“Mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.”
– Aurthur Schopenhauer.
Our world recently lost one of its more saintly souls. Today I had the privilege of celebrating the life of this saint, Debbie Moffatt. And yes I know, there is little doubt in my mind that Debbie would resist this title with every ounce of her being if she could. She would insist she belongs not with the saints but with the sinners, not on a pedestal but in the trenches. And she would resist this title not with any feigned sense of humility, but with a steadfast conviction that such titles should be reserved for those who need it, who truly deserve it.
And then she would turn around and call you a saint and call me a saint with equal conviction.
Which is exactly what makes her a saint in my eyes. Of course she was also was a mother, a daughter, a wife and a grandmother- each a reflection of the family God had blessed her with, and a friend to many. But the name she came to cherish most of all was “child of God”, and it is because she believed so strongly that she was a child of God that she gave her life to giving and serving whoever crossed her path. If there was a single constant to be found in the words shared by her family this morning, it is the idea that Debbie herself has been written and imprinted into the fabric of their lives “because” of the way she lived as a Child of God.
If the lyric “in the morning when I rise, give me Jesus” became a part of her daily ritual, her daily blessing, I am convinced that she longed for this to be so only so far as she would have more of Jesus to give to others, even as she continued to wage a courageous battle against ALS.
And that is the thing about saintly souls. They are the ones that help us to see God. And simply put, Jesus was imprinted all over Debbie.
Past, Future and Learning to Be Present
The older I get the more I struggle to remember my past and the harder it gets to predict an increasingly uncertain future, which means the most important thing right now is the present. And this is exactly how Debbie lived her life.
Not long before she was diagnosed, my wife Jen and I had an opportunity to reconnect with the Moffatts over supper. This was at their house of course with the full red carpet treatment included… even as two people neither of them had seen in a fairly long time. Because this is Debbie. This is the Moffatts. No matter how much space there was between you and them, the minute you entered their company you picked up right where you left off.
As the evening went on and we were enjoying a wonderful meal and relaxing over glasses of wine and some wonderful conversation, we found ourselves talking about their trip to Italy. If you wanted to see Debbie’s eyes light up all you had to do was ask her about Italy. At which point she suddenly turned from giddy, passionate and excited to somewhat serious, finding a timely moment… she was always so timely and sure of her words, something I am so not good at… to share something important that was on her mind. And what she (they) shared with me in that moment has stuck with me after all these years.
“Don’t wait! Don’t wait to experience the world.”
Of course this was not simply a reference to travel. Rather, it was a reference to living.
Choose to live. Choose to live in the present.
It would be short while later that Debbie would be diagnosed with ALS, a diagnosis they would get on the same day we happened to be officially celebrating the arrival of our new adopted son. I feel a degree of shame for not letting Debbie know this, but if I had I would have told her that the decision to adopt our son from Ukraine was a product of our best effort to take her words to heart. Our effort to not wait. Our effort to live in the present and to trust God with the rest.
And the fact that this led us to our new found “family” is even more fitting given Debbie’s heart and passion over the last few years.
I remember looking around during the celebration of our adoption for the Moffatts. We had not seen them in forever and had a feeling they might be coming, and they were the kind of people that you looked forward to seeing even when the room was full. We found out later why they were not there. I am grateful that my brother convinced them not to come. Because you see, even after receiving a terminal diagnosis, in true Debbie fashion she still considered coming to support us. Because that’s who she was.
Catching Up With the Past
Often life forces us to leave our past behind. It’s the nature of taking different paths, of becoming and discovering who we are. And as we leave the past behind we are forced to grieve the many losses of this life in order to anticipate the many gains, growth and new reveals. But sometimes our past also manages to catch up with us. And when it does, it can often catch us off guard, reminding us of how we got to where we are, with the good, the bad and the ugly.
It is no small thing that the most common phrase I heard coming out of the funeral today was “hey, another blast from the past”. It was like stepping into a time machine and going back 20 years And I love time travel. A bit obsessed with time travel actually. But this was different. All these people. All these stories. All these experiences. Vast memories being brought together through the life of a single person. And having shared this Church Community with Debbie for many years, these memories, this history has her face plastered all over it. It would be impossible to turn left or right into any of those stories and not find an imprint of her influence and her presence.
In The Shadows and the Light
There is truth to the idea that I came to her funeral knowing that Debbie gave me far more than I could ever offer her in return over my lifetime. Over many lifetimes. I came knowing that in the many ways I often saw myself as that “other” brother trying to navigate my way through the shadows of two other spiritual giants in the life of Riverwood past, Debbie was someone who always chose to ignore the shadows. In her house she made sure to shine the light straight on you. I hope and trust that she was looking down on that massive gathering of people this afternoon and being able to see the light being shone on her.
