Before I Knew Her Name, I Knew She Was Dying

This* happened years ago . . .

Before I knew her name, I called her the Tattoo Lady. And also, before knowing her name, I knew she was dying.

I will protect her identity, and since no longer thinking of her as the Tattoo Lady, let me give her an imagined name: Mary. Mary is good enough. It reminds me of why I met her, why I sat beside her bed, and talked about life and death and life.

For Christians, the name Mary likely recalls two different women in the Bible. The obvious first was Jesus’ mother. The obvious second was Mary Magdalene, a woman whose life changed, and kept changing, because of her relationship with Jesus. (According to Luke 8:1-3 she once had seven “demons.”)

So, for the Tattoo Lady, Mary represented a good pseudonym for a mother’s name. After all, the first time I heard about Mary was through her daughter. Maybe desperate and certainly determined, Mary’s daughter called to interview me. She claimed to be searching for, “A liberal pastor that won’t be bothered by my mother’s tattoos.”

Tattoos. Okay.

“And,” the daughter continued, “I am a lesbian and not a Christian.” But her mother was Christian, even though she hadn’t darkened the door of any church for years.

“Mom doesn’t need someone telling her that she is, or I am, headed for hell. You won’t say that, will you? She’s dying from cancer and doesn’t need fire and brimstone crap from anybody. But she’d like to see a pastor and I promised that I’d find one. So, are you liberal?”

Am I?

I resist labels, even though I’m guilty of using them every day. But if forced to check one box, and if the only two choices were “liberal” and “conservative,” I’d probably scratch an “x” by the “L” word. However, additional choices would muddle the labeling methodology. None of us are just one thing. Every person is a little shifty.

Did the daughter being 1) Lesbian, 2) non-Christian, and 3) a person who quizzes unsuspecting pastors over the phone bother me?

Not one bit.

Did the mother having 1) tattoos, 2) a daughter who gives quizzes, and 3) no affiliation with a church bother me?

Not one bit.

I passed all her tests. Nothing like being a winner!

These moments happen to all clergy . . . and also to the happily non-ordained! The phone call or visit enters your life, uninvited and unexpected, and suddenly a stranger wants-needs-demands-hopes something from you. Most pastors (along with imams, rabbis, and priests) can share story after story about those unbidden requests that are often clever—or not so clever—scams to get money or attention or both.

But Mary was not a scam.

And I didn’t visit her with a vengeful fire in my heart. Nor do I ever lug brimstone around with me. One thing I deeply and truthfully knew about her was that her daughter loved her. Loved her enough to make a cold call to a pastor, and loved her enough to ask blunt questions while seeking the “right” person to visit her mother.

Not long after the phone call, I took a chair beside Mary’s bedside. Like that second Biblical Mary, it became clear there had been “demons” of many kinds in her past: wrong choices, failures, doubt, anger, and this was not the first time she’d confronted “demonic” cancer. But this would be the final time.

In bed, with an afghan draped over her shoulders, I spotted the beginnings or endings of colorful tattoos. There were spirals of red and green, words and images and more. She said nothing about them. Instead she asked if her daughter told me she wasn’t part of a church.

“She did. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Mary glanced away, blinking, and then she turned back to gaze into my eyes. “What about baptism? I’ve never been baptized.”

I nodded. We held hands. We shared silence. We shared words.

Would I baptize her?

Yes.

Mary didn’t want to be baptized because it was a slick ticket to heaven or a cheap get-out-of-hell pass. Instead we talked of baptism as a celebration, a watery gift where we humans claim a trust in a loving Creator. Odd, the Christian rituals can be (as with many rituals in other faith traditions). Baptism is symbolic drowning. And then rising from the water: renewed, revitalized. It’s a ceremony daring to say that the last breath we take may be the end of what we know, but it’s not the end of what the Holy has in store for us.

Our hands remained intertwined.

Did I adequately explain baptism to Mary? Probably not. I’m more confident with what it isn’t. It’s not that heavenly ticket. It’s not a ritual that makes a Christian better than a non-Christian. And yet, with words as foolish as flapping my arms to take flight, I was honored to offer her baptism. Mary had stopped radiation and chemotherapy. The doctors had reluctantly admitted she had weeks left in her life

Her daughter would soon make other cold calls—to a hospice and then a funeral home—that she’d rather not make.

What mattered then . . . and now? Blessing, I believe. Giving and receiving thanks I believe. Choosing life over death I believe. Rituals are important, but honest, humble supportive relationships are even more important.

The Gospels’ proclaim, with enigmatic and wistful descriptions, that the heavens opened at Jesus’ baptism. In Matthew, Luke and Mark’s account, the divine voice said (or perhaps the Holy shouted), “This is my beloved.”

Beloved. It was a word and a blessing and a declaration that mattered then. It matters now.

How blessed I was to enter into a relationship with the Tattoo Lady.

Mary was God’s beloved, a loving mother and a woman that wrestled with demons. She was like me and you and I believe—for sometimes that’s all I can do—that her last breath was not the last thing that she knew.

 

*This is a tale I’ve written about before. A version was once published somewhere by a darn fine publication. However, I wanted to spend a bit of time with it, to attempt a few revisions. I visited “Mary” in what became my last months of serving full-time at a church in 2006 or 2007. Now I believe that meeting “Mary” was one of several turning points for my ministry. When the daughter’s call came, I’m sure that particular week was chock-full of committee meetings and budget decisions and other endless administrative tasks. By sitting beside “Mary,” I realized where I preferred to spend time: with folks, sharing hopes and hurts. I think my relationship with “Mary” nudged me toward my current work in hospice.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. Thank you Larry for revising this article. I am grateful to “Mary” . She helped you ‘find’ this calling and gave me a fine author to follow. This sitting with is not for everyone, not even people called to be a pastor. I have learned so much from you. Thank you for your many stories.

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