A post from 2010 in honor of my Mother Jene Nachtigall (1937-1991): It's been 20 years ago today that I lost my Mom, Jene, to cancer. The 24th of January is always a day that I remember, mourn, celebrate, and reflect on her life and her impact on mine.
In most ways, it seems like it happened only yesterday. In our 20 years together she so permeated every part of me that there is little of me that doesn't have a whole lot of her in it. She was my friend, my hero, my mentor, and everything I aspired to be. Sometimes people are idealized in death, but she really was a one-in-a-million person. All who knew her felt that way.
She was born in Parksville, Kentucky in 1937 and grew up on a farm. At a young age, her mother walked out on the family and as the oldest daughter, she became the elder of the family. A mother to her sisters, a companion to her heart-broken father, and the one responsible to make sure things got done. She had to mature early.
They moved to Cincinnati and it must have been in that multi-cultural environment that she became the urbane woman she was. She was great at crossing cultures, she was well-educated, and she became a very intellectually curious person. I remember being four or five and looking through her books on Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, and other Communist figures. She hated communism, but wasn't a reactionary spewing talking points and sound-bites. She did her homework. She read thousand page books. She debated real Marxists. Most of all, she was not intimidated by foreign ideas or different ways of doing things. I still have her big books on my bookshelf: "Marx", "the Haj," Shogun" and many more. "You're a big reader" she always said to me...long before I was. I became what she said I was.
She married my Dad in 1959 and they moved to Africa. There was a lot of suffering and sickness that she endured in those years. Bouts of malaria, painful accidents, miscarriages, and many other trials. But through it all she remained strong and was widely known for her very funny and irreverent sense of humor. In Africa, she delivered over 200 babies.
They had a daughter that they took to Africa, Marcel, and later, while serving as missionaries in Costa Rica, they picked me up---a malnourished, abandoned infant dying in an orphanage. Jene, who had once been abandoned herself, now raised another abandoned one. And our life in Costa Rica was a happy life.
Both Mom and I were news junkies. Each morning would start out with the news instead of devotions. And we both loved Time magazine. When Ronald Reagan was elected, she let me stay home from school to watch the inauguration. It wasn't a Reagan thing---she thought these things were important. I took it very seriously and parked myself in front of the television for the all-morning and afternoon coverage of the event. And that was the day that my love of politics began.
We used to fight sometimes. We were both highly opinionated about trivial things. One of our most famous knock-down, drag-down debates was regarding whether the TV Show MASH was funnier in the McLean Stevenson years or in the "Colonel Potter" years. There was a clear break we both recognized. I argued that MASH's early years were far more funny because the show had a slapstick vibe. She argued that the more serious, politically-pointed MASH years were just as funny if not better. We never resolved that one.
She also hated the Bee Gees "and their fake teeth and falsettos." She couldn't stand Rod Stewart's "Do you think I'm sexy?", but she had an inexplicable soft-spot for that slime ball Tom Jones. We both loved media. We both loved Terence Trent D'arby.
She loved nature, and would force me to go out with her at times to visit animals on a farm or take a long drive. I usually had something else I wanted to do, but when the goat nipped at my leg, or we petted a cow--I would finally get why she made us do those trips. There was a beautiful world out there--one we can easily isolate ourselves from.
Practical Jokes were big with her. Throwing water on people from our balcony, making fun of my acne in front of my friends (don't worry, I'd get her back), and putting a Playboy magazine in the luggage of an Evangelist (which he opened on the plane with his wife)! She loved life. Unlike a lot of Christians, she didn't take herself that seriously. Uber-piety didn't impress her. That rubbed off.
But she was a serious woman. Constantly doing charity work out of people's eyesight. Always looking for someone's life to invest in, and always championing some cause whether it was protecting the forests long before that was fashionable, or fighting for someone's right to have health insurance in a church. She started a seniors home in Oakland, California that was named after her, and she was a nurse in the violent ward of the state institution. Sometimes I would pick her up late from work....after her late night shift. Totally oblivious to how tired a person might be at the end of a shift like that. Not knowing or getting the toll it took on her.
Regrets...I have many. None more than the fact that I was a college drop-out when she died--convinced by a Pentecostal sect that college would only damage the mind. Idiotic, but I fell for it. "One day, you'll grow out of it," she said. And she was right. I did eventually go back to college and flourished, but she never got to see that. Some say she knew that I would end up okay. But I was not okay when she died and that has always stuck with me. She valued education more than anything and I broke her heart when I walked away from it.
I told her I loved her often. I told her she was my hero. I told her she was my trusted friend. Thankfully, I told her a lot. But there is much I never got to say: that I saw the sacrifice, that I saw how she had overcome her circumstances, that I saw how she engaged the world, and I knew I had to follow.
Over the years, the pain of missing the daily engagement with her decreased as it does with time. But new pains arose. That she never got to know Jamie. She would have absolutely adored my wife. They would have been best friends. Or that she never got to see my son---a far healthier, more obedient version of me and her. These are pains that don't diminish over time. There is a vacuum and a hole that does not get filled in this life.
Her final years of suffering were mercifully short. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 1988 and she passed away in January of 1991. We thought we had it beat for a while, but I think I always knew how it would end.
Others have lost in this world. Death is a part of life, as the cliche says. But I hold to the belief that death is not natural. That we long to live. We long for that kiss to last forever, that our child will stay in our arms forever, and that we will be with the people we love forever. Eternity is written into our hearts. Death is inevitable, but it is a violation of something divine within us. Something that was made for eternal communion.
I don't think the mourning will stop in this life. Each day there is loss. But each day there is also gratefulness. Grateful that what was once given to me, I can now give back to my son. Grateful that we can marinate in people until the beauty of their souls impacts ours and changes us for the better. Grateful that much about this person, can never be taken away from me. We mourn, because this fallen world tries to convince us that love is not eternal. But it is. It really is.