Judy Palpant: Wailin’ Mamas

Posted on 08. Feb, 2016 by in Uncategorized

My heart exults and praises sing To Him that heard my wailing voice. My winter’s past, my storms, are gone, And former clouds seem now all fled. But if they must eclipse again, I’ll run where I was succored.—Ann Bradstreet in the poem: “May 13, 1657”

I carry my children in my throat. The lump lodges there. Palpable. Hopes and fears spread like diphtheria toxin from the throat to the heart, or the other way round.

I’m not alone. Audible or inaudible, mothers everywhere groan.

Often, in Kenya I remember hearing a mother’s loud, lonely lament over the death of her child. It tore the air. Ear splitting. Heart rending.

“Oh, Mama,” I’d say, pausing in my daily routine to ponder this woman’s dashed hopes. Only a tall cypress hedge separated our home from the hospital. While I could not see her lonely figure, yet the wailing haunted me.

Here in the USA, more than one of my friends has let out deep, guttural moans as they attempt to articulate stories of trauma in their adult children’s lives or reasons for alienation from them.

Yet another friend wept watching a wild wind carry off outdoor wedding flowers and decorations. Heavy rain pelted the dance floor. “This is not how I pictured my daughter’s wedding,” she exclaimed.

Tears are primal and pervasive in a mother’s life.


If they could talk, our home’s walls would tell many stories of my own wailings. When our daughter Andrea graduated from college and headed off to her first jobs, she assured me she’d taken all the books she wanted. I culled through those remaining, readily putting some in a pile to pass along. Others seemed foundational to life. I picked up the Bible we gave her as a child with her name etched in gold. Left behind. In my hands, these treasures proved to be evidence of her increasing rejection of faith. Distress and despair kept me company for hours. People walking past our home that day must have thought something terrible had befallen me. It had.

Some days later I poured out my astonished heart to a friend. As we walked, I asked her, “What does a mother do with her daughter’s Bible?” “Use it yourself,” she suggested. “For now, it is God’s gift to you.” So I did. During my quiet time, I discovered my daughter’s marginal notations, underlined passages, quotes from pastors and mentors. They reignited my own hope and faith.

During this same period, I worked on photo albums for our 3 kids. One day I took boxes of photos to a shop where I could use their large tables and equipment. I organized and stacked the pictures of their early years. Our firstborn’s pile of photos with his grandparents, aunts and uncles was double that of his two younger siblings. How come? Ah, he was already 5 years old when we left for Kenya. Even though God provided wonderful African aunties and uncles for our children, there had been a cost. Fighting waves of sadness, I packed my stuff, went home and laid everything out on the ping pong table in the basement. My heart faced the facts. Tears flowed freely, but the photo albums were finished in time to give them to my adult children for Christmas that year.

And eventually, I wrapped up our daughter Andrea’s Bible and packed it in my luggage for a trip to Arizona to visit. She had since returned to the church although with her questions still in hand. Now married, she was working on her spiritual memoir. As she unwrapped the package and saw her old Bible, she said, “Thanks, Mom. This means a lot to me.” I told her about the day I packed her books and wailed.  She responded: “I actually did have another Bible with me. “But your mother didn’t know that,” her husband quickly added.

The saga continues with the next generation. After my daughter-in-law Darien took her youngest child, Clara, to her first day of kindergarten, she stopped by a coffee shop for a latte. Time and again, she dropped out of line, motioning the person behind her to go ahead. Grief lodged in her soul. How could she go on without her little pal Clara? That day, now two years ago, she never found her voice.

Recently, she pointed me to the comparison of motherhood to the slow ascent of a majestic mountain. “Nobody told me I’d be climbing and crying so often.” Having nearly summited Mt. Rainier’s 14,400 foot peak twice, she understands high goals, struggle and disappointment.

Hymn writer George Matheson also knew something of the symbolic climb. Having lost his eyesight at age 18, he knew uncertainty with every step. He also leaned on God’s promises. In stanza three of “O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go,” he wrote: O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to Thee; I climb the rainbow through the rain… Picture pilgrims toiling up the side of a rainbow—stepping into the rarified air as gray mists change to prismatic splendor at their feet. Matheson’s 1883 hymnal committee, however, had objected to the word “climb” and suggested he use “trace” instead. Reluctantly, he complied and we lost the more active verb.

But whether climbing or tracing rainbows in our laments, God is moved by our tears. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem. He carries us in his throat. He hears our travail. The sign of his covenant promise, the rainbow, was never more vivid than after the burial of my dear friend’s adult son who committed suicide. The stormy weather accompanying the service under the graveside canopy gave way to a brightly colored arch in the sky. It’s vibrant, rich colors spread across the front page of the local newspaper the following day.

On the Via Dolorosa Jesus told the women of Jerusalem not to sob for him but to cry for themselves and their children. Mary had been forewarned by Simeon at the time of Jesus’ dedication, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35 NIV) The weeping prophet Jeremiah exhorts us to pour out our hearts like water for our children. (Lamentations 2:19 NIV) He also charges the women to teach their friends songs of heartbreak and to model lamenting for their daughters. (Jeremiah 9:20 NIV) Did the Hebrew women do this?

Some mamas are given to shared tears. Some of us shed them privately on our pillows. The Psalmist assures us that God hears our sobs. He stores our tears in bottles. Every moan is registered. (Psalm 56:8 KJV)  “Listen to this! Laments coming out of Ramah, wild and bitter weeping. It’s Rachel weeping for her children. Rachel refusing all solace. Her children are gone, gone—long gone into exile.” (Jeremiah 31:16 The Message) The sisterhood of mothers joins Rachel. To be a mother is to cry. I wear a bracelet with a charm. One side reads “live” and the other “cry.” They go together.

Like my mother before me and my daughter after me, we are three generations of women who weep for different reasons. My mother’s recent “I’ll be praying for you, Dear” carried deep understanding. She knew how I felt about heading to Seattle to say goodbye to our youngest son and his family as they left for five years in Australia. She once said goodbye to us as we took our kids to Kenya. And I empathize with my daughter feeling exhausted and isolated in her motherly care for four young children.

The poet George Herbert describes our woes as earnest sorrows, rooted miseries…sure-footed griefs, solid calamities. He models godly lament in his poem “Bitter-Sweet”:

Ah my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament, and love.

This morning when I went to wake up my 95 year-old mother, she was singing in bed. For some inexplicable reason in the last few months she has traded in her sighs and groans for humming and singing. It is constant, even annoying at times. Never mind Pandora playing “The Nutcracker,” she’s singing “Fill My Cup Lord.” She smiled and lifted up her hands. “I’m just singin’ in the rain,” she said.

A few years ago, my mother told me, “I’ve given up worrying.” Now, when she mutters under her breath, she tells me she is praying. I believe her. Her mother-pilgrim journey continues–praying for me along with her other children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Landing on the side of hope and joy, she’s cashing in on all those years of travail. This is scriptural. After Rachel refusing solace, the prophet quotes Almighty God as saying:
“Stop your incessant weeping. Hold back your tears. Collect wages from your grief work. God’s Decree. They’ll be coming back home! There’s hope for your children. God’s Decree.” (Jeremiah 31:17 The Message)

As a child, I memorized David’s comforting words in Psalm 30:5b: “…weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.” Over the years, I’ve heard these words glibly quoted, as the metaphorical “night” lasts for weeks or even years. Still, the dawn of God’s faithful promise predictably brightens as we climb the rainbow through the rain.

  • Ben

    A beautiful testimony to motherhood and to the rich tapestry of life with God. Thank you for writing this so thoughtfully and living it out even more so. Wonderful.