Grace and Admonition
We dropped by to see the Moffatts at their lakeside house a while ago because we happened to be in the area. Her speech was just beginning to slur (which of course, in true Debbie fashion she felt the need to “apologize” for), but she was still sporting all of her trademark spirit and energy and humour. It was my first time seeing Debbie since her diagnosis, and I’ll be honest, words failed me big time in the moment. Here was this courageous woman facing the biggest struggle of her life and she is doing the same thing she had always done. She was treating us like honoured guests, serving us until there was nothing left to give. She refused to let the disease dominate any part of the conversation. And, I am ashamed to admit that the only thing I feel I ended up doing in the moment was ranting about our own petty and superficial family issues.
And yet, for as terrible as I feel over this loss of words, what struck me the most is the grace that I found in her company without her having to say anything. I am even more grateful though for the fact that she did eventually say something (after I stopped spewing the trite and superficial complaining for a couple seconds of course). After we had exhausted our list of petty issues, she turned and said something so simple that it managed to bring everything into perspective.
“There is a battle going on out there right now” she insisted, “and it is causing the world to lose sight of what is most important- family.”
Not only does Debbie deserve screen credit on the Fast and the Furious, she also deserves credit for being an expert in admonishment. Her comment was generalized, but of course it hit right at the core of what I needed to hear in that moment. And she did it with such grace, with such purpose and such gentleness, that in all honesty I didn’t even recognize it as admonishment. It was simply the wisdom of a saint. And even in the middle of her struggle she found a way to elevate my petty issues to something important. A truly humbling moment.
Navigating A Valley of Strange Humours
I once heard it said that life is a “valley of strange humours”. Debbie embodied this. In all of our flaws, in all of our uncertainties, in all of our mess-ups and failures and successes and joys, in my years growing up as a young teen and a young adult the one thing I could always count on was the fact that Debbie would always find a way to laugh at all of our idiosyncracies, to laugh at the messiness of life. And the fact that she was also willing to laugh at herself meant that she was constantly teaching us how to do the same, to laugh at ourselves. I have since come to know that this is one of the most important things we can learn to do in life.
It was said many times at the funeral that one of the great tragedies of ALS is the way it steals, slowly, over time. And most tragic, as family members confessed, is that it steals memories. But what was also confessed is that Debbie’s smile, Debbie’s laugh was something many would never forget, and there is something rather poetic about this fact, that in the midst of the valley her laughter can still be heard. In the midst of tragedy her smile is still finding a way to persevere.
Loss comes in so many ways. And often the loss of these kinds of spiritual hero’s in your life remind us about all the ways in which life has moved forward, and the ways in which life continues to move forward. I didn’t have much contact with Debbie over the last number of years. With circumstances at home I didn’t have much contact with her while she was sick either I hate to admit. And yet there is not a moment that has gone by in the most recent weeks where I haven’t spent some time remembering how Debbie played a big role in allowing me to become who I am today. And being able to gain glimpses along the way of how she approached and faced her sickness, and to watch her family stand by her side the whole way and walk through it together through much pain and sorrow, has inspired much thought and conversation in our own home about what is most important as well, and what it means to live in the present rather than wait for an uncertain future.
And as the past managed to officially catch up with me this afternoon, I was also struck by the thought that a big reason why Debbie and her family was able to approach all of this with such courage and strength is because it is the way she lived her life before the sickness as well. A great inspiration to start living in the present today rather than tomorrow. Because none of us knows what tomorrow will bring. In my desire to be a youth leader to a small, rambunctious group of kids (including her own) in the early days of Rothesay/Riverwood, I see Debbie’s willingness to allow me to learn from my many mistakes and her encouragement to me to try and try again. In the years that I lived on next to nothing while struggling through school to get my youth pastor degree I see her constant desire to support me and pray for me in so many different ways. In the years after Rothesay changed names to Riverwood when the old community of the past began to give way to the new, The Moffatts were a constant voice of encouragement, comfort, familiarity and confidentiality. Change is never easy, and they had a way of reminding me I was not alone. I could say anything to them positive or negative without being judged, and while Murray was often front and center for those conversations, it was Debbie who I always knew was lingering in the background ready to offer me a timely and poignant word of wisdom along with a refill on my drink (or another slice of that cake).
And if ever there was a final point of convincing (which certainly isn’t necessary… Debbie is a saint through and through), I look to my wife Jen. Having met in her first few months of starting to attend Riverwood, and having left Riverwood for a new job not even two years later, it is significant that Debbie (and Murray) were two of a handful of people that she was going to miss with all her heart. Two out of a handful of people that she came to feel she had shared history with even after knowing them for barely two years.
Because, of course, that is Debbie. A saint. A mother. A daughter. A Wife. A grandmother. A friend. A child of God.