By Eugene C. Scott
My mom was no longer breathing on her own. Her lungs had collapsed and I was waiting–waiting to see if God intended to let her join us again in this life or take her to join him in the next. The doctor said few people came off the ventilator successfully after this long. Because Dee Dee, my wife, had lost her father just before Easter, losing my mother meant none of our parents would be left with us.
It was June 2002 and I sat worrying and praying in the intensive care waiting room of Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver. Early morning sunlight cut through the tinted solarium windows and glinted off the plexiglass covers on the round, wooden tables. I sat alone staring blankly at the jigsaw puzzle under the plexiglass on my table.
As much as I wanted my mom to remain with us, if God’s healing took her to her true home, I wanted to let her go. My heart sagged. I bowed my head and prayed against my selfishness.
“God, she is yours not mine. If this is the end, take her gently.”
I opened my eyes to the puzzle decorating my table. It featured an early American scene, the stars and stripes, Colonial buildings, and a powerful white stallion prancing with a patriot on its back. Strangely though, the horse had a puzzle piece missing from its belly. For that matter, there were several pieces missing from the picture.
“Why decorate the table with an unfinished puzzle?” I wondered. Maybe it was simply a project to distract the minds of those waiting. I needed some distracting. I searched for the box that might contain the missing pieces. The solarium book shelves held board games, videos, and books, but no puzzle boxes. I looked at the puzzles under the plastic on the other tables. They too were unfinished. I sat down wondering again, “Why unfinished puzzles?”
Were the puzzles subtle reminders that life, especially as it exists in an intensive care waiting room, is always unfinished? Maybe they pictured what the Hebrew proverb said: “Hope deferred makes the heart-sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
I knew my mother’s longing, though she was seventy-five, wasn’t fulfilled yet. She still had a spectacular rose garden to tend. People from blocks away came to admire it. They would ask, “How did you get such a beautiful garden?”
“Simple,” she’d answer. “Plant some roses and pour your heart and soul into them for ten or fifteen years and presto there you have it.” She always was a smart aleck.
She also had her longer term and more crucial unfinished projects: her children and grandchildren. Some of us were grown but none of us in full bloom. Her grandchildren still needed serious spoiling! We had graduations, weddings, and a myriad of tiny life celebrations pending. She was our matriarch and we still needed her wise pruning and fertilizing. “God, don’t take her yet,” I prayed.
Then again, the puzzles were only a few pieces short. Maybe they were unfinished as a reminder that, though all lives lack a few pieces, they are as beautiful and complete as humanly possible. As Solomon wrote, “There is a time for everything . . . a time to be born and a time to die . . . a time to search and a time to give up . . . .”
My mother survived the Great Depression and wars like the world had never known. After my father died in 1968, she raised four challenging children during a time when addiction and rebellion left many of our generation dead or emotionally, mentally, or physically disabled. Without any help from the government, she carved out a life-like a sculptor chiseling away at a flawed but potentially beautiful piece of marble. That piece of art became the stable center for us. She had lived a rich and hard life. Who was I to say her life was unfinished? I studied the puzzle and mumbled, “God, forgive my selfishness.”
Maybe the missing pieces of our lives are incidental. After all, the missing piece in the white stallion’s belly didn’t detract from his beauty. The absent piece actually produced a sense of depth, mystery, and reality. Thus is life.
So, what’s all this ruminating have to do with God and life and growth and faith? Frankly, if you’ll forgive the pun, I’m still puzzled. That June God saw fit to answer our selfish prayers and turn my mother back from heaven’s gate and grant us fourteen more months with her. I’m grateful. In that year she swung between a desire to complete the puzzle of her life, to ”finish the race,” as Paul said, and a deep belief that’s she had done all she could, or “finished the race.” She seemed more than willing to let God finish the picture.
This month, on April 19, my mom would have been 84. We lost her too soon. There’s a crucial piece to my life’s puzzle missing. Others may not notice, but I feel her absence. I look and she is not here. I miss her.
In August of 2003 she whispered she was ready to go home. She had made it to the wedding and the graduation. She was finished. I remembered that unfinished puzzle from the year before and wanted to argue with her and with God. Mom slipped away the next day. Arguing with God seldom succeeds.
But she is not gone entirely. Finish well, her life says. What do I need to finish? What have I not said and done? I am only a man, and know I cannot say or do it all. I cannot piece together the perfect life. Real life is much more complicated than even a fifteen hundred piece jigsaw puzzle. And perfection is God’s domain.
Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO
Beginning on March 13–the Sunday following Ash Wednesday–we will begin a Lenten series titled “Embrace: Discover, Desire . . . Jesus” at The Neighborhood Church. During worship we will explore those things of God we can embrace and add to our lives as a response of love to Jesus. These worship gatherings will also include hands-on opportunities to practice these things God asks us to add to our lives. Join us. See tnc3.org for worship times.