I’ve been wanting to sit down and write for the past few days, and I couldn’t. Finding the time was hard, but finding the words even harder.
I was dragging the kids through Target on Sunday afternoon to buy end-of-the-year teacher gifts and follow that errand with a grocery run, and my phone rang. It was my mom, and she was on the way to the hospital to meet my grandparents there. They’d gone to church that morning and had to leave the service shortly after it began because of a sudden and severe headache for my grandmother. This is a woman who never complains, so I knew. We all knew.
She had a hemorragic stroke, the less common type. The past few days have been a roller coaster, and she is not out of the woods yet. I spent a little time at the hospital Monday, and I’m heading back again tomorrow. Family is in and out and hoping and praying for her comfort and for the strength to face whatever comes next. I cried most of the day on Monday and felt fairly certain this was it. But grandmothers are strong stuff, it seems. She has defied the odds so far, and I have learned enough about life to know that you cannot make assumptions. We are all in that in-between space, alongside her. That space of not knowing, the excruciating absence of clarity and certainty. We know nothing other than what is in front of us.
Her influence on my life is evident to anyone’s eyes. I can’t think of many childhood stories that do not involve my grandparents in some way. I grew up on family property that placed our house alongside theirs and ran the path between the two everyday. There are specifics etched in my mind that belong to only her…. The particular taste of every dish she makes. The sound of summer crickets louder than our own voices as we sat on her back porch with droves of cousins and jars of lightening bugs we’d chased in her yard. The way she’s taught me to identify and nurture the plants that overflow on my own patio now. The hymns that still ring in my ears as I listened to them seated next to her in church for years. Every Christmas Eve of my 35 years spent at her tree. The ring of her own voice when she says my name. The way she’d crawl in to bed with me and pat my leg as I fell asleep when I spent the night with her as a child. Snapping beans in deep bowls and buckets as their huge summer garden delivered to us every July.
The list is endless, and it will always be. Forever and forever.
I don’t know that this is the end. In fact, the most recent neurologist’s report seems to think it is not and she is doing exceptionally well. But it is a reminder, if not more, that time waits for none of us. It’s a very inconvenient thing, isn’t it? To have these bodies that become weaker as our spirits grow wiser and stronger.
I dropped by Jude’s classroom this morning for their Honors Day celebration, and he received a “Little Artist” award and the award for the “Best Storyteller” which admittedly makes my English professor and writer heart happy. Art and storytelling are always the best ways to get to know your own self and others as well, I think. And as I thought more about that idea this afternoon, I’m realizing that all we really have left are stories when it’s all done. And those stories carry so much weight and meaning to each of us.
My grandparents have been married almost 62 years. I love them because they are mine, but there are so many people in their community who would say they love them because of who they are. Kind and generous and hardworking and honest and quick to love but slow to judge. A lifetime seems too short for people like that, but I know that’s not how things work.
Monday was a hard day for her. I went to the hospital that evening, and found my grandad alone in the room with her when I walked in. IV cords and beeps and monitors and clinical charts and sterile cold everywhere. But he sat there with her and held her hand on one side while I held the other. She was still in pain, and she was confused, and he draped his arm over her, but he held his head down a minute so I couldn’t see his tears, but I saw them. I have story after story of my life with the two of them, and it would be so much safer and more comfortable to leave out this chapter. To hold it at a distance. It takes courage to look suffering in the face, but I want to be there for all of it. I want to let it all in even though it hurts so much.
I get daily emails from Richard Rohr, and the one that arrived to me on Monday morning was about suffering. (Again, the words meant to find me always get there just on time.) He explains, “Spirituality is about what we do with our pain…We forget something that should be obvious: We do not handle suffering. Suffering handles us in deep and mysterious ways.” I know that this is true. I’ve deepened my own heart and grown in so many ways as a result of my own suffering, but the pain hurts so much in that moment, even as it handles you.
We are still in that space of in between, that land of not-knowing. Certainty is so much easier. The surface is far more comfortable than the depths. But the magic of suffering is that you come out deeper and stronger on the other side, and the joys are richer, too. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such sadness and brokenness as I did on Monday evening in that room, but I’ve never seen such beauty either.