Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV)
From the time I was a very little girl, I knew that there was a Martha in the Bible. I also knew that Jesus had scolded her. On my bookshelf was a copy of The Bible Story for Boys and Girls. In it was a picture of a surly Martha, glaring at her lovely sister Mary, who sat placidly at the feet of Jesus. It was fairly clear that to be a “Martha” was not necessarily a good thing.
When I got a little older, I noticed another book on the shelves in my home, entitled Martha’s Prayer Book. With the narcissism of youth, I assumed someone had written a charming little book of prayers for girls named Martha. As an adult I opened the book and found it was a forerunner of Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, with a distinctly critical bent. To be busy and troubled about many things is an unattractive characteristic for a “Christian” woman, or so the author would have had me believe.
Later I learned the story of Martha in John’s gospel and became a little better reconciled to identifying with her. There are certainly arguments to be made for Martha’s leadership role in the early church and the veneration of her sister as a patriarchal ploy. But for the moment, I want to share a story about being a Martha in an event when I wish I could have been a Mary instead.
It was May of 1993. My mother was dying. Eight years before, she had a changed mole removed from her back and it was diagnosed as malignant melanoma. Because my parents were not forthcoming with medical information, I didn’t know what sort of cancer she had. When I assumed she had the sort of skin cancer Ronald Reagan was having scraped off his face around that time, they didn’t correct my impression. Although Mother had been hospitalized and needed a skin graft, she downplayed the seriousness to such an extent that it never occured to me there was a risk of recurrence.
In the summer of 1992, almost seven years after the first procedure, a routine check-up uncovered a spot on my mother’s lung. By January of 1993, the cancer had spread to her colon, her brain and her liver. This time I did understand. I nursed her after lung surgery, and when the doctor told us that January that the time remaining was to be measured in months, I rearranged my life to be in Virginia with my parents as often as possible.
When I heard that a hospital bed had been delivered to my parents’ house, because my mother could no longer climb the stairs, I knew I had to go home, prepared to stay until the end. Mother had chosen to be at home with my dad, knowing how he hated hospitals, wanting to be near him as much as possible. In those last months, she had refused aggressive treatment, accepting only the medications which treated her symptoms and made her more comfortable. She wanted to keep as much of their life together as she could. She wanted to have a cocktail with her husband, and sit in their chairs in the living room and watch college basketball.
By the time I arrived, Mother was slipping away. On Thursday morning, she attempted the crossword puzzle and asked me about the children when I phoned. When I arrived from the airport on Friday, and crossed the dining room to her bed, she asked only about me. The boys, my brother, his baby, were no longer on her radar—just my father and me.
We were blessed to have the help of a wonderful practical nurse, Nancy, who had been working for my parents since just after Mother’s lung surgery. That week, Nancy found a friend who would come and give the extra help we needed. On Saturday morning at 8, the new nurse left after a night shift. Nancy didn’t usually come on the weekends, but as an experienced home nurse, she knew better than any of us how close the end might be, and had offered to come back that day at 4.
That left 8 hours in which my father and I were alone with my dying mother. And, oh, was I ever a Martha that day. I called the doctor and described her condition, which was considerably weaker than the day before. I consulted with him about her medications. She was having trouble swallowing; did she really need to take all these pills? Which were the most important? I worried about whether she had adequate pain medication and he told me he would have morphine dispensed for her. I arranged to have a cousin go and get it. I shaved ice for her. I talked, more at than with her. I could hardly sit down for a moment. I was busy and troubled about many things.
That Friday, my mother had asked me to play a tape of Taizé chants that a friend had brought to her. She told me that one of her favorites had the words, “Stay here and keep watch with me, watch and pray, watch and pray.” Why couldn’t I do that?
In the end, we were out of the house, my father and I, when she died early Saturday evening. Nancy was with her. Nancy could sit still with my mother, could watch and pray with her. My job, I have concluded, was to take care of my father. The smell of food made my mother feel more nauseated, and we had slipped out to eat supper. While we were gone, Nancy sat beside her. Mother looked for Daddy, turning her head toward his chair in the living room, and Nancy reminded her, “He’s with Martha.” This seemed to satisfy her. A few minutes later, she looked at Nancy, saying, “I’ve done all I can. There’s nothing left.” Nancy answered her, “There’s just one thing, and that’s to meet Jesus.” Mother replied, “I want to meet him. I’m ready.” She turned her head toward the window and, a few minutes later, stopped breathing.
Thirteen years have gone by, and I have been in Nancy’s place many times. Being a Martha is only one part of who I am, who any of us are. We all have the capacity to be distracted in a given moment. Nancy, who spoke my mother’s faith language, helped me learn to find the Mary in me, to be intent upon the inner riches of a moment, to witness the presence of God.
This morning I learned that Nancy died recently. I hope that after she met Jesus, my mother was not far behind to greet her.