The Common Good
July-August 1999

Tears of Sorrow and Joy

by Jim Wallis | July-August 1999

Just over 18 months ago, my mother was dancing at my wedding. Only a month later, my
mom discovered that she had cancer of the abdominal lining.

Just over 18 months ago, my mother was dancing at my wedding. Only a month later, my mom discovered that she had cancer of the abdominal lining. Thus began a long battle, fighting the disease with a combination of conventional surgery and chemotherapy, and alternative treatments of vitamins, serums, and an extremely healthy diet. At one point she was drinking so much organic carrot juice that she turned orange!

Learning that my wife, Joy, was pregnant (with our first child), seemed to give my mom added incentive to survive and even to get better. After Luke arrived, my mother was absolutely thrilled to get to know our new son, her 13th grandchild. I never saw her happier as she held Luke in her lap, and he gave her all those smiles of his. Then, she got very excited to learn that her youngest daughter, Marcie, was expecting a baby the day before her 75th birthday in May. On she battled, looking more and more healthy after each setback.

But on April 30, I got a call from my brother, Bill, in Detroit. My mom had collapsed at home. She had an infection in her bloodstream. Four out of five cancer patients die from something other than cancer, due to how much the body has been weakened. The doctors and my dad seemed optimistic at first; she had always pulled through before. But three days later we got another call. My dad’s voice sounded emotional and scared, "You’d better come." We did and were there in just hours. The doctors feared she might not live through the night. When my sister and I arrived at our mother’s bedside that evening, the first thing she said was to ask my dad if he had got fresh milk for us back at the house, and whether everyone had a bed with clean sheets. Some things never change.

That very day, my sister Marcie made a bold move. She was already in the early stages of labor but decided to drive with her husband and three boys from Western Michigan to Detroit to be with her mother. Marcie had her medical records faxed to the same hospital mom was in and got to the hospital in time to visit her before moving to the maternity wing, called "The Miracle of Life Center." The whole family was there now (five brothers and sisters and lots of grandchildren) to hope and pray for a miracle, that mom would live to see her new grandchild.

ON THE MORNING of May 6, Marcie went into serious labor. They were two women on a mission: As my mother labored for her life with each breath, Marcie labored to bring forth new life. It seemed like we almost lost my mom twice, but she was determined to hang on. Marcie previously had distressed deliveries with all of her boys, but this time her labor was smooth and quick. She knew what she had to do. The doctor who delivered Marcie’s baby commented that he had never seen a woman more in touch with her body and more in control of her labor. There was not a sound in the delivery room during the whole ordeal.

At 1:35 p.m., on the first floor of the hospital, Kaylee Ruth was born on her grandmother Phyllis Ruth’s 75th birthday, as she lay dying on the fifth floor of the same hospital. As soon as they could, the doctor and nursing staff wheeled Marcie and the baby into mom’s room where we were all so anxiously waiting. The jubilation was overwhelming. The whole hospital had been following the drama, willing these two special people to meet, and bending the rules for newborns. As my mother opened her eyes and held her new granddaughter, she smiled and then spoke her last words, "I’m very happy, I’m very happy." Then she slipped into a coma. Both the doctor and nurse who helped Marcie deliver were in the room with us now, with tears in their eyes like the rest of us. The veteran obstetrician later remarked to the head of his unit that he had never been involved in a birth story so remarkable.

My mother’s coma lasted another nine days. I stayed in the room round- the-clock with my dad for several nights until he seemed ready and eager to be alone with the woman he had been with since they were both 16—for 59 years. "We had some good long talks last night," he would say when I brought him clean clothes each morning. The long vigil was a challenge, but proved to be a gift for my father, who later said that he needed that time to be able to let her go. My mother passed away at 12:15 a.m. on May 15. She went "calmly, peacefully, and beautifully," in my father’s words.

My mother’s memorial service drew 500 people, and the little church she and my father had helped found had never been fuller. The tributes and testimonials went on for three hours, and would have gone much longer had my dad not said it was "enough." How did she find the time to do all those things for so many people, I wondered, and still make each one of her children and grandchildren feel so special? I realized it was simply the way she and my father treated people, and especially anybody in trouble or need, that had planted a strong social conscience in all her children. Her obituary, printed in that Sunday’s Detroit Free Press, ended with these words, "She is remembered by her family, church, and friends around the world as a loving wife, devoted mother and grandmother, minister of hospitality, and exemplary woman of God."

