I’d left Mama sorting through pictures strewn across her table like the past had come calling.
Why is the past never how you thought you left it?
That photo of my brother and me in our toddler bowl cuts and plaid pants, grinning over a tower of spice bottles looked like the mid-70s exploded psychedelic and plaid on everything, and I laugh right out loud.
Hope remembers three miles out of town that she’s forgotten her glasses on Mama’s counter, so I turn around.
It’s grace that allows you to make U-turns, even if time doesn’t always.
When I slink back into Mama’s kitchen for the glasses, Mama’s at the table, head in her hands, weeping.
I touch her shoulder and she nods, looks away out the window.
Sometimes the most painful thing is to turn your face into another face. A face can unveil too much of a soul’s information. Too much, too fast.
“It’s okay, Mama . . . it’s okay.” She crumbles into my arms.
Sometimes you can hear it —the resonance between the drumming of your own pulse and the pulse of grace rising up to you from the darkest places.
“It’s okay.” I soothe, stroking her hair. There is no fear in letting tears come.
Sadness is a gift to avoid the nothingness of numbness, and all hard places need water. Grief is a gift, and after a rain of tears, there is always more of you than before. Rain always brings growth.
An old card lies open on the table in front of her. It’s my handwriting from grade school, this blotting inky scrawl, cramped and haunting from decades ago.
“I don’t know how to tell you,” it reads, and I’m trying to remember who this kid was, what she’d felt. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I am sad and angry.”
I wrote this? What in the world? I pick the card up.
“I am angry for all the times I felt abandoned. I am angry for all the times I felt failed.”
I don’t remember writing the words, but I remember feeling them.
“I am sad I said even this because I don’t want to let anyone to see how bad it hurts. I don’t want anyone to know how much it all hurts. I am sad for what is. I am even more sad for what isn’t going to be now.”
Oh, blazing Gehenna.
How did this end up here, now? How did she find it? And how can you up and break your mother’s heart on a drowsy, humid Sunday afternoon with a note from thirty unsuspecting years earlier? How can a creased and smudgy piece of paper gore a mama right through for all she wasn’t and can never change?
Mama reaches up to touch my hand resting on her wracked, hunched shoulder. She chokes it out. “You can’t know how . . .” She bites her lip like a steadying, like a woman reaching for a hand. “How I’m far more sad for what won’t ever be now.”
She looks up, braves my face, everything fluid grief. “I’d do anything to get back there and do it all over again. If only . . .” She turns away again, squeezing my hand tight. Her fingers smudge the inked cross on my wrist.
Oh, Mama. That may be the saddest string of words that’s ever been strung together: “If only . . .”
I can taste the words in my mouth. Who doesn’t know “if only . . . ”?
If only there was time for me to go back for do-overs of my own, say different things to the kids, only speaking words that make souls stronger, somehow live better, love realer.
If only grief hadn’t driven my mother a kind of hurting crazy into psych wards all through my childhood.
If only my sister’s skull hadn’t been crushed like tender fruit by a delivery truck in front of all our helpless eyes.
If only I hadn’t kept a stuffed closet full of a thousand ugly sins.
If only . . .
But there’s no way back.
Maybe life always tastes a bit like regret. Whatever you do or don’t do, there is no way to never taste it.
And though you may have to taste regret, you don’t have to believe in it, you don’t have to live in it, like rowing a boat that only goes backward, trying to find something that’s been washed out to sea. It’s God’s sea. And that means all is grace.
Mama’s cheeks are wet. I’m standing there like a fool looking into my own sadness over what can’t now be—because I haven’t been all I could have been.
She’s my mama, and I’m her daughter. And now I’m a mama, and we both have never stopped laboring, wondering if we will ever fully know deliverance into abundance.
There it is again: I remember how she once forgot me after piano lessons and I walked three hours home in the dark of a snowstorm blowing straight into my face.
