Life after Mom — Sufjan Stevens and how to forgive your parents

I got a phone call after midnight last night. It was my Dad. My Mom had fallen down and he needed my help getting her up.

So, I quickly got dressed and walked over to their house. Thankfully, they live next door, having moved there for just such occasions, and I was able to get my Mom up and back to bed.

My mother is 85 and handicapped. She has significant brain damage from a massive stroke 25 years ago which leaves the left side of her body unusable. So, laying on the floor on her right side, she was trapped by her own body, the dead weight of her left side holding her down and making it impossible for my almost 89-year-old father to get her up.

I was glad to help out. As the father of four myself, I’m aware of all the work that goes into raising kids that kids themselves are unaware of and unappreciative of. So, now that I have an idea of what was done for me, I’m glad to be there for my parents.

But as I walked back to my house, it occurred to me that one of these days the phone call won’t be to help pick up my Mom or to help my Dad figure out the oven (it doesn’t matter how many times I show him how to use it, he always forgets). One of these days, the phone call will be to get an ambulance or to tell me that one of them has died.

Death isn’t far away. It can’t be. They’ve lived long and good lives and there just isn’t that much time left in their bodies. So, I went back to bed early this morning, thinking about the phone call that will someday come.

It made me think of Sufjan Stevens’ album that was released yesterday. Named Carrie & Lowell for his mother and step-father, it’s an album full of pain and death. Easily the most powerful song of the album is “Fourth of July,” which gives us a bedside view of his mother’s death (she died in 2012 of stomach cancer). What strikes me about the song is how tender it is. Throughout the song, Stevens sings pet names to his mother — my firefly, my little hawk, my little dove, my little loon, my little Versailles, my star in the sky, my dragonfly — as he comforts her on her deathbed.

It’s an exquisite song. Beautiful. Grieving. Gracious. Lost. But what gets me is that all of this tenderness is poured out on a woman who was by all accounts a terrible mother. She was bipolar and schizophrenic. She was a substance abuser who abandoned Stevens and his brother on numerous occasions. In the song “The Seer’s Tower” from his 2005 album Illinois, Stevens sang, “Oh, my mother, she betrayed us, but my father loved and bathed us,” opening a window into the hurt of abandonment by his mother. This is the woman that all this tenderness was poured out on.

How is this?

Parenting is rough business. And so, too, is being parented. In her book Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler marvels that there’s training and testing required of people before they’re allowed to drive a car, but anyone who can get pregnant can have a child. And that means a lot of incompetent parents (like Steven’s mother and like me) end up with kids, whom we mess up along the way.

To this, James M. Houston of Regent College says, “To be an adult is to recognize how our parents messed us up. To be mature is to forgive them.” And Stevens does just that. In the opening song of Carrie & Lowell called “Death With Dignity,” Stevens sings, “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end/Yes, every road leads to an end.”

Stevens does this so beautifully and so well. He’s not perfect, to be sure, but he’s wonderfully gracious. And he makes me sad for those whose parents go to the grave with angry children, adult children who are stuck carrying around unresolved anger and unforgiveness. It also makes me grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to have my parents who have loved me imperfectly next door so that I can be there for them at the end of the their lives like they were there for me at the beginning of mine. I’m doing such a mediocre job for them now that it has made it that much easier for me to forgive the mediocrities in their love for me in the past. For none of us has done our part even to our own standards.

Thank you, Sufjan, for the gift of this album and especially the “Fourth of July” song. We’re all going to die someday, and I hope to be gentle with my parents when their time comes, just as I hope my children will be gentle with me when mine comes.

(Here are the lyrics to the song.)

Fourth of July

The evil had spread

Like a fever ahead

It was night

When you died,

My firefly

What could I have said

To raise you from the dead

Oh, could I

Be the sky on the Fourth of July?

Well, you do enough talk,

My little hawk

Why do you cry?

Tell me what did you learn

From the Tillamook Burn

Or the Fourth of July?

We’re all gonna die.

Sitting at the bed with a halo at your head

Was it all a disguise

Like junior high

Where everything was fiction, future, and prediction

Now where am I,

My fading supply?

Did you get enough love,

My little dove,

Why do you cry?

And I’m sorry I left

But it was for the best

Though it never felt right,

My little Versailles

The hospital asked

Should the body be gassed

Before I say goodbye,

My star in the sky

Such a funny thought

To wrap you up in cloth

Do you find it all right,

My dragonfly?

Shall we look at the moon,

My little loon,

Why do you cry?

Make the most of your life

While it is rife

While it is light

Well, you do enough talk,

My little hawk,

Why do you cry?

Tell me what did you learn

From the Tillamook Burn

Or the Fourth of July?

We’re all gonna die

We’re all gonna die

We’re all gonna die