Being Together

Sheri Hostetler’s Reflection
Graduate Theological Union Memorial Service, March 1996

Mark has asked me to speak on his behalf today since I am a close friend of his and since I was one of the few people from this area to be in St. Louis after October.

Mark liked to say that those months before Mev died were the best of times and the worst of times.  Which means that the good times were almost as good as the bad times were bad.  And the bad times were really bad.  Mev gradually had everything stripped away from her.  In October, she lost her ability to speak and in November the right side of her body became paralyzed.  Mark called November the Month of Screams.  Mev, in her terrible frustration and anger and inability to articulate words, would just scream, sometimes a few inches from Mark’s face.

December, on the other hand, was the Month of Silence.  I was there the first week of December, when Mev took a turn for the worse.  The first days I was there, Mev was still Mev to me, despite her inability to speak.  She had that vitality and that will that was so unmistakably Mev.  The night before I left, one of the patches containing painkiller came off, and Mev was in a lot of pain.  She wet the bed twice, vomited once.  For some reason, the alarm on the house went off twice in the middle of the night.  But the thing I remember most is that sleeping in the other room with the door closed and earplugs in, I could hear Mev wailing.  I’ve never heard wails like that before.  Mev never really came back after that.  She stopped eating, became blind, and eventually lost even the ability to swallow water.  When people would come by the house and ask what they could do that last week, Mark would say, “Come sit over here and be powerless like the rest of us.”  There was a lot of pain in that house.  

But it was also the best of times.  Mark said when I was there in December that he didn’t need any arguments for the existence of God; he had seen God in the community of people that gathered around Mev, a group of about 30 people called the Arco Angels.  After Thanksgiving, there were always one or two people at Mark and Mev’s house 24 hours a day.  All the meals were brought in, people changed Mev’s diapers, bought the groceries, did odd jobs around the house and more than anything accompanied Mark and Mev in Mev’s dying.

People who didn’t know each other very well beforehand were a community by the time Mev died.  The gift that Mark and Mev gave to that community was to invite them into their most private pain and brokenness and ask them to be there with them.  Not many people make themselves that vulnerable.  In doing that, individuals – and a community – were transformed.  The whole experience broke everyone’s heart – broke it wide open.

Now transformation is a big word that might give you that wrong idea.  When I say transformation, I’m not talking about the spectacular.  There’s a tendency when talking about Mev – at least her public image – to engage in hyperbole.  Mark was often trying to deflate that talk and bring things back down to the ordinary and simple.  As Mark said, the public Mev will be around long after she has died.  It’s the private Mev that’s gone forever – the Mev he sleeps with every night — and it is that loss of that Mev that he mourns.  Instead of talking about how Mev was a saint or a star or a crusader for social justice, Mark would want to talk about her beautiful skin.  

And so when I say a community was transformed, I mean changed in the simple, ordinary ways that truly make up our lives.  The kind of transformation I’m talking about is perhaps best exemplified by this little incident:  There was a man in that community who told his wife for the first time in their marriage that she was beautiful.  He had seen Mark say that so many times to Mev as she lay on the couch with head wrapped in a scarf, the right side of her face slightly twisted from her paralysis.  So he saw the beauty of his wife in her own brokenness and pain, just as Mev also was beautiful in her brokenness and pain. And he felt free to tell her so.

Then there’s the simple, everyday transformation of being present to the beauty around you.  Mev had a great gift for being present those last few months.  I remember being out on the front porch with her, soon after a snowstorm.  She pointed up to a red leaf, still on a tree that had lost almost all of its leaves.  The red leaf was frosted with snow, silhouetted against that blue, blue sky.  Mev said, “Ahyee,” which meant “Amen” or “Isn’t it wonderful!”  I also remember the night a neighbor came over to play violin for Mark and Mev.  Mev said “Ahyee, Ahyee” over and over again; she loved hearing his music so much.  What a gift she gave to the violinist that night.

It was this simple, private, ordinary outgoingness of heart that took place in that community on Arco Avenue as a result of how Mev died  — and I suspect this is what Mark wanted me to share with you.

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