And I remember how I was once the mama who left a child, thinking he went home with somebody else , who left a store and drove straight out of that town without him, and abandonment is always a soul’s worst fear.
We got the call that, before they closed down the store for the night, they found our boy fighting back tears amidst stacks of used Charlie Brown comic strips. Sickened, I was the mama who wanted to enfold our boy in a begging apology and the deepest comfort I know: even when life abandons you, you are in the arms of God.
I was the kid who called my mama a witch and made a plan to run away.
And I’ve been the mama who’s called my kids monsters and turned around as an adult and ran away for the day to my mama’s.
Mama and I, we’re sitting here at her kitchen table, kids waiting out in the van for me to come with the forgotten glasses, and I can see the suffering right there in Mama’s eyes, what she’s doing to herself.
I know because I’d just been the busted and broken doing it myself.
How do you beg people to love you when you least deserve it, because that’s when you need it the most—and what if that’s exactly what God does?
Mama doesn’t have to say anything because her eyes are saying it all—she’s listening to the lies that began in the beginning, that started in the Garden, that hissed with masked innocence, “Did God really say . . . ?”
Lies that can look you right in the eyes and you can feel the hiss slithering right up the nape of your neck: “Just look at you—you’re a mess, you’re a failure, you’re damaged goods. You aren’t ever going to be good enough, smart enough, together enough, liked enough, wanted enough, do anything that counts enough, and your God isn’t good enough to turn the bad of you around.”
You can feel too broken to be.
There can be a lying snake curled between your neural membranes and his lies can run poison in your veins. Sometimes our deepest suffering is that voice in our head.
“Mama?” Her cheek feels like wrinkled silk. “Please hear me. All that was intended to harm, God intended all of it for good. All that’s been, no matter what was intended to harm you, God’s arms have you.”
None of us is ever too broken. “Give our Lord the benefit of believing that His hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete,” assures Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
“Mama? You and me?” And words come out from some long-ago place. “All that’s been is what makes us velveteen. All that’s been is what makes you beautiful, makes you love, makes you real. Remember real, Mama?”
Mama looks up at me.
Mama murmurs it quiet. “What is real?”
What does it mean to live real, to love real, to be a real believer, to be a real live-er?
How many times had she read the story to me as a kid? The Velveteen Rabbit.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day . . .
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you . . .”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
What is real? Real living, real believing, real faith?
Real living doesn’t always feel like living; it can feel like you’re dying. It can feel like you are breaking apart and losing pieces of yourself—and you are.
Because when you let yourself love, you let parts of you die. Or you aren’t really loving. You must let your false self be broken, parts of you that you only thought were necessary.
You must embrace your union with Christ, bravely surrender and trust that what’s breaking and being lost is never the eternal, needed parts of you, but always the temporal, needless parts that were getting in the way of you becoming real.
Tracing those two intersecting penned lines on my wrist, it’s like everything’s being worn down to the essence of real: the cross.
“My Velveteen Mama.” I touch her cheek.
“The miracle of real happens when you let all your suffering create love. When you let the pain make passion. The passion makes you real, Mama.”
I’m talking to her, but I’m the aching, busted one preaching gospel to myself, trying to find the way myself. I’m reading her eyes. Holding her wrinkled cheek in my hand. “I want you to be okay.”
Mama nods—closing her eyes a bit like a dam to hold it all back. “Want you to be okay too, girl.”
“But you know what, Mama?” I kneel down in front of her. Look up to her, her hand gently patting mine, her lips pursed trying to stop the tears.
“You’re teaching me how to feel safe when I’m not okay, how to feel safe when I’m un-okay . . . how to feel how I’m beloved even when I’m broken.”
The penned cross on my wrist is touching Mama’s wet cheek.
“It’s a needed thing, to be brave. But maybe there’s a broken way of being safe enough to be real and un-okay. Maybe the bravest thing is to be real enough to say we’re broken and unbrave — and trust we’re still loved in our broken and unbrave.”
