Sonja E. Mahle
1941 - 2006
We knew, of course, that it would be; yet when Dave Mahle phoned me early on a Monday morning, understanding immediately the import of his call, I was nonetheless upset by the news of Sonja's passing. She had been through so much, scoliosis, a steel rod implant mishap, a liver transplant, a blood transfusion gone awry; and yet she had, with her seemingly indomitable will, come safely through. She was diagnosed with lung cancer just a little more than a half year ago. She, who had worked for years in a medical office, knew that her time was short. In the last months she was in Hospice Care, whose practitioners husband Dave labels saints.
Sonja and I go back a long way, fifty years in fact. I celebrate that longevity in my message (which you can read below) at the funeral service at the church Wednesday morning, March 8th.
During that service, and, indeed, while preparing my message, I was acutely aware of the impossibility of naming every good and blessed thing Sonja managed in the space of 64 and a half years. Fr. Larry Evans, thankfully, remembered to cite Sonja's care over many years for twenty-five foster children, two of whom she and Dave adopted. She did this rearing of other people's children, not for any financial reason, but because she wanted to and because she was good at it, and young lives needed her.
During the Mahle's years in Allendale NJ, Sonja had allied herself with the local Lutheran church, where for a time she served as a youth coordinator. The foster care was arranged through Catholic Charities. Husband Dave is a lifelong, devoted Catholic. Their children, Michael and Suzanne, belong to the parish church in which the service was held, The Church of the Presentation, in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Michael and Suzanne and Michael's bride, Danna, members of the church, also participated in the service with the reading of the Scriptures and the leading of the litany.
How pleased Sonja would be! She was surrounded by family and friends, lots of them. Including the pastor of her youth, for whose children she had baby-sat, the fellow who participated in her wedding service and presided at her and Dave's reaffirmation of their vows on their twenty-fifth anniversary, on the terrace behind the house in Allendale: I was honored. And this is what I said:
When last I saw Sonja, about a month ago, I reminded her of our first meeting, sometime in 1956. She had been playing ping pong in the church hall, the table leg gave way, and the plywood top fell on her foot and broke it. I visited with her and the family on 42nd St in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. No sooner did I refer to the ping pong table incident than Sonja’s eyes fixed me with a chiding look and she brought up a long held certainty about that visit, that I had gone to see her to avoid a law suit. And I thought my motivation was pastoral concern! Who knows, probably a mixture of both; but it all turned out well. The church wasn’t sued, I became something of a chaplain to the whole family, and Sonja married a lawyer… just in case it should happen again?
God love her. We sure did. I sure did. She mothered us all. Her parents, her brothers, her nieces and nephews, many of her friends, and the loves of her life, Dave, Michael, and Suzanne. She mothered me too. She provided me, as I recently explained to Dave, with three wonderful gifts: (1) a dog, Sadie, my soulmate, a mutt, whose form in my imagination I still see on the other side of the door waiting for me when I come home at night; (2) my doctor and my mother’s doctor, Morton Blum, whose office Sonja kept in good and decent order for years; and (3) a center for our church basketball team, Dave, the fellow who was lucky enough to have been picked out from all the rest by my dearest of all of the Brooklyn Danish.
Fifty years, and, yes, it seems like only yesterday. I faded in and out of her life. Sometimes it would be a year between Christmas greetings. But when a turning in this mortal life was to be celebrated or worried over, Sonja called on me, and I considered it a privilege to do whatever I could: marry, baptize, bury, pray, offer assurance, visit in the hospital… you know, whatever you might ask of a pastor who is also a friend. I look at the faces in front of me, and ask already knowing the answer as you do too, who was it who kept us in touch through half a century?
She asked me to be here this morning. Because she knew I knew the twists and turns of the journey she has made on earth. The good and blessed ways traveled. The foolish and errant ones of which there weren’t many. The moments of sadness and sorrow. And those, please let us not forget, that were funny and silly and just wonderful ways to pass the time here between two eternities. Sonja had a good strong go at life and there was very little of worth she missed by way of this human experience. I cherish that epitaph for my own life.
When Sonja’s Mom, Elsie, was close to dying, I visited with her at the Mahle home in Allendale. I prayed with Sonja and Elsie and when we were finished, Sonja offered a benediction saying, in effect, to her own mother, “Don’t be afraid Mom; let life go.” Sonja followed her own advice. When Dave phoned me Monday morning, he reported that she had gone peacefully. My dear wife remarked that she could hardly believe that Sonja was gone, so full of life, so full of love. Which may be why she could pass so quickly from this life to the one that awaits us in the Father’s house. Because here she became well-practiced in the arts of heaven, the compassion, the fearlessness, the wide outstretching of the arms of love; and will have no trouble acclimating to the special joys of God’s eternal mercy.
In a place where ping pong tables never collapse, but where pastors and lawyers and everyone else, if they can match the faithful love of a soul like Sonja, may yet find room.
