Monday, October 25, 2010

#267: Unbroken

I was standing by my window
On a cold and cloudy day
When I saw that hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

She was not my mother, but I loved her. Her sister was my mother-in-law, an angel of a woman who died just two months after Mrs P and I were married. Ever since then, “Aint Cathrin’” has been the woman who connected us to our Western Kentucky family. I remember her laughter most of all. She loved her Jesus and she loved her family and enjoyed us all. On my first trip to Barren County, she invited Mrs P and me to her house for breakfast. We had country ham and biscuits and some of her famous fried apple pies. She showed me the pictures of her children and grandchildren that hung around her single-wide trailer, a home that she kept as neat as any country cottage. I was the Yankee. The man who came from “away” to marry her niece, but to Catherine, I was good as kin.

Well I told the undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For that lady you are carrying
Lord, I hate to see her go

Her lung cancer was diagnosed around the time that they found my own cancer. It was a painful coincidence for our family. It seemed that we all had to choose which loved one we could be present for. I wanted to see her so much, and so did Mrs P, but the trip was just too much for me. My wife made it down a couple of times, and they talked on the phone when they could, but Catherine seemed so far away. Prayer was the only way for us to touch one another, and so we prayed. We asked God to heal her if he would, or at least to give her peace in her last few months. She prayed the same for us. She prayed for her family. During the times when I was sure God had forgotten me, she continued whispering my name in his ear, making sure that I was on his mind.

Well I followed close behind her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in her grave

I have been to a lot of funerals in Summer Shade, KY. Charles Mac has been the undertaker there for years. The parlor is as familiar as a church. The flowers. The paneled walls. The gentle music. The loved one resting in the corner where mourners can stand privately and weep and console one another and remember. During the visitation, we greet one another with hugs. “I’m so sorry.” “I’m gonna miss her so much.” We sit in the rows of chairs and catch up with one another. “Hey Brother Bob. Y’doin’ all right?” We talk about how little rain we’ve had and gossip about one another. The ones who know it tell the story of how she died. “She just caught her breath two times, and she was gone. Just as peaceful as could be.”

The funeral is simple. Just like the faith of the people who gather there. There are no strangers. Everyone knows nearly everyone else there. We nod together as the Preacher – our nephew, Mark – tells Catherine’s story. How she had lived such a hard life, losing three children. How she never asked prayers for herself, only for others. How her faith in Jesus kept her standing when life seemed determined to beat her down. How she always called you “Honey.” “Mark, Honey, pray for my family.” “Bob, Honey, I’m so glad Martha has you.” The Preacher is sure Catherine is in Heaven and I think to myself, if anyone goes to Heaven, surely this woman is there. He tells us what he knows she would want us to hear. If we want to see her again, we need to get right with Jesus. And we can be sure that she wants to see all of us again.

The procession to the little cemetery seems a mile long. Here in the country, folks pull off to the side of the road and wait when a funeral passes by. The whole county seems to be holding their hands over their hearts to honor this child of God as she makes her way back to the earth where generations of her family lay waiting for Jesus to come again. We park in the grass and make our way up the little hill to the old cedar tree where my Mother and Father-in-law are buried. Some of the stones are over a hundred fifty years old. Some are so new that the graves are still covered with rich red earth sown with seed for the grass that will cover them by spring. The coffin lies on straps above the grave, waiting to be lowered into the earth. Chairs for the family are in rows under the green tent that Charles Mac and his family has set up. Behind the grave, a mound of earth under a green tarp waits, a yellow handled shovel resting on top. The Preacher reads the twenty-third Psalm and it seems to me that we are standing in the green pasture that David must have had in mind when he wrote it. Finally, the service is ended and we separate into little groups. We go to the graves of our own parents, children, and loved ones. The conversation is easy as they old ones tell the stories, passing down a heritage that connects each of us to the earth and to one another. I rest on a stone and chat with Mrs. P’s Mamma for a while. I’m not as unselfish as Catherine. I ask her to pray for me. When I look up the hill again, the coffin is gone. The undertakers have done their silent work and are changed into overalls. When the last car has pulled away, they will cover Aunt Catherine’s old body with red Kentucky earth, secure in the knowledge that her new body is dancing even now around the throne of God.

Went back home, Lord, oh so lonesome
Since my mother she was gone
All my brothers, sisters crying
What a home so sad and 'lone

You might expect that, but that’s not what happened at all. We got home and two-year-old Kayla was playing on the floor. The men turned on the football game. The women talked, and everyone passed the baby around like a reminder that life has a beginning as well as an end. We told stories of the family. Some who were gone, some who were still maybe a little too lively. We shared meal of catfish and cole slaw. The opinions were split on the quality of the baked beans. As darkness settled into the little holler where our family has lived since Pa Ike and Ma Sudie built the first little shack up in here in the pine thicket, we made our way to bed, one by one. The conversation gently came to a stop when the last pair turned out the lights.

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There's a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Yes. Yes, it will be unbroken. In a way, it already has been. In living her life as a faithful Christian, friend, mother, sister, and wife, Catherine did more than bind herself to us. She bound us to one another. There are gaps in the circle of my life. My Dad. Martha’s Momma. Uncle Russ. My friend Warren. But the spaces are only open, they are not empty. We are saving a space in the circle for Catherine, just as she and all our family who have died are saving spaces for us in Eternity. The circles may not be complete, but they can never be broken. We have one another and a God who loves us. Not even cancer, not even death can separate us from God’s love or from one another. We will be unbroken. That is our faith. That is the lesson that Catherine’s life taught us.

God bless her. God bless us all.




  1. Wow, Bob - that's the best thing I've read in ages. So sorry for your family's loss, but thanks so much for sharing this wonderful tribute. xoxoo Shelley

  2. I'll be sharing this for my mother-in-law and family who lost a sister this week. Well Said Bob! Thanks, as always for writing - Jenny

  3. You have a gift for poetic prose, Bob. This was like a mood poem/memory play and I will not forget it. I see her vividly, and your family, and I mourn with you for her passing.

  4. wow how lucky you and mrs p are to have someone you both love so much and gave so much, when she was watching you write this, i bet she smiled from ear to ear. what a legacy.

  5. I just feel glad that I read what you had to share. I will make up my mind to pray harder and more often for those family and friends.

    Thanks Bob!


  6. thanks Bob, being so far away sometimes I feel removed from family and friends in KY. But, this made me feel as if I was able to attend the funeral. In my minds eye, I saw Mark preaching the funeral, all of my kinfolk in the funeral home and the cemetary where Mama and Daddy found their final resting place. You write so well that I can just see everyting as it is.


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