Steel Magnolias

Martin Creed’s MOTHERS is currently on display outside Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago during his yearlong residency. The white neon and steel display is a kinetic sculpture, measuring 48 feet wide, 20+ feet tall, and steadily rotates 360 degrees. Creed states that the piece had to be that large, “because mothers always have to be bigger than you are,” and “it feels like mothers are the most important people in the world.” While certainly a tourist or Chicagoan would be hard pressed to miss this display, it’s important to note where the Museum of Contemporary Art is located.

The MCA is near Water Tower Place, Magnificent Mile, American Girl Store, Hancock Building, and other such Windy City icons. But it’s also across the street from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Prentice Women’s Hospital, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. For those of us who work in those hospitals, we see MOTHERS through windows or while walking to and fro during shifts. Women pass MOTHERS on the way to their appointment at Prentice to learn the gender of their unborn child. Grandparents pass MOTHERS on the way to Lurie Children’s to see their grandchild in the PICU. Daughters pass MOTHERS on the way to Northwestern after learning of their father’s heart attack. Significant others pass MOTHERS while driving the mother-to-be to Prentice as they await the birth of their first child. Aunts and Uncles pass MOTHERS on the way to see their new niece or nephew in the NICU. Sons pass MOTHERS on their way to Northwestern after learning their Mom is in ICU.

For the year of Creed’s residency, one cannot enter or leave three of Chicago’s major hospitals without seeing the white neon revolving steel reminder of all things MOTHERS.

This past weekend when I passed MOTHERS, I was very much missing my Mom, and had spent time hugging two mothers as they wept for their children who may not get to grow up. As I stood under the revolving steel, I could smell both of those mothers on either sleeve of my shirt and remembered what my own Mom smelled like. And I remembered that a few days before Mom died, one of the nurses told me she affectionately referred to Mom as “the sassy ICU patient with a family made of steel.” I had responded, “Sassy wouldn’t have it any other way.” I nodded in agreement with Martin Creed, because indeed sometimes “it feels like mothers are the most important people in the world.” I have a great dad, and know plenty of great dads, uncles, brothers, husbands, grandfathers, so this is in no way a jab at the male gender.

I went back through the revolving doors of the hospital and visited more families on various units. While a mother and I were talking, she held her child’s tiny hand and asked, “Why are you a chaplain? How do you do this?” I held her child’s other tiny hand and said, “Well, I do this because I imagine the only thing worse than the hell you’re going through would be to go through it alone.” Our conversation continued and she said, “I wish everyone in the church would be this honest, instead of making it sound like God just makes people get sick or lets them die.” I agreed with her and declared, “God has got to be bigger than any of the church’s contrived compartmentalized versions of God.”

As we said goodbye, she thanked me for being there and for my strength, and I thanked her for letting me be there. On my way out of the hospital, as I passed MOTHERS, I gave thanks that I have the DNA of a sassy-made-of-steel-Mama running through my veins, and that she taught me how to be genuine with strangers in midst of hell. Lest we misrepresent the God who is always bigger than we are.

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