By Christopher Wells
But yet, O my God who made us, how can that honor I paid her be compared with her service to me? I was then left destitute of a great comfort in her, and my soul was stricken; and that life was torn apart, as it were, which had been made but one out of hers and mine together. —Augustine, Confessions IX, 12, 30
Like St. Monica, my mom was always ready to talk — that is, to converse; especially, to listen, to help sort out, to encourage; not to instruct or guide unduly, though she had a high view of formation. This was her way with me and my brother when we were young, and it continued throughout our adult friendship, which took root by phone when I left home at age 18, since we never lived in the same city again. Phone conversations can permit a unique focus on another’s words, free of other distractions, and once we shifted to cell phones, long distance charges became a thing of the past. Even in the old days, though, we often spoke for an hour or two.
We tried to talk once a week, usually on Sundays, and managed it as a rule for 30 years, till she died last summer. We both treasured our talks enormously. When I was struck with anxiety before heading off to divinity school, she introduced me to the lament psalms over the phone one day and suggested I avail of their tried-and-true comfort, throwing my cares on the Lord. As I came more fully into an adult faith of my own, our friendship became primarily theological, circling around questions of God’s character and purposes in our lives, listening to the Spirit, Holy Scripture, and life in the Church (especially the Episcopal Church, which we shared).
Born in 1938, she lived a life replete with riches of family, friends, good work, and above all a steadfast and sustaining Christian faith. She often said that her greatest joy was motherhood. In all her relationships and certainly with her sons, she was smart, expressive, full of compassion and kindness, with a keen mind. Ever the analyst, she loved to untangle the skein of a problem and came alive in the face of genuine vulnerability.
“As I understand myself,” she wrote in the early 1980s when applying to a graduate program in social work, “my greatest strength is based on my philosophy of life. As a committed Christian, I believe that every person is of infinite value and worth. My own attention to this reality has the effect of deepening the seriousness with which I view and respond to another person’s social, emotional, and spiritual struggles. Insofar as these needs can be addressed through social agencies and well-designed and well-implemented programs, I want to be involved with such vehicles of treatment and therapy.”
My mom enjoyed precise articulation of her thoughts in service of truth, a habit that often left her speechless at the end, as her mind would trip into webs of dementia and struggle to recover. Rather than settling for a good enough word or phrase (and it was difficult to say goodbye to the artful subordinate clause, which she loved dropping in to modify and otherwise complicate the point at hand), she would freeze-up mid-sentence, ransacking her memory for 30 seconds or more, sometimes to return with the sought-for treasure, but more typically to relinquish the errand altogether, defeated. This was hard for her and me, as long, probing conversations had been our bag. It took practice to learn new techniques — mostly, accepting inelegant, imprecise workarounds and moving on. I think she made peace with this, for the most part, because what else can you do? The humiliations of oldest age are legion, and forgetting words is hardly the worst of it. Even so, flickers of impatience told me she still had some stubborn Swede in her, and yes, perfectionism. If the matter was not urgent, as it rarely was, we laughed and turned to something else: news, memories, and especially stories.
My mom could not read at the end, so she liked to be read to — first in person, then mostly by phone, including for a 13-month stretch during the COVID-19 pandemic when visitors were not permitted into her assisted living facility. A good story provided salutary mental stimulation, fun with words, the pleasure of company, and, I realized, an outlet for my mom’s endless wells of empathy. In the last months, when she could not easily maintain even a simple conversation or recall what we had discussed two days prior, she could remember the gist of where we were in our book and thrilled at its resumption, eager to hear what happened next. In a sense, I had become parent and she child, but she brought with her a whole lifetime of faith, hope, and love to draw upon. Many details were gone, but the muscle memory of habituated listening to God and neighbor remained. Attentive to the end.
We never agreed that we would read memoirs by women, but I found that these were the books she most readily warmed to. She had been a marriage and family therapist and was especially committed to accompanying women who were finding their voice. As an evangelical, and increasingly catholic, Christian, my mom looked for chances to encourage her clients in their faith and to seek suitable community. And she did the same throughout her adult life with dozens of female friends, with whom she walked in solidarity. I can’t recall any point when she was not immersed in such seminars of the spirit, in and around Bible study, religious and therapeutic literature, and intercessory prayer in service of inner healing, which was her life’s work.
Among our favorite books were Onnie Lee Logan’s Motherwit, the inspiring, down-to-earth autobiography of an African American midwife in rural Alabama, who persevered with grace and grit through a host of harrowing circumstances, arriving at the end with heaps of Christian wisdom; Edna Hong’s delightful From This Good Ground, recounting her happy girlhood on a farm in rural Wisconsin, the sixth of eight children who ran free, tended the animals, baked bread, and learned by heart Luther’s Small Catechism (all of which my mom’s mom would have done on their family farm in Iowa); Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri, the amazing and ennobling story of the founding of one of the most culturally formative Christian communities of the 20th century, set almost accidentally (though not really, the Presbyterian Schaeffer explains) in Huémoz, Switzerland — all the more enjoyable for my mom, since she spent a few, wonderful months there in her late 20s working alongside Edith in a home for children and adults with cerebral palsy; and of course the two volumes of missionary memoir by Genie Summers (Go! You Are Sent and Our Family’s Book of Acts), recalling the extraordinary adventures of their growing Catholic family once she and her husband Frank were born again in the charismatic renewal of the 1970s, sold all that they had, and set off into the world to preach the gospel.
After finishing that day’s chapter, I would read a psalm from her leather-bound 1928 Book of Common Prayer bearing her name (Kathleen Wells), and we would take turns adding something extemporaneous and, increasingly, simple. “O Lord, thank you for this time together with you and one another. We rejoice in your many blessings, and for the opportunity to learn more about your kingdom on this earth. Please give us courage to share our faith in your Son Jesus, and to hear your Spirit. Amen.”
The last time I saw my mom, we prayed Morning Prayer together (1979, Rite II), and she came up with most of the confession of sin, creed, Lord’s Prayer, and various responses: muscle memory. We laughed together, shared an ice cream, and I sang her one of her favorite songs by the Haven of Rest Quartet. We spoke again by phone some days later on my birthday, and she miraculously emerged from her fog to sing me the entirety of “Happy Birthday” and to issue something of a benediction, centered on the constancy of her love. We thanked each other for the special friendship that we shared.
Eternal rest grant unto Kathleen Maren Almgren Wells, O Lord: And let light perpetual shine upon her.