With a tender heart, I rise to honor the passing yesterday of my Mother, Arlena Mahaffy. The passing of Arlena Mahaffy is the passing of the blessing. This woman of deep spiritual wisdom birthed me and held me in her heart. Arlena Mahaffy taught me how to live a life of faith and hope. Now, she models for me how to die with the same grace and dignity she manifested throughout the ninety-seven years of her life.
The quintessential teacher, Arlena Mahaffy reflected on death and dying with my sister Mary with whom she has lived for many years. Mary reports that she said: “Do not be afraid when the time of dying comes. We will never be taken a day before our work on earth is done.”
The heart of Arlena Mahaffy knew no limit to love. Arlena Mahaffy embraced with equanimity her 7 children, 25 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren. She took time to learn the stories of each, to invite them to share both their dreams and aspirations and their struggles. Always, she had an encouraging word, a helping hand or carefully researched advise to share.
Arlena Mahaffy embraced equally those who were not her biological family. She supported innumerable struggling children and adults. To an incarcerated young man, she sent school lesson plans so he could complete his degree. She prayed faithfully for a man in jail seeking to find his way back into society. Until the last weeks of her life, Arlena Mahaffy tutored a teenager having trouble in school who found his way–after the death of his parents– from Eritrea and Ethiopia to a new home in the U.S.
We have to crawl before we can walk. Arlena Mahaffy drew on her specialized expertise in motor skills and brain development to help countless students who fell through the cracks in the educational system. Arlena Mahaffy believed that every adversity can be overcome and that every person must be accepted and embraced for the skills they have, rather than being faulted for their deficiencies. Arlena Mahaffy gave up on no one.
Arlena Mahaffy served faithfully the Eritrean people for several decades. She lived in Senafe, Assab, and Arafalo, Eritrea. She birthed her seven children in Asmara and Assab. In Eritrea, Arlena Mahaffy bound up wounds, treated scorpion and snake bites, dispensed malaria medication and stood by those most in need.
The people of Eritrea became her people. Her love for the rich languages and culture of Eritrea never diminished. Arlena Mahaffy visited Eritrea late in her life after having survived congestive heart failure. She stated on leaving for Eritrea: “If I die in Eritrea, leave me there. Eritrea is my home.”
I treasure my last goodbye with my Mother, Arlena Mahaffy. We held each other with tears and prayers and gratitude for our relationship. Our last shared meal was a platter of Eritrean food I prepared in her honor. We shared the best injera I have ever made honoring the communion and relational blessing of eating from a common dish.
Arlena Mahaffy makes her last and longest journey to that special place that is her real home. She will be memorialized with theological exhortations. She would have it so. Her life was one spent in prayer and reading of scriptures. My enduring image of my Mother, from my youngest years, is of a woman with her head bent in prayer, her eyes closed, tuning out the busy world of the visible and the mundane to touch the invisible and the transcendent. This prayerful state was the place from which she found her strength and constancy to serve others.
The danger of doctrinal exhortations about faith–either mine or others– is that they are mostly a distant and distorting shadow of the faith that is lived integrally from the heart rather than from the head. Arlena Mahaffy’s faith is one that has hands to hold the hurting and feet to walk with those who are at risk of stumbling and falling. When Arlena Mahaffy was no longer able to walk on her own for the marathon to raise funds for the school where she taught, she moved to using a walker to complete her laps. As she declined further, she circled the school track in her wheelchair assisted by her grandson Jesse with whom she had a special relationship.
Arlena Mahaffy’s faith has been a living faith that cannot be confined within any doctrinal creed or theological correctness. Rather than teaching orthodoxy, Arlena Mahaffy lived orthopraxy. Through all her own shortcomings, she practiced and modeled faith, hope and love. These are the things that endure. And the greatest of these is love.
It is now incumbent on each of us, who have been held in the heart of Arlena Mahaffy, to live into the deep and enduring spirituality that she practiced. We uphold her legacy by serving others and lifting up those who are struggling. It is up to us to believe in the capacity and worth of every human being. Arlena Mahaffy taught us that the human heart can be expanded beyond imagination.
The blessing that has been the life of Arlena Mahaffy will be passed on from generation to generation. On the passing of Arlena from this world, my twin daughters help me plant a tree in honor of her life. When we plant a little shade tree under which we know we will never sit, we affirm the passing of hope and the blessing to the next generation.
It is my prayer that I will live into this legacy of faithful love. Might it one day be said of me and of each of us, the words that I speak on the passing of Arlena Mahaffy: “There passes one who has blessed the world with their very presence.” This is the day and time for the passing of the blessing.