Everlasting God, from whom issues a million mercies moment by moment, we thank you this morning that many of those mercies have found us, counting high among them the life of our dear Sonja, wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, who smoothed our way in this life and our way to you in the life to come. She was faithful to you in the truest sense, living her life not only according to your commandments, but from a heart overflowing with compassion. She sang your songs. She guided your children, often with a wonderful ferocity of will that good and right should be done. She lavished on her own family her wealth of wisdom and compassion. Through many shadowed valleys on earth she held fast to the certainty of your abiding care. She was in all things grateful to be alive. She was grateful to you.
On her behalf, we thank you for opening to her the bounty of this mortal life. She traveled. She summered on the shore. She skied in the mountains. She saw sights and enjoyed experiences the little girl from Brooklyn never thought to dream of. If life was often hard for her, life from your hands and heart was always good for her. Among the long list she kept of blessings you have given her, none ranks higher than leading her into the arms and heart of a loyal and loving helpmate, her Dave. Michael and Suzanne are close behind. Mom and Dad, Frank and Kari, Johnny and Berit, nieces and nephews, friends, friends from church, friends from the neighborhood, friends from work: all have conspired, by your grace, to fill her life with love.
Hold her, we pray, in your everlasting arms. Make room for her in your more stately mansions. Give her a place of honor at the great banquet feast of heaven. And, please, God, put within her heart and mind for ever the certainty that as she has been loved by you she has been loved by us; through him whom Sonja sought to serve on earth, whose kindness and compassion and steadfastness she manifested, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Directly following the service at The Church of the Presentation friends and family gathered in Sonja and Dave's "palace" in Allendale, where so many memories have been made and kept. A buffet luncheon was enjoyed. Posters filled with photos of Sonja through the years were placed in three of the rooms. I had the chance to catch up on the "children" who belonged to my Brooklyn parish, and to gauge just how wonderfully they had prospered in this life in every way. But the highlight of the afternoon was the following presentation by Suzanne, a tribute to her Mom, the twenty-four year old daughter, now a ghost writer, the child through whose surgeries Sonja (and Dave) kept a solidly protective and nurturing oversight.
The nicest compliment that I’ve ever received was from a woman who told me, “You are the light of your mother’s life.” I had always felt her love for me yet it had never been voiced in such a touching way.
When I was only a few months old my parents decided to take a Caribbean vacation without the children. I was left in the arms of one of the most beautiful people that I know; my godmother. My parent’s vacation was suddenly shortened because I became ill. But the moment they returned and I was placed back in my mother’s arms, my eyes lit up, so I’ve been told, knowing that I was reunited with the woman I adored. The fever, the sniffling and the lack of an appetite peculiarly vanished.
Growing up, I had difficulty being away from my mother. I never attended sleep-away camp and rarely spent a night with friends. It was too difficult for me to be away from her for even a short time. When I saw how easy it was for my friends to be apart from their mother, I thought that I had a serious problem. But a greater part of me didn’t care because being with her made me happy.
When college came I chose to live away from home but there were many times when I would lay in bed and cry because I missed her and wanted to be home. As a result, I traveled back and forth most weekends and missed much of what college life is all about. I never cared though, no matter how odd it seemed to others that I was rarely around.
Over the past few years I had even more difficulty ripping myself away from her. No matter where I had to be, I would always stay until the very last minute and even then I found it difficult to be apart. Today I look back and realize that I instinctively knew our time down the road would be shortened and I regret nothing.
Throughout her illness many people applauded my dedication to my mother and her needs. I, however, looked at it as returning the favor of the constant love and dedication that she always showed me. Where else would I ever dream of being but by her side?
As many of you know my brother and I are adopted. I often forgot that I was born from someone else. My mother and I never had a rough patch in our relationship; we were always confiding in one another and sharing secrets. She was frequently known as the most wonderful mother which I always knew, but it was always nice to hear. I had given her this passage for Mother’s Day three years ago. I had found it while reading a book at the time and felt that it was extraordinarily appropriate when describing our relationship:
“I never met my birth mother. I was adopted the moment I was born, and I was taken into a wonderful family. I was baby-sitting with a friend, and I came across a poem on the nursery wall. It compared adoption to a seed that was planted by one person and then taken care of by another. The second person had watered the seed and made it grow to be tall and beautiful. I found that it compared perfectly to my situation.
I realized that my mom had made me who I am today and I started to notice that we had the same silly personality, the same outlook on life, and the same way of treating people, along with some other things. She curled my hair for my first dance. She was there for my first heartbreak. She’d held my hand every time I got a shot at the doctors. She’d been there for everything that ever mattered, and what could compare to that? She’s my mom.
Sometimes when we’re out somewhere, people comment on how much we look alike, and we turn to each other and laugh, forgetting until that moment that it wasn’t she who carried me in her womb for nine months.
I know why I am who I am. The mom I have now is the best one I ever could have hoped for, not only because she holds a tremendous amount of unconditional love, but also because she has shaped who I am today, my qualities and characteristics. She is the one who made me beautiful. She is the only mother who matters in my life”.
My Aunt Susanne recently told me that goodbye is never goodbye forever. Regardless, I would give anything to have just one more day; a day that seems ordinary to most other mothers and daughters, but one that would be heaven on earth to me.
What more could be said? Nothing of greater consequence than this tribute of a child to her Mom.
Scenes from Sonja's Life and Times