“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead)
She’s dying, maybe not today or tomorrow or next month, but soon; I feel it in my bones. With fluids leaking out of her, with her confusion mounting, she just wants to go Home. With diagnoses that she keeps forgetting, with her body and mind slowly failing, she’s just letting go as her body shrinks and her smile flickers in and out.
I remember just this summer how she fawned over my baby girl’s bright blue eyes and kept saying again and again, how she wouldn’t miss seeing me and my children “for the world.” I remember early childhood sleepovers with blue and white china and soft-boiled eggs and toast with marmalade and grapefruit with its special spoon. I never got why she always served grapefruit when I didn’t like it. And her red Revlon nail polish staining cotton balls in the bathroom trash. There were days spent swimming the sand of the beach off into the pool, and the glistening promise of treasure that a giant brown marbled jar of pennies held out. There was the ordered line-up of rubber bands stacked on the gear shift of a Cadillac. Of new presents of twirly dresses. Of her starched white button-down shirts and red lips.
I remember generational stories of the Anderson girls; of small Southern towns swelling with growth and of trains of handsome soldiers passing through for a dance. And then of one particular soldier, Johnny Bunker, a boy from California with a dashing smile and penetrating blue eyes. And stories of letters crossing the ocean as he was stationed in Europe, and I can see him now (my grandfather dead these last 23 years) in that dusty photograph of his exultant smile all decked out in a Highland tartan on leave.
And that California boy married that Southern girl and they moved to Los Angeles, where she was overwhelmed with freeways and congestion and so many people. But she made a home and birthed three children and threw parties while her youngest fell asleep amongst the fur coats. She embraced the salty sea air of the west and yet, for her and in very Southern fashion, family was everything. She always had a weakness for little boys and when I had three of my own, thought each was perfect.
Even as her mind goes, she’s bright and beautiful and full of spunk. She still hides her dark chocolate and enjoys her indulgence of a bourbon and water; she laughs and gives “love pats” and wears berry-colored lipstick (even if it’s a bit askew now). And when that spark flickers when she goes through patches of hospitalization, that’s where it gets scary. For, who is this? How could this be my beloved grandmother who tells the silly stories again and again about how I have “manners my parents didn’t even know I had”? Where is the beauty in the mundane event of dying?
Because honestly death is frightening. It’s a great becoming, one that we really don’t know what do with. So disconnected from the daily rhythms of life and death these days, we approach death with the same trepidation with which many face birth. And what I’ve learned from my four births is that it is a great unveiling — this magnificent pain of bearing through and down — where you are raw to your core, where you cannot control it and that your body knows what to do. I assume it’s the same with death: your body knows how to die, how to give up and that you cannot control it. And yet, in death, there all these people around you who are forced to let go, too. To walk a parallel path of grief and laughter and of letting go.
But the beauty comes in little moments of release, of giving up. Isn’t that what we’re all learning along the way anyway? That it’s about releasing who we think we are, relinquishing the power and control we pretend to have? The only hope that I have in this final letting go comes in the image of a lowly shepherd, whose thick staff and calloused hands provide reassurance in the dark of unknowing. I love the stately and poetic way the KJV renders this gentle leading: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. […] Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over…”. So I guess we’ll just walk, you and I, as I hold onto your elbow to steady you. We’ll simply follow that great Shepherd of the sheep, picking our way carefully and slowly along the path — you on the path to glory and me making meaning from the glorious mundane.
This is the sixth post for the Write 31 days challenge, where I’ll be writing every day through the month of October. I’m excited to see what comes of this daily practice. I’d love for you to comment, pin the above image, share posts and subscribe to receive posts to the right in the sidebar as we work through these things together. Posts in the series are all linked to from the first post.