She was thirty-ish, and she worked for the same agency I do. I knew her enough to nod as we passed, perhaps one of us would say something about the weather, or comment about how the week end was coming.
I was told that she went to the emergency room with a head ache. She died there. I found out she had a young child.
Left to my own devices, I would not have gone to her wake.
I had thought about it, and I had decided not to. I told myself these stories about why I shouldn’t. They were even true, almost. Sort-of.
When my co-worker nudged me in that direction, I had to embrace the fact that there were stories about why I should go. And these were more true. And so I did.
We headed there. And that was… a journey. We are not detail guys, my coworker and I. I think it is fair to say that we have more book learning than street smarts, more intellect than social ability. The drive there, was an adventure, almost. It is entirely possibly that we ended up laughing some, and finding ourselves in a highly ludicrous situation. That is a story for another time.
When we arrived at the funeral home, the place that we were supposed to be, I doubted myself again, doubted the decision. There were these sad people gathered outside. Sad (or perhaps just empathic) workers by the double doors. I thought about The Shining a little bit; the book and movie are built on the belief that places take on an echo of the emotions that are felt there. Even if there had been nobody there, even if I didn’t know the person, even if you had hid the signs proclaiming the nature of the business done there… I suspect a person might have sensed it: the sadness.
After skulking around, a bit, we made our way to the slow-moving recieving line. It wound through the small rooms in the house. When we entered the actual room, I was confronted with the realization that we would soon be facing what remained of her physical presence. I could not yet see her, but on the other side: her family. Siblings, parents, even a grandmother. When I told the story later, my wife rightly observed: nobody should have to bury their grand-child.
And when it was my turn, I was confronted with the reality that it is so good and also so terrible, the way we come face-to-face with a body in an open casket. A simple picture, rendered in crayon, was placed above her head, next to a photograph. This perfect little boy was the subject of the photo, and presumably the artist of the picture.
What do you say? This is the question that crashed into me as I approached the recieving line. My natural awkwardness conspired with my desire to find words that help and heal, words that come from a place of wisdom and maturity. Am I supposed to introduce myself? Offer general condolences? Specific thoughts? I mumbled and murmered some kind of hybrid of all of these, and I felt an imposter, a fake, a hack.
Outside the house were some familiar faces; coworkers stood silently, together. Some of them new her better than me. Some of them were crying. I took my place in the circle. And I went looking for words. I stood there in that silence and I realized something:
It was good that I was there. I did not need to say anything… More than that, I should not say anything. Not in that holy moment.
We stood in silence together. Every word in that sentence is important: We stood in silence together.
That was the point: an object lesson, a lived demonstration: sometimes, there are no words. Sometimes, all we can do is stand together in silence. And that is enough because it is all that we have; it is enough because it has to be.
I was listening to a list of things that are beautiful, things that fill us with hope and with life. “Holding the hand of your daughter.” “Sitting by your grandfather’s bedside while he takes his last breath.” “A beautiful song.” “This feeling at work that what you do matters.”
My ears heard all of them, but my brain just stopped processing at about the second one. I was not surprised, really. I know that this is what we are supposed to believe. But I was struck by the force of it. My grandfather died about ten years ago. He died quite suddenly, walking into his bedroom to turn the clock foreward, for daylight savings. (Is daylight savings the one when we move the clocks foreward? What do we call the other one?) I have always found that kind-of wonderful and poetic. I have this idea that he went to be with that lost hour, in somewhere of eternal possibilities, so near to us, but not quite close enough to touch.
And so the literal meaning of those words, “Sitting by your grandfather’s bedside while he takes his last breath.” it’s not that what the words meant is what I struggled with. My mom has been dead for a little over a year now. And so whenever I hear that word, “death.” It’s her I am thinking about.
There are lots of things that were a lot less beautiful about her death. It was a battle she fought, a battle she lost, just a few feet at a time. It was World War I-style trench warfare, the death of my mother. Also, there is something… natural? expected? about losing grand parents. Yes, I know that the same could be said for parents. But somehow, it just isn’t the same. I did not know how deep the connection to my mom went until she was gone.
These things are related to something more fundamental, something which made her death not beautiful: me. I was not ready for it to be beautiful. I resisted it and I fought with it. Some of these thoughts and feelings on the inside played out in terms of decisions and words that happened on the outside. I am not proud of all the things I did and said as my mother died.
