Regrets: A Funeral at Christmas

With all the emphasis on story in today’s postmodern generation, it concerns me that many of us “miss” our own story. We spend more time watching TV and movies or playing video games than talking with family and friends.

Take me for example. Mary Jane Sellers, Esther Staub, Frederick Buechner and Michael McDonald have little in common, but in this moment their fellowship is mine as I ponder my regrets.

Saturday December 13, 2003 my sister Becky, my dad and I headed South from Seattle to Portland, a three hour drive involving limited visibility, wind, rain and heavier than expected traffic. Dad was to deliver the benediction at the funeral of his best friend’s wife, Mary Jane Sellers. Mary Jane and my mother become best friends and soul mates in elementary school, went on to attend the same college and marry men who were best friends. These two couples Dick and Esther, Jim and Mary Jane were intertwined in ways I will never totally understand. As I said in the “open mic” section of the funeral, some kids have two moms and dads because of blended families, the Sellers and Staub kids had two moms and dads because of “bonded” families.

When my dad was pastor of a church in Fullerton, California, Jim and Mary Jane moved there to help. When mom and dad moved to Spokane, Washington, this pattern of interdependence was repeated when the Sellers pulled into town. When Richard Lamb talks about the pursuit of God in the company of friends, I think of Dick and Esther Staub and Jim and Mary Jane Sellers. I envy them.

At the memorial service we viewed a photo collage of Jim and Mary Jane’s Seller’s life together. Young Jim delivered a warm and witty eulogy and the three Sellers girls, Janis, Judy and Jennifer sang songs from our past “Count Your Blessings” and “I Am His and He is Mine.” My 80 year-old-dad and his best friend Jim sat in the front row remembering, weeping and being friends like only men who have been best friends for 62 years know how to do.

The drive from Seattle to Portland and back was like Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, full of flashbacks, introspection and a reminder of missed opportunities. I realized that though Mary Jane influenced me greatly as a child, I never really knew her as an adult.

The dominant regret, though, concerned my mother. Her absence yesterday was due to her Alzheimer’s. Though her best friend was being buried, and family and life-long friends were remembering a gritty, determined life-lived well, my mother sat alone in an Alzheimer’s unit, vaguely aware that something involving Mary Jane had transpired, but unable to connect all the synaptic dots to truly know her dear friend is gone. However, I AM able to connect these synaptic dots and I realize that just as I did not get to know Mary Jane as an adult, I really did not get to know my mother as an adult either.

As if to drive that point home, on the way to the airport at 6 AM the next day my sister Becky talked about reading Frederick Buechner’s “Secrets,” his exquisite memoirs of childhood in which he reflects on the secrets each of us carry from our distant past.

“Mary Jane” knew secrets about mother no one else knew,” Becky said. We now headed into territory of which I had either no recollection or only the vaguest, foggiest memory. It involved some severe hardship my mother experienced in her youth, the details of which she shared only with Mary Jane, who later shared them with my sister.

As Becky told me “the secrets” I asked myself how I could know NOTHING about that chapter of my mother’s life. And given the craziness and cruelty she experienced as an adolescent, how did my mother become the smiling, joyful person I knew her as? WHO IS MY MOTHER and WHY DON’T KNOW MORE ABOUT HER LIFE? Mary Jane’s death and my mother’s Alzheimer’s mean it is too late to do anything about these missed opportunities. I also realized my life is FULL of people I love, who are significant yet only vaguely known to me.

After dropping Becky off I listened to Michael McDonald’s “In the Spirit” CD and came to a song that is ALL about regrets and the hope and healing Christ brings.

Artist: Michael McDonald
Song Title: PEACE
Album: In the Spirit: A Christmas Album

(MCDONALD/CHAPMAN)

I HAVE COME FROM SO FAR AWAY
DOWN THE ROAD OF MY OWN MISTAKES
IN THE HOPE YOU COULD HEAR ME PRAY
OH LORD, KEEP ME IN YOUR REACH

HOW I’VE LONGED THROUGH THESE WASTED YEARS
TO OUTRUN ALL THE PAIN AND FEAR
TURNED TO STONE FROM MY UNCRIED TEARS
AND NOW IT’S YOUR GRACE I SEEK

LOVE WON’T COMPROMISE
IT’S A GIFT, IT’S A SACRAFICE
MY SOUL RENEWED, AND MY HEART RELEASED
IN YOU I’LL FIND MY PEACE

WONDROUS CHILD OF WHOM THE ANGELS SING
KNOW MY JOY, FEEL MY SUFFERING
SHINING STAR MAKE THIS LOVE YOU BRING
SO BRIGHT THAT I MAY BELIEVE

THAT MY WAY WILL NOT BE LOST
FROM NOW ON, ‘TIL THAT RIVER’S CROSSED
MY SOUL RENEWED, AND MY SPIRIT FREE
IN YOU I’LL FIND MY PEACE

Grateful for God’s grace and forgiveness for my past, and my inattentiveness to the people it, I renewed my commitment to more time and attentiveness to know my story and the people in it. (However my fear about this Boomer’s ability to improve in this area is captured in an e-mail I sent to my son: “If you have time to read the piece on regrets–it is describing something personal, painful and hard for me to change about myself. Love. DAD).

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