On the death of my sister
The older of my two adopted sisters, Mary Grace, died nine days ago of a drug overdose in a hotel outside of Houston, TX. There is absolutely no way to convey the depth of this tragedy to anyone who was not close to Mary throughout her life, though a precious few friends and extended family have an inkling of the loss. The untimeliness of Mary's death, even the manner of it, was simultaneously shocking and anticipated. Her life, which was marked by joy in the early years but almost total heartbreak as an adult, made her funeral preparations a challenge to her family. My Dad, brother, and I did our best, between each of our funeral remarks, to balance honor of her with honesty about the hard lessons of her life. Below are my own remarks, with minor edits to the draft I read at Mary's funeral.
Before I get to the thrust of my remarks, I’d like to make an apology and a clarification regarding one aspect of Mary’s obituary, which, during our family’s first funeral planning session, it fell to me to write. I had never written one before, and being for my own sister, I couldn’t abide some of the formal templates I was finding on the internet. And since it was I writing it and not anyone else, I had to insert a Mary anecdote that was precious to me: her head-scratching determination to deny Burl Ives his rightful name. I trust at least half of you gathered here today know who Burl Ives was. A celebrated film actor of his time, he also recorded some children’s folk music. One morning in the car on the way to church, Mary asked Mom to put in the “Harry Lewis” music. Mom obliged, or so I thought, putting a cassette tape into the dash and turning on the stereo. But it was Burl Ives. As humans do when confronted by things that don’t add up, we enlist our subconscious to make them add up. “Burl must do his kids music under a different moniker,” 14-year-old me decided, and just went along with it. It may have been a week or two later when I saw that Burl Ives cassette for myself, which contained no references whatsoever to this figment named Harry Lewis, that I realized the truth: Mary had invented him. Mom knew what was up and made no ceremony when Mary would request, again and again, to listen to one more Harry Lewis tune. And without any protest, we all eventually joined in the fiction, forever blurring in our minds the true identity of the man in our car speakers and on our TV screen.
Mary was a treasure. Alas.
On Tuesday, January 7th, I was engaged in a conversation with a coworker about the trials and travails of his ex-wife. He relayed to me a tapestry of histrionic behaviors she had exhibited over the years that had become more and more inexplicable and self-destructive. I expressed solidarity with my friend because, albeit through a different sort of relationship, I understood all too well what he was dealing with. Our conversation turned to what our prognoses were for our respective loved ones. “I just need my ex to hit rock bottom soon or she’ll never get serious,” my friend said. I told him I empathized with that sentiment, but that I was worried in my sister’s case that she had no rock bottom, that her rock bottom might just be her end. How could I have imagined that Mary’s end was only three days away?
My dad and brother and I have been shuffling rough drafts of our remarks around to each other in email the last few days, and you can all thank that editorial process for preventing me from plunging our proceedings into a flavor of grief even a funeral for Mary doesn’t deserve. The thing is, I have been uniquely unsuccessful among my family members at recalling with clarity any complete memories from Mary’s innocent years. There are only fragments. Just images. When my wife and I relocated from Dallas to Knoxville, TN in 2004, my sister was as I’ve ever known her: joyful, hilarious, smart, silly, and perhaps a little too reckless when it came to friendships. But I thought little of it. I could not have known in 2004 that I would never encounter that Mary again.
Over the ensuing 15 years, much of them spent thousands of miles away from her, the brokenness of this world would overtake Mary. But it overtook me as well. Mary had succumbed to a lie that she shouldn’t rise above her own impulses, and I eventually succumbed to the lie that she couldn’t. At the heart of both was the fundamental untruth that as persons, we are only the sum of our appetites. My sister may have lived an ignoble life, but she was divine in the ultimate sense of the word. That is truth. The truth that we all, despite our appetites, have the image of divinity inscribed on our souls. Everything that was good about Mary—her joy, her contagious laughter, even her big, happy eyes—was the good of Jesus Himself. I came to forget that about my sister. I lost hope, and in so doing, I withheld love. I fell short of Paul’s exhortation in his first letter to the Corinthian church, that if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and possess all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind.
Love is not jealous, nor proud, nor rude.
Love does not insist on its own way; it is not resentful.
Love finds no joy in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
I’ve come to believe, and I’m afraid I’m not persuadable on this matter, that when Jesus commended “doing to the least of these” as effectively “doing unto Him”, He wasn’t talking about an eschatological scoring system. He was telling us how we can meet Him. In October of 1988, my parents took in a little girl who was born into poverty and brokenness, and for the next 31 years gave her every glimmer of hope, every tear of sorrow, and every pulsation of love they could give. And when you talk to them about the experience, the impression is inescapable: they have drawn painfully near to the crucified Lord.
Whatever the temptation might be, when that person in your life who has lost their way has taken what you think is your last measure of hope, remember that to continue stretching out your hope even to the ripping point, and to hold forth for just a little longer, is to participate in the life of Christ who submitted to the Cross, even while we were yet sinners. We are only Christians, though, “little Christs” as the word implies. We will fail, and we will break. But if anyone knows what it’s like to be broken by and for others, it must surely be Him who came down from Heaven and entered into our brokenness, and Who heals by His own wounds.
There’s so much I wish I could hope for Mary’s life that I no longer can. But I’m not hopeless. I can prevail on the mercies of Christ for her sake, the Christ who knew her heart as only her Creator could, and hope that she may yet be restored when all is restored. I can honor her memory by pouring myself out for those God has given me to love. And I can love her by loving her son, Judah Bobby, to whom Mary so thankfully passed on God’s image in her.
I love you, Mary, and I miss you so much.
Mary Grace, Aug 1988 - Jan 2020
1/19/2020 01:42:27 pm
1/19/2020 05:48:53 pm
Thanks, Elaine. Love to you and everyone at St. Anna's!
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