as happens in the lives of people without mothers attentive to the truth of human nature.

That is why I can look back now with hope that I will see the hand of God, acting in mercy in my life, even through the flawed instrumentality of my mother. Maybe especially through the flawed instrumentality of my mother. I am discovering that there actually are more sides to my own story than I ever realized while I was fixated on only the story of injustice and shame. My memories are more like the collection of midrash surrounding Ruth’s story in A Woman of Salt.

I hope my own children are able to see the same thing. If you want to know what Ruth learned in Woman of Salt, you must read the book for yourself.