I’m writing aimlessly tonight. I just see that it’s been nearly a week since I’ve written, and so much is racing by in my own head. I’m writing, writing, writing all the time by observing and thinking. But they are mostly half thoughts lately and never leave my head to find paper or screen.
She is still here, but she is close to the other side, I think. Very close. I’ve stopped in everyday, and I see her slipping. These bodies are so strange. So real and close when you are in them, yet they seem almost marginal or paper thin as you near the end. Bodies might be the way we move through the world, but they are not even half of it, are they? Just a shell to get us where we’re going.
There are specifics I will not write about until months or years have passed. Events of my past week, things that still belong to her as part of her time here. But I will say that compassion is not soft or fluffy like we are led to believe. It is hard. It means looking suffering in the face, holding space there, carrying some of it for a while, and not running away in fear or fright. It means doing things that hurt.
Every single major religion tells its followers that compassion is the way to spiritual development, yet we leave it out when it’s uncomfortable. We change the channel or write the check and forget about it. We don’t even understand what it really is. It is never easy and always tough.
Sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live.
I spent time last week looking through some old family photos while she slept. Looking at some images I’d seen before and some I hadn’t, I was struck by how irreversible life is. You always have a choice, I suppose, of how you will react to something. But once the something is done, it is irrevocable. It’s just a big, long string that unravels and all you can do is chase it.
We can wonder what our lives would be like if something else had happened. We can wonder about the million ways it would be different, but those questions get us nowhere really. It sometimes feels like a hand pushing us through all our days with these events that propel us a certain direction, and you flail and stumble for a while until you figure it out. Then walk along as best you can until another wind blows.
I found a photo of my own dad that I’d never seen before. Driving a boat in something like 1978 without a care in the world. He had no idea that his irrevocable moment would happen when he was only 31. He didn’t know my own name or face on that sunny day, and it’s easy to look back and define it all by that moment that controlled the duration of our time together. But this week, I gazed and found myself wondering exactly what it was like in the June sunshine on that boat. What the breeze felt like. What someone said just before the camera clicked. What he was responding to when he smiled. What it was like to live in that second without knowing what was coming next.
Photos are so good to remind us of that. Thank God there were moments when we didn’t know what was coming later.
My grandmother was so independent with her need of others. Her priority was always to give to someone else and make them feel loved and at home. I remember when dating my ex-husband, he joked that her house contained some kind of time warp because you’d walk in and insist you were staying a short while, and before you knew it, six hours and a full meal had taken place. It was true. Energy is a very real thing, isn’t it? When you love others and your true intention is to give, give, give without prioritizing your own needs, people gravitate to that.
I joked to my sister, as we tended to her a few days ago in the ways that you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn’t ever know this was the way it would go. It’s only been a month, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she has done for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair and rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.
There’s so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that has taught me what I needed to learn.
So many times in my life, I’ve heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because “I didn’t want to remember her like that.” That idea seems so sad and small to me now.
I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But I will remember these last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It’s cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next.
Grace always lives in all the hard places.