Declaring a thing beautiful makes it so. Tell a person they are beautiful and it will change them. God made the world, and then he said, “It is good.” I realized something about this: I think that when God declared the world good, it actually changed the world. It made the world more good, perhaps in some way we could never define or explain. This change was not only brought about because God is God. I truly believe that even when we declare a thing beautiful, it changes that thing.
Someday, much too soon, other people who I love very much are going to die. And I am declaring, right here and now, that it is beautiful. This declaration will make it a little bit more beautiful than it would have been. I don’t think this declaration will make it easier. But it will make it better.
I hope that you can learn from my mistakes. I hope that you will make this declaration now, too.
As I write this, I am holding on to this hope. In a way it so abstract I can barely describe it, but right now it feels really important.
I am going to try and express this hope as a question:
Would it have mattered if God came back to the world, and declared it good, after the fact? Can declaring a thing beautiful, after the fact, can this travel through time itself, going back, and changing a thing?
What if I decide right now, that my mom’s death was beautiful? Does that change anything?
Last night, I was just overcome with feelings.
I realize that might not seem like very good writing. “Feelings” is a vague word. Upon reading that, perhaps you wonder, “Well, just what feelings were you overcome with?”
And that, my friends, is kind of the point, today. I was overcome with feelings. It’s not so much that they were abstract. And there have been times that I have been overwhelmed with a dazzling array of different feelings that conflicted with each other and just left me wordless.
This wasn’t like that. For one thing, I can’t say a lot about what feelings that were all mixed up together. It was something like all of them. And also, it was like none of them. Maybe it’s getting warm to say that I was overcome with emotionality. I was weepy, but not crying. And I was aware of God’s presence in a profound way, but it wasn’t only a God-thing.
These feelings, thoughts, and memories came together. It was like the swirling together of a bunch of air fronts that brings about a storm. Or the coming together of two elements that make a totally different compound. It was a collision of sorts, an explosion, almost… but not violent, really.
This is the first Christmas I have ever had with out my mom. That was one of the things that came together in my mind. The sadness I have.
A while ago, when somebody amazing passed away… somebody amazing, but not as close as mom to the center of my life, I had this epiphany. The woman who died then, she was this force of kindness and goodness. We all deferred to her, in some ways, as a voice of wisdom and compassion. I saw, when Pauline passed away, that we were all called to step up our game, some. I saw that in her passing there was a challenge to us, that maybe we would not have risen to, if Pauline was still with us in this life.
I saw, as I sat there, the other night, that this was no less true of my mom. And I saw that I have spent these last months in a sort-of stupor. Some things have happened. Some things I have let happen. I have backed up and away from anything.
I am not being all mean to myself or beating myself up for that. It was what it was. I did not see what I was doing then. I do, now. I see that there is… room for me, to step up. But what I had been doing is stepping back, or stepping down, or stepping away.
I suppose I could stretch the metaphor a bit, and say that maybe I made room for myself to make a running start in that same direction I should have been moving in all along.
I am trying to be bravely transparent her. So I want to admit that it is not just sadness but fear. There is a part of me that I think was trying to keep her alive by shutting down. It’s like, “See mom? I need you. I still need you.”
But the best of me knows how she would feel about that. She would be gentle with me about these last bunch of months. And she would encourage me to step into this new world I am entering. She would not want me to hold myself back.
In fact, thats a much better way to honor her life. I do believe we live on in that next life. But also, we live on in this life, in a symbolic, less literal way. I can embody her, bring her wisdom and kindness into me, live in a new way by reacting with the things I learned from her, and in that way she is living on through me.
Sometimes, I think society views most of our emotions in the same way it views defecating. Sure, we can recognize that everybody poops. Similarly, we are allowed to have emotions. But we’d better not go too far in exploring them, discussing them, admitting to them. It is just… unseemly.
There is a positive to this. Wallowing is really not helpful.
But neither is denial.
I have been writing about my moms death, recently. I have been writing about it because it is on my mind and on my heart. I have been writing about it because I think it’s not good, how we want to just sweep everything under the rug. I have been writing about it because I guess maybe I am looking for some sympathy. But I am also looking to validate somebody out there. Society wants to give us a statuate of limations on our grief. But we deserve better than that.
