I can, by nature, be a graceless man. I slip all too easily into either a snakes-and-ladders works-based righteousness; up when I’m doing well, down when I’m not.
Or, worse, I fail to extend grace to other people. My bent towards being a chippy so-and-so, coupled with, – how shall we put it -, an “exuberant” personality, sees me cut someone down with a smart comment way too often.
Which is why I’m grateful for the grace expressed down the years by my mother, who, as I have written about in an earlier post, experienced the trauma of being torn from a loving foster family in Dublin – kidnapped actually -, and placed back with her birth family, who she had no idea existed, until that nightmare day, at age eight, she was whisked off the Dublin streets and taken to Belfast.
I wish that had been my mum’s most traumatic life moment. I wish. But it wasn’t. That came later.
Aged forty, and by now living in Australia, mum watched her husband, my dad, who was the love of her life since age seventeen, drive himself off to live with a stranger – the woman who would become his second wife.
The next week on pay day there was exactly one dollar left in mum’s bank account. It couldn’t get more rock bottom than that.
Except it could. She came home from church one Sunday not long after, and dad, knowing she’d be out worshipping the God who gives and takes away, came and took away some stuff of his own, including his beloved stereo system and records. Mum just sat on the hallway floor and wept in the arms of old Anne Gallop, the quintessential no-nonsense church lady, whose asbestos personality could not resist some tears of its own at that point.
Mum was bereft. We all were; my three brothers and I. Feelings of abandonment kicked in all over again for mum, raising the old traumas she’d experienced being kidnapped, but the low-grade trauma of moving away from her beloved Northern Ireland to set up life thirteen thousand miles away in Australia.
Yet in the midst of all of that pain, with my father gone out of her life seemingly for good, and now having more children with his second wife, there was always one thing mum did. She prayed for dad. Every day.
I’m not praying that I get back together with him, that’s impossible” she’d say, “I just want to see him back with the Lord in case something happens to him.”
I gotta confess I didn’t pray for him much, if at all. It felt awkward. Awkward and useless. One gaping hole in my prayer life where I thought prayers were sucked in to die a lonely, unheard death.
One by one, first me, then a second brother, then a third, made amends with dad, and I even spent a good deal of time with his second wife, (who I still get on well with), and his other two boys, one of whom is as close to me as my other brothers.
But mum? She never saw dad in all that time. Yet still she prayed, and urged us to do so at the same time. “If something should ever happen to him,” she’d say again, knowing that some day something would.
Even before I got married, dad looked at the invitation Jill and I handed to him and said softly, and sadly. “You know I can’t go. I’d love to, but I don’t want to spoil it for your mum.”
Mum wanted dad to go, but to be honest I didn’t, for her sake. In the end there’s a photo of Jill and me kissing outside the brick and spire Wesley Church in the main street of Perth, and if you look carefully in the corner of the photo, there’s dad, and his wife and the two boys – still very young at that stage – standing outside the McDonald’s restaurant across the road watching it all. I still wonder what he was thinking at that time.
And still mum prayed. She worked more regularly out of necessity; moving steadily from house cleaning to typing jobs; learning how to use a computer, then to admin help, and finally to running the front desk and admissions at an aged-care facility. She always did more than the job required and the residents loved her, as did their families.
When she retired they threw a big party. “Time to think of yourself for a change Pauline!” said the grand old resident with the perfect elocution who’d MC-ed the event. And everyone agreed.
I assured them all in my speech that mum, even though she had been paid to care for people, would care for people for free!
And she’s actually proved that to be so. Her former employers have leased her one of their independent living units. She lives where she used to work, and is always busying herself helping with shopping, gardening and meals for less-independent residents.
And still, all that work time, she prayed for dad. By this stage dad had gone quiet. Very quiet. I hadn’t heard from him for nearly a year. No calls, no call-arounds. Nothing. Not a peep. Something was wrong.
Something was wrong. Dad’s second marriage had ended pretty much the same way the first one did, him driving off in the car. But this time by himself. With no one.
And the first I heard about it was on Mum’s birthday, by now well into her sixties and having heard nothing for dad for over two decades.
We were having her party at our house. She phoned me. She sounded strange. Some old family friends from the UK, friends of both my parents were visiting Australia, having lived here when we were all young.
“Can I bring someone with me?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said, slightly annoyed that someone was gatecrashing a family event, “Who?”
“Your dad,” she said simply, “He phoned me to reconcile with me and say how sorry he is. I’ve always prayed for this day to come.”
