The joy of the Lord is my strength. – Nehemiah 8:10
So there’s Nehemiah, ringside at the Ultimate Fighting Championships. Or is that him at the Rumble in the Jungle, as the ‘Ali, Bomaye!’ chant starts up? Is that him swaggering behind Bruce Lee? What is the appearance of this strength? What is the joy of the Lord?
I didn’t see my Mom as a joyful person. She was definitely not the one to be happy-clappy, singing out the ‘joy of the Lord,’ that is for sure. She was often grim and weary, actually, burdened by many responsibilities, beset by challenges, bowed down by grief and betrayal; her strength lay in her firm resolve.
There was a day when I accompanied her to our new home, 19.8 acres, fenced, with a yard site and barns. It would become the family home base. On that day, though, it was not yet ready for us to move in, and Mom was going ahead to work on the house.
The house had stood empty for some time, and the first thing that struck me was that it smelled odd. In the kitchen, there was the distinctive odour of rapeseed. Our neighbours had used the house for grain storage, and for as long as we lived there, the cupboard under the stairs would bleed trickles of rapeseed at odd moments. That day, there was still plenty of seed to deal with, but our biggest challenge lay in the bathroom.
This tiny, unhappy room was a tomb.
It would become a focal point for many of our familial miseries, all the moments of insecurity before the mirror, all the shame of living in a house without indoor plumbing, the inevitable struggles over the chore of emptying the chamber pot in winter, the lack of privacy and the peculiar despair in that tiny room.
Perhaps it started that day, when Mom and I opened the door and found the clawfoot tub, several inches deep in dead mice. Their corpses had rotted and matted together, individual horrors subsumed into a carpet so grotesque as to be meaningless.
Mom never batted an eye. She simply instructed me on what to bring, and we dug into the mass of materiel and scooped it out for disposal. She treated it with a kind of plain resolve, just things to be done here, no tragedy, just life, just happenstance. The mice came up the drain to seek the grain, and could not climb up the slick sides of the tub. Now we must clear them away. So we did. No point in discussing it, do what needs doing, quietly and with dignity.
In that day, I first recognised clearly the strength that would see her through her husband’s illness and death, leaving her at 51 with three teenaged children still at home, on the farm. She would hold on to the farm, and marshal every shred of resourcefulness to keep her family as stable as possible.
When my elder brother, who’d been both a help and a trial, struggling with constant pain from a work injury, died in a car crash the next summer, I answered the 2 AM phone call. She told me the news, and I took it in. Later, she would wonder aloud, was I psychic, I’d seemed so unsurprised, like I already knew what she was going to say.
What could I say to that? Who calls at 2 AM with good news? And I’d been privy to my brother’s dark thoughts of suicide, had endured his disturbing drunken episodes, had tried to argue him past the sucking hole of pain and self-pity. But she didn’t need me to tell her all that. Do what needs doing, quietly and with dignity.
Her silence would become our own silences, still habitual.
Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. If we are forever steeled in resolve against the pain of loss and the grotesqueries of life, we might in some way also become steeled against joy. I have made it my business to balance the silence with willingness to express.
On the other hand, her resolve was real. Her pain was real, even if not revealed to casual eyes. Her dignity was her shield, and it was mighty. I remember her pride, her resolve, at her husband’s funeral, when another widow asked what she was taking, and Mom replied, ‘Nothing.’ Not for her the drama of needing to be sedated to get through this. She refused drugs, refused alcohol, stood firmly entrenched in her ways of finding strength.
For her, the garden, where her rage and pain could fuel the transformation of heavy clay gumbo to rich, silky beds in which plentiful food for her family could thrive. For her, a little chain saw, with which, to her growing sons’ chagrin, she’d walk out into the woods and cut up dead wood, demonstrating how to maintain a woodlot and a woodstove by hand.
