gratitude

sweetness and sadness

My grandmother took her final rest in the early morning hours on Sunday, before sunrise. It was peaceful and loving and perfectly fitting for a life that reflected so much grace.

My “real life” circle already knows this, but I have recorded all of my formative moments on this journal, and I know I have to write something. But words seem completely inadequate sometimes. What do you say when you lose someone who is so cherished by those of us left behind? I don’t know.

It was past 11:00 when I finally got home to my empty house last night after the funeral visitation and then family time at my grandparents’ house. Sometimes words are not enough, so we rely on rituals. This week is reserved for those rituals of mourning. Receiving visitors and food and hugs. Singing hymns and listening to prayers of comfort. Glancing at pictures from years and years of a life well-spent. And finally, on Wednesday afternoon, lowering her body in the ground.

Seeing her body somehow feels so different than it usually feels for me to attend a funeral visitation, less unsettling and less haunted. Maybe it’s because I knew her so closely or maybe it is because it was such a gradual process that I walked alongside her these past few weeks. Whatever the reason, this time it is so clear to me that it is just a shell. There’s a line from Quaker writings in the nineteenth century that says, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This past month with my grandmother taught be innumerable lessons, but that is one of them.

I think she knew this always. It’s why everyone who met her loved her so much. She spoke to you soul-to-soul without any regard to the other stuff when the world around you only ever sees the other “stuff” as who you are.

The missing will come. The void and the absence is here already, but it still feels surreal. The missing will come later, and I know loss enough to know this. I will cry those tears at some point. But right now, the things that make my eyes sting and overflow are the details of beauty I’ve observed as she made her transition to the other side. There was so much sweetness in her passing, as hard as it is for us to let her go.

There are countless moments from this month that I will never, ever forget. Making pureed sweet potatoes like baby food for her to eat, wondering how many times she did the same for me. Watching little cousins play hide and seek last Sunday in her big hydrangea bush while she slept upstairs. Rubbing lotion on her tired hands, scarred from a life of love and work. Seeing her smile and squeeze my hand when I dripped water in her mouth from a tiny sponge. Listening to my Grandaddy sing hymns to her in her Emory hospital room when she was overwhelmed and upset, and then watching him silently hold space for her in the last 10 days that she spent at home. He never wavered, even once, from what real love is. 

I will never, in all my life, forget what I have witnessed between the two of them in these last few weeks.

As I was talking with an old friend last night at the visitation, I was saying how grateful I am to be from a family that always taught me the value of loss and sadness, always showed me the whole picture. So many people in our culture don’t “do” sadness and don’t “do” death. They pretend it’s something we can somehow avoid by holding it distant. Like if you run fast enough and smile big enough and buy enough shiny new things, loss won’t really happen to you.

I wrote my grandmother’s obituary – perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever written. How do you sum up someone’s life in something like 300 words? As I wrote, I got to that last paragraph where you state the deceased’s loved ones – the list of people who passed before them and those they left behind. I realized that perhaps the most striking line of someone’s obituary is that list of who preceded them in death. It’s just a list of names that is so easy to breeze over as you read, but to really think about it and remember what loss feels like magnifies it. I listed her parents, both of them. Her oldest brother she adored so much as a mentor and her most trusted friend. Her youngest brother who died at 36 and left behind a wife and three kids. Her son-in-law, my own father, who passed at 31 and left my sister and me, alongside my mother. She held our hand so closely in that time when I know her own heart was broken, too. As I read those details and I look back, I’m astounded at the pain she endured in her lifetime. The process we all experience, letting go of people you can’t imagine living without.

Pain transforms you if you let it. I heard a radio interview once where someone referenced “the alchemy of pain” and I love that. It can be an almost magical process of transformation if you let it burn to completion in you. You can’t selectively numb emotions. You numb the pain or sadness, and your joy is dimmed as well

 

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I’m seeing already how the well of sadness from the last month is echoing in a way that magnifies the connection I have with her. It’s like I press my ear to the sadness, and what I really hear beneath it is thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Love goes on and on and on. Always.

 

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gratitude

all the hard places

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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