My mom is dying. She grew up in Chicago in a family of eight, abandoned by her father, emotionally brutalized by increasingly alcoholic older brothers. It shouldn't surprise that she married six times, and had four kids by the time she was 22. She never really had a chance to untwist the psychic garbage dumped into her own childhood. Financial poverty is hard enough, but the real brutality is the gnarling of emotions, the retarding of one's capacity to build and sustain relationships, the dulling of imaginative creativity, the atrophy of confidence in one's own potential. Poverty is the poisoned water that some have no choice but to drink. Having consumed it the toxins pass through their bodies into the next generation.
My mom got lucky. She came of age in the days of strong labor unions, so that even an uneducated 16-year-old bride could get on at a factory and bring home a living wage. With financial stability came self-esteem, and with a sense of self she learned boundaries. With boundaries came a sense of dignity, significance, and the promise of a future.
Despite the condemnation enforced upon my mom, through her birthplace in poverty, she nevertheless managed through hook and crook, through marriages and hard work, to escape the stranglehold of financial scarcity. But not without cost. Not without divorce, not without broken family, not without wounds and scars and lost potential. Even at her deathbed the toxins she consumed live on through her twisted, relationally dysfunctional, emotionally stunted children. The family will gather around still trying to figure out if it's safe to love and trust and care. The family will struggle to say goodbye while struggling further to say hello to sisters and brother. My mom was born with, in her words, "a hand full of nothing." But through her turbulent life she did manage an occasional ace-high straight. She did a better job with her kids than what had been done to her. I think there is something of the heroic in that.
My mom was neither sinner nor saint. She took a script that fated her for failure and rewrote it into a story of survival, and in small ways, transformation. She never fulfilled her potential but she did create some possibilities. I both inherit what she started, and am the continuation of her work. Her life has always posed for me the intimate question of what I will do to further rewrite the script and create possibility. Her impending death challenges me to rewrite in such a way that the poverty that afflicts becomes transformed into the healing that equips both myself and others to move toward a world without poverty, a commonwealth of abundant care and significance for all. Death teaches us to not settle for less. Life responds with a hunger for more.