Birthday Candles

My mom died about thirty minutes after midnight on a Saturday night. Since Monday of that week she told everyone she was going to die on Sunday, and sure enough she kept her word with that just as she always did. Earlier that Saturday night, while I was washing her sparkly silver hair, I mentioned that if she died before midnight then she wouldn’t die on my Dad’s birthday, but that I understood her whole “I’m dying on Sunday because it’s the Lord’s Day and I’m going to celebrate being cancer free at the big feast” itinerary.

Her death was as brave and beautiful as her life, and went just as she said it would. Two close family friends were with Dad and me when she died, and the four of us continued to hold her hands and talk to her, as we’d done all day that Saturday. After the Hospice nurse pronounced her, finished paperwork and went on her way, the four of us continued to sit around Mom’s bed in our family room and kept talking to each other like it was any other Saturday night. Dad had a beer and the rest of us had some wine, cheese, and a random assortment of holiday snackage as we sat by her bed waiting for the funeral home to come. We would have had one of the many casseroles some fine Christian women had put in our fridge, but since Mom had the kitchen renovated prior to the holidays, nobody else knew how to work the damn oven. We laughed, shared stories, puttered around the kitchen, and took turns holding her hands a little more as apparently that’s the Presbyterian way of sitting Shiva.

I’m pretty sure I offered the funeral home folks some Malbec and stale Christmas cookies, lest all Southern hospitality fall by the wayside during grief. After they left, we congregated in the kitchen until the fatigue of the past four weeks set in. Our friends went home, Dad and I took naps, then spent Sunday morning cleaning closets, sorting through get well cards, and organizing the fridge full of feelings food. Later we met the same two friends for dad’s birthday dinner, since it seemed like the normal thing to do. The server brought Dad’s birthday dessert with a candle in it like it was any other birthday. And, it’s not like any of the four of us had told the server any differently, since you can’t really say to the hostess, “We’re here for a birthday and a death. See his wife just died on his birthday, but we still want cake, and maybe a table in a corner so we don’t have to be so much in public since we’re exhausted and may or may not cry in the brie.”

At some point before his birthday dinner, Dad mentioned he wished he had a lock of Mom’s hair. I hadn’t gotten him a birthday gift yet anyway, so I called the funeral home and asked that they cut a couple locks of hair for me. They graciously did, and even honored my request for them to keep it secret it so I could surprise Dad.

Today marks two years since my mom died on my dad’s birthday, and it’s as surreal and ordinary as it was two years ago. As a chaplain, I frequently tell families there’s no wrong way to grieve and there’s nothing too odd if it seems meaningful at the time. Much about death is sacred, yet makes no sense, kind of like life.

Sometimes spouses of 39 years die on their spouse’s birthday.

Sometimes only children surprise their dad with a lock of their mom’s hair as his birthday gift.

There’s no Pinterest board for how to celebrate life everlasting, a birthday, and grieve a death on the same day. But there is cake and there are candles. And so long as the light continues to shine in the darkness and there is life to be celebrated, we continue to make birthday wishes before the candles are blown out.

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10 comments

  1. Al Masters · · Reply

    perfect…thanks-best part of the day!

  2. Amen. My mother died on her birthday, 10 years ago this coming 2/3. Holding you and those who loved Carol in the light of God’s healing love.

  3. Carol Farrell · · Reply

    LOVED this…your mom would be so proud of the way you share your talent of writing AND share your special memories of her…

  4. frankakabuddha · · Reply

    Great post, Ashley-Anne. I sure do miss your mom! I so looked forward to seeing her in Montreat at the youth conferences! We loved kid each other. The conferences seem a little empty with her not being there. She was certainly a gracious lady.

  5. You are such a gift. Thank you for sharing this. Much love to you (and happy birthday to your dad!).

  6. Jennifer Burns Lewis · · Reply

    I love you so much. And Al and Carol Masters, too. But especially you.

