Monday Over Coffee: "Absence"

Published December 12, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

There's nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

"Patricia Ann Funderburk lived a life of grace and cheer with the full heart of a selfless servant. She was born on October 8, 1935 in Hominy, Oklahoma, and passed away peacefully at home with her family on December 8, 2013." That's how I began my mother's obituary when I undertook to write it nine years ago this past week. May I share a little more:

Upon graduating from Kansas University, Patricia obtained her license in occupational therapy before coming to Houston to work for the Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. At TIRR, she worked with those stricken by polio, burn victims, and other young disabled patients, providing them not only practical assistance and training, but hope.

In Houston, she met Weldon Funderburk and they married on December 9, 1961, and began a family together. Patricia was a kind and patient mother and a loving wife who inspired her children to care for others in practical ways, setting an example for them as an ardent volunteer and joyful caregiver. She carried a casual loveliness into whatever environment she entered, always looking with intention for those who needed help, hope, or a kind word.

She painted, created exuberant, colorful collages, enjoyed singing, traveling, and being a part of her children's sports and school activities. She made a number of lifelong friends serving many years in the Special Education Department at Tallowood Baptist Church where she was a favorite of the students.

Pat was diagnosed with neurological difficulties and early onset dementia from which she suffered courageously for over two decades, and will be remembered for relentlessly facing adversity with a sweetness of spirit that exemplified her entire life and inspired all those who loved her dearly.

A few years ago I led a graveside service for a gifted doctor on the grounds of Houston's most beautiful cemetery, after which his widow, a woman named Miriam Collins, sent me a memorable letter offering her thanks for honoring her husband. Miriam in many ways reminded me of my own mother. Like mine, she was the sort of mother who would wake her kids up in the morning with a happy tune. Or she might try to start a sing-along on a commercial bus. There's something irrepressible about a singing mom. It's embarrassing in the moment, but with a little distance, it's terribly endearing and beautiful. Also like my mother, Miriam was extravagantly gracious. She extended the benefit of the doubt to anyone who cut her off in traffic, concluding not that they were rude, but instead accounting for their bad behavior by simply assuming that they were high. It didn't surprise me when I was told Miriam had the ability to float in a pool effortlessly. She just had a transcendent lightness about her. She loved art and growing flowers. And she loved putting words together well which brings me back to the elevating letter she sent me.

Miriam's note, apart from it being among the kindest letters I've ever received, also included edifying guidance about navigating grief, words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned then killed in a German concentration camp at the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer's insight soon began to shape how I interacted with those who had lost loved ones. Ruthlessly genuine, beautifully real, and true whether we like it or not, his wisdom is fully grounded in the inevitable nature of human love and close relationships. Here's what Miriam told me Bonhoeffer said:

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve—even in pain—the authentic relationship. Furthermore, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

God — In the midst of a joyful season, yet one which by its very nature directs us toward memory, toward absence, and often into new sorrow, move us gently toward a deeper kind of joy—the mysterious but indelible sort that resides only within memory. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk