31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”
One of the hard things about Kat’s passing is that the one dream she had which I could not help her fulfill is to be a mother. When we were newlyweds, she got pregnant and lost the baby, a loss she never got over. It was made harder in that she had expected to never have children again before we got married, due to complications related to her spina bifida.
I remember learning in my chaplain training at UNC hospital that when a woman becomes pregnant, at least a woman who has some of those natural maternal instincts we so prize as a cultural, a change goes on in her brain. It is like switches that have been off her whole life turn on that ready her to raise, care for, and love a child. If that child dies, whether before, during, or right after birth, those switches don’t normally turn back off again. Nature’s cue to mother, to rear, to love, to protect a dear young one, continues.
This can also happen, in a lesser way, to the partner (whether husband, wife, or just domestic partner) who is not carrying the child but so caught up in the experience of pregnancy.
I’m not sure if this happened with me, but it certainly happened for Kat. Most of her public ministry as a pastor came after this lost child or failed pregnancy. And there was a mothering quality to all she did.
I have a big, loud, boisterous way of communicating that stems from my upbringing. My parents are educated, talented people: both schoolteachers, with my mother being the first in our family to hold a Masters Degree in education. Yet they were a generation from poor farmers, with daddy recalling colorfully having to castrate pigs and momma the work my grandfather Charles (“Pa Barefoot”) used to do to raise tobacco. Rural southern folk are polite and hospitable in their own way, but they also say what they think, they laugh loudly, and have been known to end disagreements on the end of a gun. My parents tried hard to raise us with “good manners” but, ya know, you can take the Royal out of Johnston County but not Johnston County out of the Royal. Because of this I think I have always been a little more outspoken, forthright, loud, and expressive than my late wife. It doesn’t help that I found my faith among charismatics though I am not one myself, while she found faith at a Presbyterian youth program and among those in her Catholic school of her childhood
Her family tended more to move in high society than my own and so she always had a bit more social graces than I. I learned so much from her about when to not say what I think, but listen quietly. When to just be with others. She had a quiet strength that communicated undying compassion often without words which I am still learning from.
Because of these differences in how we communicated, since we pastored together as a team in many a church we served, often she would say “I feel like I’m under your shadow”. She didn’t mean of course as I first thought
that she felt I was trying to overshadow her, but rather here in the south where all things being equal, the man with a bachelors’ degree gets more respect than his colleague with a doctorate who happens to be a lady not a man, often she felt people respected, looked up to, and sought my advice more readily than hers. They’ll come to me for comfort, she would say, but they don’t listen to what I have to say. They go to you for that.
Some of that, it breaks my heart to say, is a real fair critique of my home, the dear south-land. In miniature it is the problem of the glass ceiling, isn’t it? I did see people love her but not respect her as I did, and as her holy life ought to have led them to do.
That said, as I look back on the times we ministered together, I feel I was always in her shadow. Having had this experience of losing her child, my dear Katharine chose to continue to express her growing sense of motherhood which pregnancy produced in her. In a profound way she used the pain, heartache, and trauma of unexpected pregnancy to turn her mother’s broken heart, her being a Rachel crying for her children, into her greatest gift to the world.
I remember the first church start we did. I’d left pastoring the denomination that ordained me because of their mistreatment of gay people, transgender people, women. I was a bit jaded about the church, but still active in my faith. She saw people still being left out. She saw people with disabilities not given a chance. She saw people who were transgender, bisexual, and pansexual not being welcomed but rather treated with prejudice even in the wider gay community in which the church we had begun to attend, a Metropolitan Community Church, was a part. Her heart was moved like a mother at the sight of wandering beleaguered children and said “I must do something. I must make sure these children are not orphaned but find their way to the warm solace of home”.
This drive, this mothering urge, is what motivated every church plant she took part in – they were all her ideas, her children and I was along for the ride – a desire to gather in each of the broken, hurting children of God who did not think they have a home into the loving embrace of God the Creator, God the Christ, God the Holy Spirit.
