God’s Behind the Door

Mom at 89.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Mom at 89. Photo by Callen Harty.

Recently my mother turned 89. It won’t surprise me if she makes it to 90 or 95, although I have already responded to several phone calls over the last couple years that left me in tears thinking that she was at the end. It has been more than half a year since a priest was called in to give her last rites. But she is tough. She hangs on, she keeps going, and she still has a sense of humor. She has gifts yet to give, I guess, and purpose that may be beyond my understanding.

I went to see her after she turned 89 and she was more lucid than I had seen her in several visits. Often she repeats herself and often she seems in a haze and doesn’t understand who certain people are or what her relationships to them might be. She is in a place where people who have been dead for many years are still alive in her mind, though once in a while the reality strikes her that she is the last of her siblings, that her two husbands and oldest son are gone, that virtually everyone she knew and loved except for her descendants are all waiting for her in some other realm. In those moments the sense of humor disappears and one can see a resignation and emptiness about her that is haunting. I think it’s not so much an existential emptiness as a profound loneliness.

Even on her best days there are moments when her reality is not the same reality that the rest of us see. There can be moments where she sees things that others don’t see or understand. But on this visit her mind was for the most part incredibly sharp. She knew who I was and she asked, as she always does–usually three or four times–what is new, before she answers that not much new is happening with her. On this visit I was able to tell her, “I wrote a book. It’s been a life-long dream of mine. I wanted to be a writer since I was in second or third grade sitting at the feet of Aunt Leona.” Aunt Leona was my mother’s aunt and my great-aunt. She was a woman who often visited us and who stayed with us when she was sick. She was a published composer, a poet, and a stringer for the Wisconsin State Journal. I admired her and wanted to be a writer like her.

My mother looked at me and said, “I’m really proud of you,” which almost made me cry because besides being a writer I’ve wanted little else in my life than for this beautiful woman who is my mother to be proud of me. She always had her priorities right–she was generous and cared about people, believed in the goodness of others, and lived her faith in her deeds. For her to be proud of me I felt I must be doing something right.

I stepped out of the room for a moment to get a drink of water. I pushed the door open when I came back in and she was still awake and waiting for me to return. I sat back down and we both were silent for a moment when suddenly she spoke. “God’s behind the door,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I heard her right or what that might mean, so I said, “What did you just say?” My mind raced to find the meaning of such a statement. Is she telling me that her time has come, that God is watching what we are doing? What was going on in her mind?

She repeated it. “God’s behind the door. Usually Coleen leaves it part-way open so I can see him.” I looked up and behind the bedroom door which I had pushed fully open was the framed Sacred Heart of Jesus picture that had always hung in our house. I went over and closed the door halfway so that she could see it and be comforted by it and went and sat back down.

“God is behind the door,” I thought, and contemplated the many meanings of that and the symbolism of doors opening and closing and where God might be at any point in a person’s life. She looked deeply at that picture and I realized that regardless of what anyone else might believe my mother was at peace in her faith and was patiently waiting for her God to open a door to welcome her home. In the meantime, being a good Catholic woman, she would bear whatever suffering he might send her way until he was ready for that moment, and she would live out her remaining days with grace, dignity, and humor. I realized I am as proud of her as she could ever be of me.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on Amazon.com (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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