written by James Friesen, November 2014
My dad and I are making jam. As we do, we speak of transformation, of the mysterious way the rhubarb loses its rough exterior and the magical way the sugar becomes melted into the red, bubbling fluid. It is true that I am merely a helper in this process; I stir and close the numerous jars, while my dad organizes the affair, directing the course of action in his calm and wise way. Maybe not much has changed since I was a little boy holding the ladder or directing the light while my dad did the repairs. If so, I don’t mind. We each have our place.
My dad and I began making jam when my mom was no longer able. I have no idea how many times my mom did all of this on her own. It saddens me to think that I didn’t take notice of all that work; I just enjoyed the jam. I hope that was clear to her. I think it was. I’ll have to believe it was.
I wonder if my dad has similar thoughts as he makes the jam. Did he appreciate her work as much as he does now? Can anyone appreciate anything fully before a loss? When my mom died, my parents had been married sixty-three years. Truly, they had grown together much like two trees which lean on each other for support. Now one of those two trees is gone and the other is trying to regain its balance. His memories are not my memories. His pain is not my pain.
In some ways my mom’s funeral is difficult to remember. I was told by a friend to be sure to be present and alive during the funeral as it is a time of wonder and meaning. Still, it was a blur of words, images, and music. However, some things stand out. My daughter quietly crying behind me. My son’s awkward yet caring attempt to comfort her. My brother’s strong voice making it through the last of our tribute. My wife’s tender touch as I stood beside the open coffin.
I remember standing above the freshly dug ground in the cemetery, all of us taking deep breaths as the coffin lay at the bottom of the grave, and then my dad breaking the silence by saying, “Now everyone say goodbye and let’s go.” It felt odd getting into our warm cars as we left my mom in the cold ground. How many times had she covered me with a blanket or an afghan and now I just left her. I kept repeating with the poet Auden, she “disappeared in the dead of winter” and the day of her death “was a dark cold day.”
Before the funeral, we had a private viewing for our family. What I remember most was not her face or her dress or the coffin. It was her hands. These were the hands that could play piano so beautifully, the hands that cut chicken noodle soup noodles, the hands that pulled me away from that snake charmer in India, the hands that waved to me so many times as I walked to school. When I was young, I had many migraines and these were the hands that would hold my head and make the pain subside. And now these hands were resting, not moving at all, as still as stone.
So, as I stir the jam, I think about my own hands and how they will one day be cold and still. I listen to my dad’s gentle direction and I think about my mom and all she gave to me and to our family. I look at the dark red jam boiling in the pot and I marvel at the beauty and richness of life and how God will transform all of this, has already transformed it, and I pray for eyes to see.