Her behavior in ministry and in life to me always mirrors the picture of God as Sacred feminine in my own Scripture, where God as the Wisdom of Life is pictured as follows in Proverbs 1:
“Lady Wisdom goes out in the street and shouts.
At the town center she makes her speech.
In the middle of the traffic she takes her stand.
At the busiest corner she calls out…”
For me my dear wife’s reaching out to those hurting, crying out against their mistreatment, seeking to build both religious or spiritual and secular communities of inclusion and welcome is a part of this drive that God, as Mother Wisdom, is described as living out. It to me in some moments makes her one of many woman that if I let them can become avatars of God for me, women whose lives are icons of the Sacred feminine texts like Proverbs picture but which my historically male dominated Christian faith has tended to ignore.
From the members of the communities her churches & ministries embraced to the often traumatized youth she mentored to the exchange student we kept in our home from Kenya, my dear Kat chose to channel the grief of losing a child and discovering she could not bear another in her own body into a most holy love that will forever be an emblem of the mothering love our Creator shares with all God’s creatures.
In sorting through her things, I came across her poetry collection. This one made me cry when I read it, and makes me cry now even to hold it in my hands. It expressed this deep grief and how she transformed it into love:
How It Could Have Been
Nine years and twenty five days old
That’s what you’d be now, what you are now
Fifty two days our hearts beat as one
Your only heartbeat I knew was your last
What would it have been like had I known
Known that all the doctors were wrong
Known that you could exist, that you did exist
That your daddy and I could have loved you forever
We still do, you’re still with us; you and God
You’ve kept us safe, kept us on a good path
I bet you’ve met the sibling your daddy never knew
I know you’ve met Logan. You two are quite the little imps together
Some days I wonder what you’re doing, you and God
At eighteen I was called mom for the first time by a young girl
One who craved the love a mother and father should give
Then, after your daddy and I got married, many more followed
Most are still in my life
One had just turned seventeen, and needed somebody to just understand, just love her
Just be there
One was eleven when I met her. Parental love made no sense to her. She’s thirteen now
You’d be proud of how far she has come
The most shocking gift is the now seventeen year old who’s been with us a year
I shouldn’t be surprised, since your great grandfather said it would happen
She’s leaving in three weeks, back to Africa, back to the life she had before I was Mom
There have been others; many, many others along the way
Sometimes I’d get so mad I didn’t want to see a child, hold a baby, get close to a teenager
Son, do you see what some of these parents do to their children? How they treat them?
Maybe one day you and God can help me understand how it’s fair they can have their kids
Abuse them, neglect them, starve them, take them for granted, ruin their self esteem
Yet your daddy and I, all we ever would have wanted was to give you wings to fly
I guess God did that for us.
You obviously won’t let me sulk for long, my beautiful boy
The one friend I had who truly and completely understood me
As you know moved in January
Another, who I thought was a friend, disappeared just after that, as my health declined
Then, out of nowhere, you appeared — but it wasn’t you, it’s not you, it will never be you
Until the day God calls us home to join you
He’s not you, but son he is sure giving me a glimpse of what could have been
Ya know I couldn’t even use his name until just this week
He had to have the same name as you, didn’t he? You had to make it just that clear
That you are still with me, that you never really left
And, in case I was too dense to get the point, his best friend’s name is your middle name
It’s different with this one; my emo smurf, the monkey wrench you and God gave me
Just as I was getting used to things the way they were
He’s different from the rest. He’s known a mother’s love….so very very strong
She’d give her life for him, just as I would. She’s been through the toughest trials
And come up a survivor because of her love for him and his siblings
He doesn’t need another mom, and yet…
I didn’t know I could love one who wasn’t biologically mine this much
Didn’t know I still had it in me to allow anyone to get close enough to care
Ya know, son, he’s twice your age and he’s so much like what I hoped you would grow to be
God told me, when I was four, I would have a son
I’m sure of that
I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life
The day I lost you, I honestly felt like God had played a cruel joke
Didn’t even know I had you until just before you were already gone
Everyone told me I was a “spiritual mother” to so many people
That used to make me so mad, Luke, it really did
I didn’t want to be a “spiritual mother”
I wanted to be a mother; your mother, the mother of a handsome, intelligent, loving son
Another young man is moving in while your daddy lives in a different city this year
I always thought I’d do better with sons than daughters
Though I love all my “sons and daughters from other mothers” so very much
Maybe I can make a difference in his life
The way you make a difference in mine every day
The way you’re letting me see how it could have been; listening to music, watching movies
Following pretty ponies into Narnia
Slamming strikes in bowling
Talking late into the night about everything
Never being afraid to say I love you and never going a day without showing it
His mom is so generous in sharing her miracle with me
I think because her Logan is up there with you she understands
Maybe son, maybe one day do you think God will give me another chance?