I was speechless. But dad turned up, looking like the puppy that’s peed on the carpet, and wasn’t get a belting for it, but wasn’t sure it wasn’t still to come. It was almost too much. It was too much. Mum spent her birthday alternately crying and laughing.
God had answered the prayer of the widow, but not the prayer of the fatherless, because I confess I really hadn’t prayed about it at all in all those decades.
Things got better slowly. Dad had to find his way again. Back to church. Back to family – though that never fully healed with everyone, and there was still the problem of not resolving the second break up. Back to some old friends who embraced him. But he felt the sting. Felt it real bad.
“I know the Lord has forgiven me,” he told me in a moment of rare candour, “But I can’t forgive myself.
He knew grace was there, but he could see that the stone he threw into the pond so recklessly decades before had caused ripples he had no control over now.
And so it went for eight more years. Mum would help dad, who was increasingly suffering illnesses; buying food for him, cleaning his flat, making sure he was invited to stuff. He never got over that look of the peeing puppy, but he started to get how grace worked.
His dementia, when it came on, came on quickly. Lewy Body Dementia to be exact. And it’s awful. It’s so awful that, rather than face the complete body and mind breakdown that accompanies it over a few short, sharp years, actor and comedian Robin Williams killed himself upon his diagnosis.
Before long, the memory loss plunged into loss of speech, loss of motor skills, first fine then gross. In quick succession dad went from a walking stick (which now stands in the corner of my room), to a walking frame, to a wheelchair, to a bed chair, and finally to completely bedridden, unable to move, speak, feed or clean himself.
And mum would visit him in the aged-cared ward. Constantly. Bring him nice things. Sweets. Chocolates. Articles to read to him. And then she’d pray with him.
One day I went to visit dad, and walked through the locked doors of the ward. As always the smell of Dettol hand sanitiser hits you first. I’ve hated that smell since. And then the smell of faeces or urine, or a combination of those, with the waft of dinner being cooked somewhere.
When I walked in to dad’s room mum was there. I hadn’t expected her. And the smell in dad’s room was over-powering. Dad had soiled himself and somehow, despite the best efforts of modern adult nappy/diaper technology, a good deal of it had gotten on to the floor of dad’s room.
And mum? She was on her hands and knees cleaning it up. I almost retched with the smell.
“I’ll get a nurse or a cleaner,” I said to mum, about to rush out the door, and not wanting her to go through the ignominy along with dad. And not wanting to see her do it either.
She looked up, and waved me away, ” Sure don’t worry about it dear, I’ve got this. I’ve got this.”
I had to walk out of the room. Not because of the smell, but because hot tears were stinging my eyes so much that I almost had to gulp for breath. I regained my composure and walked back in to the room, then went to fetch the nurse to change dad.
After all the crap that dad had put mum through, mum was prepared to get down on the floor and clean up dad’s crap; not when he was able or vital; not when he could do anything for her; but when he was helpless, hopeless and dying, without even the words to express himself. It was a pure, unadulterated expression of grace from a woman who prayed for a man who did not deserve her prayers for so many years.
It still blows me away to think about. Tears still come when I think about that. It’s just such a huge thing.
Yes it is huge. But how much more then, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who, looking down at us lying there helpless, dying and wallowing in our crap, held up his hand and said “I’ve got this. I’ve got this.”
It’s that grace of Jesus, and that grace of Jesus alone, that softened mum’s heart down the years to pray for dad. And it was grace, and grace alone, that saw a broken, but still beautiful reunion between them in their later years.
Perhaps you’re hurt and broken because of the actions of someone you loved; actions that have, like a stone in a pond, caused bitter ripples to spread out in ever increasing circles. Or perhaps you’re the person who broke someone, and like my dad, you see those ripples and you know, technically you can be forgiven, but you cannot forgive yourself.
Whatever it is, let me assure you that there’s truly something amazing about God’s grace in Jesus. Something amazing about God in Christ stooping down to us. Amazing enough to melt your heart. And in my mum’s costly forgiveness and years of prayer for my dad, I’ve been able to see that grace. And perhaps it’s pulled me away from being as graceless as I could have been. It’s certainly made me see things more sharply.
I’ve been able to see, albeit in shadow form, what the God who longed for his lost creatures to return to him did for me. How in Christ Jesus, God set himself towards the cross for me, uttering those beautiful, grace-filled words as he did so: “I’ve got this, I’ve got this.”