My mother died last summer—after a long illness, as the saying goes. Her mind was fierce, sharp, and politically engaged until the very end, though a noxious combination of physical troubles left her bedbound for the last seven years of her life. For most of that time, she was reasonably happy. She was the center of her world, which included family, friends, and conversation partners, whom she engaged in the flesh, over the phone, and even on the television screen. A political liberal and a progressive Catholic, she was an enthusiastic consumer of MSNBC—although she never quite got over the network’s decision to let Keith Olbermann go in 2011. But her last few months were tough.
What I haven’t been able to let go of is the vivid picture of my mother in the last stages of her physical decline. A snapshot of her slumped on the edge of the bed, small, weak, exhausted, grumpy, and gasping for air has seared my memory. Over the Christmas season, I tried to let that image fade, and to replace it with mental pictures of her during healthier and happier times. But that endeavor is more complicated than it first appears. Memory is relational and communal. My memories of her are inevitably bound up with associated memories of me and other family members. Finding memories which are kind to all of us is not easy.
For example, suppose I try to remember my mother in her late thirties. She was in full physical vigor. But I was in my early teens—a time no grown woman wants to dwell upon, including me. Early adolescence is miserable, and frequently makes a daughter’s relationship with her mother strained and difficult. Well then, what about two decades later, when she was in her late fifties and early sixties? We were more distant, because I was in the throes of launching my career, moving from New Haven to San Francisco to Boston to South Bend within a five-year period. After I finally moved back home to New England, my relationship with my mother got stronger, even as she herself got progressively weaker.
The puzzles of identity, relationship, memory, and embodiment may be too difficult to tackle in this life. I hope they will get resolved in the next one, which prompted me to consider the resources of the Christian tradition on life after death. Unfortunately, they raise more questions than they answer, in part because the Christian tradition is a sometimes uneasy amalgam of different strands of Greek philosophy and the Biblical tradition.
Many Christians have thought of heaven as a community of souls like angels, without bodies, focused totally on the beatific vision. Losing our earthly bodies, we will lose our individuality, and become one with God. Earthly things, including embodied relationships, are left behind. That’s one way to go. It sidesteps the problem by dismissing the ultimate importance of embodiment.