I hope and pray so
If not, thank you for showing me what it would have been, what it should have been
Thank you for allowing me to be even a “spiritual mother” in this life
And while you’re at it, tell God thanks…for all the good people who come out of Michigan
Even when they have go back
And thanks especially for tossing the monkey wrench of an emo smurf in my life
He reminds me every day to thank God for the blessings He has given me
And to always remember to thank you and Logan for keeping us safe
Until the day I can hold you in my arms for eternity, son
If someone needs a mom, send them my way
We talked about having children, but it never happened. After I left the ministry in the denomination I was ordained in over their treatment of LGBT people and their families, it created a tail spin in my life that only really settled a few years ago. Only these last few years have I settled into a career which could really support raising a child.
I moved up the ranks just a little bit in my job as a chaplain just a month before Kat passed. The week before she died we began to lay plans to get a bigger place and now that we could afford it, begin the adoption process, not knowing she was dying but thinking as the doctors told us that she was making great progress rebounding from her neurological event two years befor.
I always wanted to be a father – and with her. Because her love for children was so deep she deserved to be a mother. She would tell me that she loved every part of our life together but only had one thing in it she would trade if she could – the fact we could not have children of our own. We were set up to begin that process right when the good Lord chose to take her home.
I share a grief, a shame, so deep that I could not give her this gift. I worked for many years to position myself where we could. And it was late. Too late. Too too late.
I have been heartbroken, angry at myself, feeling I was a failure as a husband over not being able to give her this one thing she wanted to share.
I cannot say this is over, but I can say I experienced something like Jesus speaks about in Mark that is a bit healing for me.
Almost as soon as my wife passed, many of those whom she spiritually mothered reached out to me – parishioners from churches she started, youth she’s mentored, even one who know is a grown man. Each told me stories of how Kat’s love for them set them free. Many still call her mom. I feel some of them are surrounding me just like children would have surrounded me on the death of their mother, if I was their father.
It’s not the same, but I see how though I could not give Kat the physical children of her own body, or even the adoptive children we could rear in our own home, I gave her the support that allowed this other type of motherhood, so beautiful and true, to happen.
After one such conversation, with a lady who told me how Kat’s marriage and mine taught her, through knowing us, how to be a wife and mother and so saved her marriage and her children, I wrote the following:
“A very healing late night phone call from my dear friend. She convinced me of [the following:] ..I’ve always been heart-broken that what my wife wanted in all the world I could not give her — children. Dear sweet friend, you reminded me that the very choices to sacrifice in order to serve others which made adopting children be delayed (since we could not have biological children) allowed Kat to be as a mother to all those she pastored in the churches she planted whom she loved as dear children, and to be a mother to all those youth she mentored who were struggling that she mentored in Operation Bullyhorn and elsewhere … And it was through my support she was able to build this alternative family for those often hurting for family”.
I find myself surrounded not just by them but by others, dear friends, church family, and even some in my biological family, who lift me up. I find their support showing me that though at times it feels like all life is for me now is pain, emptiness, and loss, that all the pretty words I say in prayer and in poetry are not as empty as I feel but in reality love is the center of all things. It is from love we are born into this world, in love we remain breathing and full here, and to love we return.
This experience of loving hands I did not expected, loving voices I did not look for, and loving shoulders upon which to cry or rest my oh so weary head, are in fact like Kat’s mothering love to others, also a kind of avatar or icon of the loving presence I find at the heart of all life.