Our family has witnessed the grace of God over the past two-and-a-half weeks, and the Paschal mystery of life and death, literally side by side. The grief of my mother’s passing and the joy of Kaylee Ruth’s birth have filled our hearts with tears of sorrow and elation. I have never experienced a more vivid illustration of death and resurrection bound together by the love of family and the love of God. This hope of life in the midst of death is the very center of our faith: In fact, it is what the Christian faith is all about.

Such times of great emotion and stress bring back memories long forgotten but suddenly vivid. One for me was a simple prayer my mother taught me as a little boy, which now I found myself praying with her night after night. It is a simple but strangely reassuring prayer that goes like this: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." The prayer then went into all the people we were praying for each night and ended with a regular closing line that my mother must have found a necessary one: "And help Jamie [that’s me] to be a good boy. Amen." Well, I’ll keep trying, mom.

Violence Has Consequences

It seemed the last slain student had been hardly buried in Littleton, Colorado, when six more students were shot in Conyers, Georgia. It’s time to probe the deep issues.

When "an unidentified parent" faced the camera at a televised town meeting in the wake of the Littleton shootings, she spoke with the pain, anger, and authority of someone who had suffered a very great loss. Her 11-year-old daughter had been in the line of fire when two young boys had turned automatic weapons on their schoolmates 13 months before in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Now she was speaking to the nation from a Jonesboro church, linked electronically to the traumatized parents, students, and citizens in a Colorado living room: "There’s never been anybody we could hold responsible. We couldn’t hold the boys responsible because they were just children. The parents weren’t responsible because who wants to blame parents? And, you know, you can’t blame the media because the media says ‘it’s not our fault.’ And the gun culture, it’s not their fault, so I want the world to tell me whose fault is it we got 15 kids dead along with five last year? You know, what is wrong?"

With a moral authority no one seemed to question, the Jonesboro mother had pressed to the heart of the dilemma: How do we assess responsibility? Then she answered her own question: "I hold a gun-toting nation responsible. I hold [responsible] a nation that will allow a child to watch hours of violence on television....If they’re going to watch violence then let ‘em go to the funeral, let ‘em see what happens when somebody’s shot....Parents are responsible. It’s my responsibility to society to know what [my child’s] into." The audience burst into sustained applause.

The still-grieving mother was trying to get us to assess responsibility, get us to see that violence has consequences, evil consequences. In a culture that is nonjudgmental, fearful to lay blame, and anxious to be tolerant and ultimately politically correct, we often hesitate to deal directly and honestly with the causes of such tragedies. It’s time to paint the big picture behind all the places in America where children are killing each other and other people. What must we do?

Hold parents responsible. It’s just bad parenting for mothers and fathers not to know that their children are ingesting the worst poisons of popular culture and obtaining guns and making bombs in their own homes. To know these things and not intervene is inexcusable. That includes intervening against the cruelty that school cultures often practice toward those who don’t fit in—an exclusion sometimes led by the popular, attractive, and athletic students who are already the most rewarded. What we might call "geek profiling" seems to be a part of some of these tragedies. In their aftermath, every kid who’s a little odd or alienated should not be suspected of being a potential mass murderer. Both parents and teachers need to intervene in the destructive and dangerous cycle of rejection and revenge.

Hold guns responsible.

Let me make a politically blasphemous statement: By promoting a culture of plentiful, available, and ever more lethal weapons, and by resisting even the most moderate regulations on lethal firearms, the National Rifle Association should be held directly responsible for what happened in Littleton. Several gun-lobby spokesmen suggested that more people in Columbine High School having guns might have saved lives. Saying stupid things like that makes somebody responsible for the results of a "gun-toting nation." Again, violence has consequences. Guns may not be the whole problem, but much stronger gun control laws are surely part of the solution.

Hold the media responsible. Hollywood is clearly part of the problem. We let kids play with computer games that stalk and execute people in bloody detail, all the while listening on their headphones to pounding lyrics that scream rage and disrespect for human life, then go on-line to Web sites with neoNazi propaganda or instructions on how to make pipe bombs. Why then are we so surprised when angry teen-age shooters single out blacks and Christians for execution on Adolf Hitler’s birthday? Because we don’t believe violence has consequences. Even capitalism should be capable of having a conscience and working for the common good. And if the companies don’t rise to the challenge, there’s always the weapon of organized, parent-enforced boycotts of the worst offenders.

We are a nation that likes to have wars without casualties (at least on our side), video games without reality checks, violent pop culture that’s just fun, and the "freedom" to say anything we want no matter how disrespectful or hateful to other people. We like to have the violence without the consequences. But violence does have consequences, and it’s both terribly ironic and horribly painful that our children are teaching us that lesson.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of

Sojourners. A portion of this column appeared on the MSNBC Web site.
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