For her, too, many expressions of rage and dismay that I’ll never know about, because I’d already left home, and dared not drop out of university, dared not quit. I hadn’t the guts to go back, for I’d have been going back a failure. So, I don’t know what it cost her in the day to day, to remain the rock I remember on the phone, keeping tabs on her daughters in the city. She never let on how much it might cost to come down, now and again, with gifts of farm food and presents she’d sewn or crocheted.
When my elder sister grew ill with terminal cancer, she did not want her community to know. She was determined to beat this, but equally determined not to expose herself to the emotional reactions of those with whom she’d chosen to surround herself. She’d separated herself from us, in her way, consorting with people unlike us, expressive, outgoing people full of talk, and tears, and drama.
In extremis, though, she withdrew from them, fell back toward family. I was allowed to help her, and enjoined to help keep her secret. (Of course, people told me, they knew or had guessed something was wrong, but they had respected her need to put up a brave front.) I did what I could. And one day, I called my Mom.
We were in that same space: the space of the dead mice, matter of factly cleaning the carpet of dead bodies away so the family could live here; the space of her dead son, her on the phone to me from the morgue, steadying herself to go home and tell her children there. I told her I needed her to come, just that.
When I picked her up from the bus depot, she quietly came along to sister’s apartment. We spoke very little. We didn’t need to. She was braced already. We went in, we talked with sister, we made a list of supplies, and we went to the store together. All the way to the store, we didn’t speak.
In the parking lot, I asked her, Mom, do you need me to call anyone for you? Should I call your older sister? No, said my Mom, let’s not burden her with this. It will be too hard for her to walk into that; the last time she’ll have smelled that smell would be when her first husband was dying.
So, we said no more. We got what we needed, went home and helped clean her up, as best we could, make her comfortable. Mom would not leave her side from then until, two weeks before sister’s passing, my oldest remaining brother would step in and be the one to say, get in the truck, Mom, you’re coming with me, I’ll take you to visit your friend for the weekend. We’ve got this, Mom. We didn’t say more, we couldn’t break her silence.
In her turn, I suppose she got that silence from her own mother, my grandmother silenced by language, a Polish immigrant isolated to the community of family who also spoke that language. I made it my business, in Mom’s last years, to pester her to tell me stories about Grandma, about us, about our family, lest it all fall into silence.
Mom told me that Grandma had known some of the country ways of healing, and had served as a midwife. Occasionally, she’d taken Mom with her, demonstrating how to get on with it. One time, she’d gone alone, but could not bear what she found alone, and so had told her youngest daughter. The woman, whose husband was a violent drunk, hadn’t been seen, so Grandma went to her home.
She found the woman in bed, holding her filthy baby, three days old. She’d lost a lot of blood, and had been too weak to get out of bed, so was lying in filth, maggots crawling on her. What did you do? Mom says she asked her. Grandma replied, What could I do? I cried. And then I cleaned her up.
The joy of the Lord may be the strength of Nehemiah. As for my Mom and her children, for better and worse, it is the resolve to face plainly what cannot be denied, cry if you need to, but get on with doing what we must.
I wonder how much we can change that. Not diminish it, but add to it more joy. I wonder how much more joy we can all bear. I would love to find out, to be surprised by Joy, to find, somehow, my resolute and stern brothers and sister and our families given over to pure Joyfulness. Let us be sure, we have done our part to be strong and get on with the hard things. Can we be as strong in Joy? Can we be held up by the glorious world and this mysterious ‘Joy of the Lord,’ this spiritual wellspring of joyfulness? Why not? Maybe we already are.
*This year, I am honouring my mom’s passing by writing throughout the Advent season, following as prompts the daily quotations cited in the free online calendar put out by the Catholic Medical Mission Board Mom was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and I was raised with the Church as a contentious part of our family life, given that my Ojibwe dad’s family was so affected by the church. Nonetheless, her faith was important to Mom, so this is a tribute to her. It’s also a reflection on how religions influence in many ways.
If you like these posts, please also consider donating, in the memory of Albina Sewell, to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton; her chosen charity for memorials is not religiously affiliated, but serves all children.