One of Mama’s white curls falls in front of her eyes. I tuck it gently behind her ear.
“Mama? You are the bravest when you speak your unbraveness. You are the safest when you are the realest. When you are the realest about your brokenness — that is when you can know you’re most beloved.”
I kiss Mama on the forehead and I can feel her press forward into me, into grace.
You are the most loved not when you’re pretending to have it all together; you are actually the most loved when you feel broken and falling apart.
And maybe I’m just beginning to see?
I wipe the smudged cross off Mama’s cheek.
“Anybody can shove their pain into a vault of numbness,” I whisper it to Mama and the bustedness in both of us. “Anybody can pretend, masquerade in their cheap masks. But the brave feel their failures and abandon all efforts to lock out suffering. The brave let brokenness come.”
You’ve got to go for broken. Go for broke. Something holy is happening in my broken places. Let all this suffering become love.
“Don’t run from suffering; embrace it,” Jesus beckons. “Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”
I stroke Mama’s cheek, whisper it again like a lullaby, rocking us mother and child, rocking us two old mamas. “It’s the brokenhearted passion that’s like His that’s making us real, Mama.”
Passion is a willingness to suffer for whom you love.
Passion isn’t about desire but surrendered givenness.
Passion isn’t about what or whom you want most, but for what or whom you most willingly sacrifice.
Passion—its broadest meaning is “to endure,” “to undergo.” That’s the point, the sharp point: passion is literally about being willing “to undergo,” to go under your cross and carry it for love.
Isn’t that all there is? Carrying your cross is about carrying your pain in such a way that it makes it into love.
“Mama?” I lean in. “You didn’t know how to make our little Aimee come back.” She drops her head so I can’t read her face. “You didn’t know how to stop the voices that said you were a bad mother. You didn’t know how to make your marriage survive. You didn’t know how to let go of the lies. You didn’t know how to go on—but you didn’t grow hard in the midst of it.”
You bore the pain and didn’t turn away. You were patient with the pain. You were passionate enough, willing enough to suffer, to let yourself be broken into velveteen real.
Sometimes it isn’t your fault. Life breaks us. The fall breaks us. The brokenness inside of us breaks us. These failures and relapses and suffering and sacrifice and service, all our little-deaths, this is the painful grace that can make the willing velveteen real.
“Remember that time I called you from the airport?” She smiles in spite of herself, tries to brush me away with her hand.
“Three hours before my flight, I’d dug through my bag but it wasn’t there—my passport. And you found it in my desk.” The light looks worn down to golden across the table, across her silver hair.
“You dropped everything, dropped all your plans for the day, and flung out in the middle of that blizzard.”
She smiles, wipes her eyes.
“You drove those ridiculous two hours to the airport, detouring around how many closed roads and accidents?” Her laugh lilts a bit, and I love her even more.
“And you didn’t even change out of your pajamas.” I touch her hand. “You leaned out your snowy window, waving that passport like a victory flag.
And you were the most beautiful velveteen Mama I’d ever seen. You re-membered me. That’s the gift you gave me, Mama. You loved me more than you.”
She runs her hand through my hair, and Mama, she can only mouth it: “Thank you.”
Mama and I are ringed in this fragile koinonia, this broken giving and receiving.
“Mama? Your heart’s beautiful—especially the broken edges where you let the love get in.”
She leans forward, kisses my forehead like, healing grace.
“You and me, Mama? We’re becoming the Velveteen Real Mamas.”
I carry home Hope’s found glasses, finally seeing.
~an excerpt from The Broken Way, for all the women becoming Velveteen Real
Maybe what we want most desperately — is relief for our unspoken broken.
Maybe what we want most — but don’t know how to quite find words for —
is healing for our unspoken broken, a gentle touch of hope for our Broken Way.
Maybe we want someone to hand us some Brave — and the truckload of grace that we’re kind of wild for.