I miss her.
She’s been gone for about 3 weeks now.
I have gone a lot longer than this with out seeing her. Some times, I have gone longer than this with out even talking to her.
But it’s funny and sad. When we know that somebody is there. Available. Reachable. Sometimes, that’s what we need. We don’t need to contact them. We just need to know that we could, if we wanted to.
I believe I will see her again.
She will be healthier and stronger than she’s been in years. And so will I. We will be at our best. Better than we will ever be in this world.
I have to work at reminding myself about this. Maybe it’s the not-knowing when this will be. Maybe it’s immaturity– some day, these short years I spend in this world will be such a tiny little preview of the eternity I will be living in.
In short, it helps some, to know that I will see her again.
But it doesn’t make it all the way better, to know this. It still hurts. I still miss her.
I guess what I can do is live in this hurt, some. Learn from it. Grow through it. I think that’s why we are here, in this broken world. To learn and grow.
I wish it were easier, sometimes.
There was poetry in it, or perhaps some kind of metaphor. The cematary was edged right up to the high school, and it almost appeared that they were elbowing each other– gently, I hoped– for space. The boundary of land between them zigged and zagged back in forth in neat little rectangular plots.
That’s how I found myself ambling among the tomb stones while football practice carried on: students made oversized in pads, bustling this way in that, looking like a warrior training camp (I suppose in some sense it was) the yells, the sounds of the runners, of the meaty thuds as they assaulted the tackling dummies.
But that came from afar. It almost enhanced the quiet, where I was, through the power of contrast.
It didn’t take us long. In the movies, fictional characters never forget where the grave stone is. When deaths happen in movies they are Monumental. When people visit grave sites it is High Drama. In real life?
My grandmother died about 8 years ago. And I loved her. But somehow I had never made it here. I don’t know why.
We located it soon and quickly enough. My dad, her son, was with us. If he hadn’t been there, it would not have been such an easy thing. But we stood there.
Dad, and me, and my youngest son, Ethan. Three generations come to pay homage to a fourth generation.
In a movie, if it hadn’t been thundering out, if I hadn’t been there drinking liquor straight out of the bottle, if I hadn’t been railing at the injustice of the world, at the bare minimum we would have shared stories and talked about her.
But we stood in companionable silence. Even Ethan, who is forever bouncing, bopping, running, rolling, or at least wandering, he stood with us, just quiet. It wasn’t somber, just a quiet moment, on an amazing Fallish day, leaves just hinting that maybe they will turn colors, breeze mitigating the suns intensity.
There is a story: why we were there. What we did next. It’s a story I am still in the middle of, a true story that hasn’t yet resolved itself. I’d like to tell you that story. But one of the places it starts is there, at my grandmothers grave, with my dad and my boy.
I have been thinking about ‘the great mystery’… the idea that we become one flesh when we are married.
There was a time I thought that this meant we would be, in some way, stacked up and added together. If I was able to life 200 pounds, and she could life 200 pounds, then together we would lift 400 pounds. Similarly, if my IQ were 100, and her IQ were 100, then when we married it would be suddenly 200.
Of course, I knew that this wasn’t true. And yet, I thought that this is what the metaphor meant. I thought that the image was wrong.
There was no good outcome for this marriage thing. I was nearly certain that the thing they claimed was just a lie. But the possibility, that tiny little chance, that in some way it was right, this terrified me.
I was so afraid of losing myself as everything that I am was averaged out with everything that my wife is. It was a cold comfort that our strengths are not evenly divided in all areas. The idea that perhaps she would compensate for one of my weaknesses in a certain area, and that I would compensate for one of hers in a different area, this didn’t help.
Like most expectations of sudden and effortless transformation, this thought turned out to be just wrong. It’s not how it works at all.
But this is not to say that we do not become one flesh.
The process is not instaneous. Nor is it unconscious. But most of all, it is not characterized by this sense of adding the two participants together.
Subtraction best characterizes the whole thing.
I have been married for about 15 years now. I am sure some day I will look at this time and laugh at my niavetee. But for now, this is the best I can do…
The thing about two people coming together is that there is all this redundancy. If we were to physically wed two bodies, form them into some sort of post-birth siamese twins, then lots of decisions would have to get made. Whose liver would be the one to clean the blood? Whose heart would circulate the blood through both bodies?
