Give Me My Flowers While I'm Living

May 17, 2007 |Thabiti Anyabwile

Tell your loved ones how you feel. Now.

That's what my mother often says when she attends a funeral and hears all the nice things people say, or witnesses the deep grief of persons who perhaps have loved deeply but not expressed it in various ways. With a resolution born of knowing, she announces in calm tone, almost to herself and to no one in particular, "Give me my flowers while I'm living."

Over the years, it's become for me a lesson in expressing gratitude. I can see the rows of flowers and arrangements adorning the pulpit area and casket at funerals — wonderful colors, arrangements of various sizes, sometimes with ribbons bearing various sentiments. Then my mother's voice, "Give me my flowers while I'm living."

Learning to express gratitude hasn't been easy for me. And I'm certain I've not expressed enough gratitude to God for my mother or for others He has placed as gifts in my life. It's sad really. I do feel grateful, and I am thankful, but I'm lousy at expressing it. Without making an excuse, maybe it's this male thing. I start to feel all squishy and goofy, like what I'm saying is waaayyyy too warm-fuzzy or cheesy or something. So, I say simple, shallow things that communicate some appreciation but remain rather generic and sometimes heartless, as though I'm composing one of those nondescript greeting cards for "all occasions." In fact, it feels rather like a blank card.

Well, I'm praying and beginning to work on changing that. I want to give flowers to people while they are living, while they can smell and enjoy them, and rejoice in the Lord who created them.

Today, I want to say a word or two about how grateful I am for my mother.

There's no one quite like her. She's strong. Quiet but passionate, and even emotional at times. She left school in the 7th grade to work in the furniture mills of NC making less than a buck an hour. But she is one of the smartest people I know. She gave me a love for books and learning, telling me I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be, even president. I believed her well past the time I perhaps should have known better, and so the Lord has used her to get more out of me than I otherwise would have thought possible.

My mother can look at a person, listen for a moment, and almost give you a life history and current trajectory. She reads people like she does books. I think that comes from a long life filled with experience, usually hard, sometimes disappointing, and occasionally surprising.

I am the youngest of eight children born to my mother. She never married. But neither did she ever complain, run down my father, bail on providing for us, grow too tired to take an interest in our schooling or extracurriculars, avoid the responsibility of hard work, make excuses, or resign at anything. I'm sure in the long, tired nights of single motherhood she felt like doing some of those things. But she never did. Ever.

When she wept, she showed great humanity. But I've never seen a person work so hard while weeping. And I've never met someone who so consistently saved her tears for things worthy of them. The loss of her mother ... and later one of her sons. The day that I was arrested at my first job while in high school. My mother wept. She could see the end of the choices I was making and wept for the loss it would be. I'm grateful for my mother's tears; they turned my life around. I guess you could say even her tears were strong.

One of my fondest memories of my mother is a foot race we had down the street bordering the rear of our home. I was probably 7 or so. My mother was in her mid-40s or so. She had had a heart attack and was trying through diet and exercise to take care of herself. She had smoked most of her life up to that point. When I brought home one of those scary pictures of black lungs they give school children to "evangelize" their smoking parents to a non-smoking life, she looked at the picture, looked at me, and with a purse of the lips quit her pack-a-day Pall Mall cigarette habit on the spot! Hasn't smoked one cigarette since. Well, we're walking this last block home and my mother looks at me and says, "Want to race?" I was a little surprised, but said something like, "You can't beat me." She laughed and said, "Well, let's race then."

On your mark ... get set ... go! Man, my mama shot down that gravel road like an Olympic track star. I can remember churning my legs as fast as possible as she toyed with me running down that street, laughing and taunting all the way!

That's when I gave up my track ambitions and settled for basketball. If I couldn't out-run my mama, there was no way I was going to out-run little speedster friends like Lamont Holt. But I was tall ... so basketball seemed a likely sport. My mother rarely missed a game my entire "career." She was there for me. Which is why I could trust her sober advice when recruiters from small DI and DII schools showed up with partial scholarships and big promises. "Son, you're probably not going to go pro. You have an offer of an academic scholarship. Take that. Study. You can be anything you want to be." Man, how she served and loved me so well!

I wish you had time to read a much longer post, and I had words to honor my mother well and express my gratitude. But here's a summary. I am grateful to the Lord for my mother. I am thankful for the way she never let me down. Though a fallen, sinful person like the rest of us, her steadfast love long ago vanquished any doubt that she was a virtuous woman in her own right, interested in me not out of convenience but with sincerity and great hope, full of wisdom and strength.

I am thankful for all the extra long hours of work she put in at that furniture mill. Hours she translated into food on the table, clothes on my back (how ashamed I am for the small tantrums I threw over the latest trendy clothes "I had to have"), books to read, frivolous treats and surprises, money for college, doctors visits, and on and on.

How grateful I am for the example of industry and prudence she left. How she raised eight children on essentially minimum wages I'll never know. But was she ever an example of diligent, responsible, self-less behavior.

I'm thankful for every tear, every secret prayer, every word of encouragement (there were so many), every "idle" moment spent dreaming with me about what I'd be when I grew up (Pastor was never on the list, but now she tells me she is proud of me), every visit to the school to meet with a teacher, every reprimand, and every tender moment.

And in these later years, I am thankful to the Lord for her faith and hope in Him! As grateful as I am for my mother, I'm more grateful to the Savior who first placed me in her care and who has taken care of her soul.

So much to be grateful for. Words so feeble. But I think I'll call my mama today and give her some flowers while she is living.

Copyright 2007 Thabiti Anyabwile. All rights reserved.

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