  7. […] While collecting and composing the stories for the sermon on Jesus as the Bread of Life (on Aug. 9th), I was captivated by the image in the final story of the wine bursting out, spraying all over the freshly-grieved and newly-renovated.  It seemed to perfectly capture what God’s abundance looks like in our lives: messy, unexpected, and nourishing in both an ephemeral and everlasting way. I decided to incorporate this sense of messiness in the imagery of the broken, crumbling bread and spilled over cup.  Part of what I love the most about Communion is the messiness of it all: the broken bread crumbs that collect on the floor and in the pew seats, the unavoidable drips of the grape juice, the doubtful and unwavering hearts of those who partake.  The Holy Feast is at once sacred and messy–much like our lives.  The cup spills over, just like God’s grace.  But it doesn’t end in a forgotten mess on the ground–God’s grace expands, offering new life.  The spilled wine drifts out into a desert landscape, becoming a meandering river to quench the ruggedness of the earth. Through God’s acts of abundance–both minor and magnificent–may our whole world be fed. __________________________________________________ [The sermon and paintings above were delivered and created during the 9:15am and 11:00am worship services at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church on August 9th, 2015. To listen, check here.] *** The final story is adapted from a blog post written by Rev. Ashley-Anne Masters.  Read more of her writing and stories here. […]

  8. […] While collecting and composing the stories for the sermon on Jesus as the Bread of Life (on Aug. 9th), I was captivated by the image in the final story of the wine bursting out, spraying all over the freshly-grieved and newly-renovated.  It seemed to perfectly capture what God’s abundance looks like in our lives: messy, unexpected, and nourishing in both an ephemeral and everlasting way. I decided to incorporate this sense of messiness in the imagery of the broken, crumbling bread and spilled over cup.  Part of what I love the most about Communion is the messiness of it all: the broken bread crumbs that collect on the floor and in the pew seats, the unavoidable drips of the grape juice, the doubtful and unwavering hearts of those who partake.  The Holy Feast is at once sacred and messy–much like our lives. The cup spills over, just like God’s grace.  But it doesn’t end in a forgotten mess on the ground–God’s grace expands, offering new life.  The spilled wine drifts out into a desert landscape, becoming a meandering river to quench the ruggedness of the earth. Through God’s acts of abundance–both minor and magnificent–may our whole world be fed. __________________________________________________ [The sermon and paintings above were delivered and created during the 9:15am and 11:00am worship services at Black Mountain Presbyterian Church on August 9th, 2015. To listen, check here.] *** The final story is adapted from a blog post written by Rev. Ashley-Anne Masters.  Read more of her writing and stories here. […]

  9. Jim Brown · · Reply

    Ashley-Anne, years ago when you Dad was a pastor at Sugaw Creek in Charlotte and I was an elder he called me one day and asked me to visit a member of the church in Presbyterian Hospital. The lady was having difficulty breathing so I took her hand and started praying for her. She calmed down and I thought the Lord was answering my prayer. A nurse walked in, looked at the lady, asked me to step out side then hit the panic button that sent a “Code Blue” announcement through the intercom. The lady had gone into complete respiratory failure. I went back to my office and called Al to tell him what had happened. He laughed and said he would visit her later that evening. He called me the next day to let me know the lady didn’t even know that I had visited her. The following Sunday I shared the experience with our Sunday school class. After the laughter died down Carol raised her hand with a finger extended. “I hurt my finger and would like prayer but please don’t let Jim Brown pray for me,” was her comment — with a big smile on her face. Your mother was a beautiful lady and had a precious sense of humor and your Dad had a major influence on my decision to enter the ministry. Every time I have the opportunity to visit someone in the hospital and pray for them I remember that time in Charlotte.

  10. Johnna Edwards · · Reply

    I am always in awe at how amazing a writer, daughter, and person you are. I hope you and your dad enjoy this day together, and I will be thinking of y’all.

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