To leave everything active and independent would be to miss the whole point of making these two bodies one body. They would simply be sewn together. If they are to truly become one flesh, then some of the best of the organs of each would have to step up and take control for the whole new system.
If two unmarried people were a vessels full of water, then in the marriage, their is another empty vessel waiting. The thing is, this vessel does not hold any more than the individuals. The whole of both of the people can not be poured in. Half of each must come in. The question might seem to be: which half?
I hope I’m not stretching that metaphor to far when I say that we get to decide, over the years, as we slowly come together to be one flesh. We stand with our own old vessel. And we pour that which we wish to become into the new vessel. It’s a process that takes years.
And we might try to pour all of ourself into the new vessel. We might leave hardly any room for our spouse at all. The new thing that we might become would in fact, hardly be different than the person we were.
And I can only imagine my spouse. She is looking at the new vessell. It’s full, now. And her old vessel, it’s almost full, too. She has left behind so very much of herself.
This is the thing I’m trying to get at: marriage is this Christ-like choice of leaving so much of ourselves behind. Accepting the new vessel which incorporates us both, trusting the other that they have brought along as much of their old self as they needed, trusting that they have left enough room in the relationship for us, too, to bring along at least something of ourselves.
We will someday lose our spouses. All of us. One member of every marriage will die first. Perhaps the times of our deaths will be seperated by fractions of a second. Perhaps it will be seperated by decades.
In that time, we lose something of ourselves. If it has been a long marriage, and a good one, I suspect it is mostly hard to tell what the husband brought to the vesell original, and it is hard to tell what the wife brought to the vesell originally.
I suspect we can and should keep something of our own individuality as the years go by. But I don’t think we need to spend much energy ensuring this. I think our human fears and selfishness will hold back more than we probably should. I suspect at the end of my life, I will look at what is left, and I will think “I wish I had released this, and this, and this; I wish I had let go of that, and that, and that; I wish I had accepted this much more of her into me, and did not guard myself off from it.”
When we lose our spouse we will much of their remaining uniqueness. And we will lose some of the mixed together parts of us, some of what we became through the surrender, through the subtraction, through the willingness to became something new not dicatated by who we were.
It’s a pretty terrible thing to comprehend. I know that we get to keep some of the person who was. I know that we will see them again. But none of this alters the fact that we become one flesh, and then we are two again, at least in some way.
There is some hope in the idea that this process is a sanctification, a preperation. This joining, the first letting go when we get married, and then the second letting go at a spouse’s death, these things purify us, they prepare us, they make us truer and refine us toward the people we are meant to be.
Somebody once asked Woody Allen “Are you trying to achieve immortality through your films?”
His great response was, “I’d rather achieve immortality through not dying.”
I’ve been reflecting on that idea: immortality.
Almost every secular movie ever made, when somebody is dying, and somebody else is all sad about it, the dying person says “I’ll always be with you: in your heart and memories.”
My first response is a bit off a riff off of Woody Allen. “I’d rather live forever outside of somebody’s heart.”
But my second thought is that even without the hope of an afterlife, the secular world can do better.
My grandmother passed away a few months back. I loved here dearly. She was often a rather un-grandmotherly lady. She taught me to play poker. She was probably the best poker player I’ve ever known. And she never let me win.
She was loving and gentle, but she had this whole stable of hilarious, provacative, and borderline obscene sayings. I’m about to swear for pretty much the first time on this blog. All you senestive souls probably want to go read “Guideposts” or something.
Two in particular I remember “That’s uglier than a bucket full of a$$ holes” and “It’s colder than a witch’s tit”
My grandmother impacted me. She changed who I am. I think most people who know me would consider me both gentle and provacative. I don’t generally let my kids win when we play games.
I am changing the world through these, and many more important ways. I will be dead someday. And the people who I impact will change the world, too.
I truly believe we will live forever in a much more literal way. There is that kind of immortality.
But that doesn’t diminish this kind of immortality. Yes, I remember my grandmother. But more than that, I’ve been changed by her, made a better person by her. This is no small thing, and it’s a much bigger thing than mere memories.