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Last week my mother spent a night in the hospital because of atrial fibrillation. Her heart gets out of rhythm, and it needs to be shocked back in. That sounds dramatic, but now that I have been formally introduced to the world of cardiac medicine, I get the impression that “cardioversion” is a routine procedure—no big deal. It’s the cardiological equivalent of blowing one’s nose.

This is the second time Mom has been in the hospital for her heart.  Since the first time—a tedious, week-long stay followed by a complex regimen of cardiac meds—she has been engaging more and more in “when I’m gone” sorts of conversations. “If something happens to me…” she begins, and goes on to give instructions about items in the house or financial matters. Mom is sharp; these conversations are entirely practical and unsentimental. Yet I find myself, with so many other people my age, wondering how to walk with a parent down a long path I have never traveled and, frankly, can’t imagine.

Mom keeps photos on her desk, the desk in my old room, now a retreat where she does her nails and enjoys a few moments of quiet and privacy, away from Dad’s nosey remarks and the incessant chatter of the TV. In that sanctuary, she has assembled a tiny shrine to friends now gone after fifty, sixty years of friendship, their laughter and companionable conversation and many shared troubles and milestones now only memories. Lois is there, a friend since 1944, when they met working together in the army ordinance office. Sophia worked there, too, and there’s a photo of a her on the desk, even though “Soph” is still alive in a nursing home somewhere in Florida, a body breathing out the last whispers of presence. And there’s Alice, dear Alice, faithful friend through thousands of ordinary days. I remember Alice as a constant, cheerful presence as far back as my memories go.

What do you do when you are old and your friends die, and you are left with that aching, empty space where they used to be? You dwell in that space, hoping they are not gone forever, and you wonder whether all the promises are true and whether you will see them again.

Shortly after Alice died, Mom asked me, “Where are they now?” She really wanted to know. My devout, utterly faithful mother—now it comes to it, what do all those promises mean, the funeral sermons and Psalm 23 and I Corinthians 15 and Heidelberg Lord’s Day 1? Alice and Lois and all of six siblings and so many others: where are they? She asked me as if somehow I knew, as if all my books and education make me more conversant with the mystery.

They are alive. They are with God, kept hidden in God, in heaven. All I could do was offer back what I have been taught to a person I have always thought of as much further along in this life of faith. We say these things, but what do they mean, really? They are metaphors, promises, hope. True in the strongest sense we can know things to be true. But as I walk with my mom in these years, I can see that mysteries aren’t understood or described so much as passed into, and between our present understanding and the mystery is an aching, empty space.

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