There are stacks of books on my mother’s dressers, piles of books on her bedside table, and another stash of books inside the pouch of her walker-on-wheels. The trouble is she can’t read any of the books — the brain tumors have robbed her of one of her greatest enjoyments — reading.
So the reading of those books falls to us, her caretakers.
As you might suspect, reading to others is something that comes quite naturally to me, the writer. I can read out loud for a good long while, unless, of course, I’m reading something that bores me to death, which is the problem with the books Mama has collected. Almost every single one of the books within her reach is a study on heaven, or how to be a better Christian.
I’m a dismal failure at being the better Christian so books on that topic hold very little appeal for me. I’d rather read Billy Coffey or Ann Voskamp or Margaret Feinberg‘s blog posts. I feel a certain camaraderie with people who are quick to note that they don’t have all the answers.
I haven’t even dared open the latest book Sister Tater and Mama bought about some woman who went to the brink of heaven and returned to tell all about it. I suppose it makes sense that the dying are interested in books about heaven. I would want to read about Ireland or Spain before embarking on a trip to either of those places. Perhaps if Rick Steves wrote a travel guide on heaven I would read it. Or if Paula Deen wrote one about all the heavenly places to eat, I might buy her book.
Mama called Sister Tater on the phone tonight and told her that she needed to hurry back because I won’t read to her.
I corrected Mama: “That’s not true. I read two chapters to you last night before you went to bed.”
“You did?” Mama said. Brain tumors rob her of memory, too, except for the things I wished she’d forget about. Every offense I’ve ever committed my mother remembers with disarming clarity.
“Yes, I did,” I replied.
“What did you read to me?”
“Heaven on Earth. That book by those pastors, remember?”
Mama is always impressed whenever a pastor writes a book. She’s more impressed if that pastor has the last name of Stanley or Graham, though.
“I never heard of these pastors,” Mama said, turning the book over in her hands, and studying the bios of Pastors Chris Seidman and Josh Graves.
The book arrived in my mailbox last week, a gift gratis the publisher, who hoped I’d read it. I must admit, given the amount of access I have to books on Heaven right now, I was a bit reluctant to even open it. But, I reasoned, caretaking Mama all week long meant I was going to be desperate for something engaging to read to her. No reason why both of us should be bored to death.
I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive about reading the book aloud to Mama when, in the very first chapter, I came across the story of a man named Fred who went into pulmonary failure and choking aspiration. Not exactly the sort of thing one wants to read to those suffering from lung cancer, heh?But Fred’s story has a happy ending. While he was hospitalized, Fred kept muttering that he wanted to go home. So his family had him taken off the dialysis that had been helping keep him alive. But Fred didn’t die. Instead, he rallied. When his daughter explained why the family made the decision to remove him from treatment — assuming Fred meant he wanted to die and go home to heaven — Fred corrected her, “I mean Parkchester!” (His home on Parkchester Drive.)
Mama laughed at the story of Fred. She understands poor Fred all too well. When the hospice nurse informed Mama that she is now suffering from some congestive heart failure on top of everything else, Mama fixated on that. She called Brother John and Sister Tater (twice) to tell them how bad off she is. Of course, when I arrived in Seattle after a week away, my mother blurted out, “I wish Brother John was here.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Things just seem to go better when he’s around.” (Take note: Brother John’s job requires him to be in LA most of the time) It may not be very Christian of me to say but sometimes five minutes with my mother can seem like hell unleashed. (I mean that in the most humorous of ways, of course.)
Anyway, Pastors Graves and Seidman tell the story about Fred to make a point — that we think of heaven one way, while Jesus speaks of it in another way, the same way Fred’s family thought of home as the place in the wild beyonder, while Fred thought of heaven as something far more tangible, his house on Parkchester Drive.
“The blessing is that the kingdom of heaven had real life implications: bodies healed, relationships restored, dignity renewed, false assumptions about God shattered,” so says Pastors Graves & Seidman.
Heaven on Earth isn’t a travel guide for the dying, it’s a handbook for the living. Besides any book on heaven that quotes from The Shawshank Redemption earns major props from me.
And Mama, too.
“That’s a really good movie,” she said. She should know. Mama worked as a nurse in a medium-security prison during the last 20 years of her 42-year nursing career. For some of those prisoners, Mama was the closest they ever got to experiencing heaven on earth. Because when it came to her patients, prisoners or otherwise, Mama was compassion cloaked in white.
Jesus’ life was about helping humanity realize the good life, the God-life, in the here and now, not simply the then and there, Seidman and Graves write.
What about you? How have you been privvy to the God-life lately? What are you reading?
For more conversation on Heaven on Earth, check out the Patheos Book Club: http://www.patheos.com/Books/Book-Club/Seidman-and-Graves-Heaven-on-Earth.html