Two women that I loved died very recently. One was very old, full of days as the Bible would say. She was the older sister of my father-in-law, my aunt by marriage.
The other was far too young, and hadn’t even had the chance to enjoy a grandchild. She was my beautiful friend from what feels like another lifetime now when I lived in another state.
I’m thinking about these two women, and I’m thinking about death. The older aunt was my favorite person out of my husband’s entire family. She was funny, smart, very kind, full of integrity, and really very normal. By normal, I mean she was quite sane.
My friend was my age. J was born in China Town, and I’m not sure she even learned English until she started school. She was so private that the world didn’t even realize that the inscrutable surface was privacy. Once J trusted you, it was entirely different, and the colorful fun person unfolded with sparkling colors. When we were younger mothers, we not only saw each other for park play days and school events, but later we’d call and have a phone chat as our day was winding down. I remember those calls mostly for how we’d make each other laugh.
When I had a baby, she’d come get my young kids to give me a break, then bring them home with a cooked meal for our dinner. When J had to be rushed to the hospital, her equally inscrutable and even more private husband brought their kids to my house (on her instructions, although he seemed nervous to allow it). We trusted, respected, and enjoyed each other. After I moved, years passed of not seeing each other, but just a phone call could dissolve time and distance.
I’ve been grieving J for quite some time. She’d suffered a stroke, and was in the unconscious twilight between life and death for months. Hearing last night that she had passed hasn’t entirely soaked in yet. Part of me is still in denial, and waiting for ‘the real call’ to tell me that she made the miraculous recovery. Yet, my heart knows quite well that she is fully recovered now, just in a place that I can’t see her until I travel there one day.
Death stops everything for the one who dies, but in this world, it can change everything or next to nothing for those who remain. It all seems to depend on the presence or absence of Love.
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Robert Frost
The older I get, the more truth I see in that quote by Robert Frost. When I was young, I refused to discuss or even think about one of my parents dying. I suppose I must have unconsciously wished that by refusing to think about it, or emotionally accept that my mother and father could and would die, I felt that I could somehow stop it, or at the least forestall it. It was all quite irrational, but what I’m trying to say is that losing one of them was emotionally inconceivable to me at the time.
The days and months and years rolled on, and the day came that I stood by my father and heard him take his last breath. That powerful moment still comes back in memory, but thankfully not as often anymore. I wept intensely, and walked under the canopy of stars that night to try to absorb how it was possible that such a larger than life presence was just gone. Coming back in the house, I saw that one of my sisters was already removing his shoes, his glasses, his jacket, and I wanted to scream at her to just let them be, to stop erasing evidence of him. But he was still gone, and not one physical material thing in this world, no matter how strong and evocative the memory attached to it, would bring him back.
Life went on. It was almost surreal to realize that everyone would continue to bathe, eat, launder, clean, work, and sleep, as though this unthinkable thing hadn’t happened. One horrible lesson was that being married to a passive aggressive man would make me terribly vulnerable to covert abuse during times of deep grief.
We all thought our father would outlive our mother by years, but it was the opposite. It was worse to lose my mother, because it was in bits and pieces that she left us over time. She faded in and out, and each time there was less conscious connection with her. My mother had dementia. Dementia isn’t at all a clean grieving. It’s ragged and sharp with jolting edges that don’t heal, because the person is still with you. On the other hand, you also have the rare but absolutely priceless windows when even dementia can’t stop someone from coming back to connect with you heart to heart.
Life and time can seem to pass relentlessly, even when you see Time taking someone away from you.
When both my parents were living, we lived a thousand miles away from them. I used to try to take trips back to give one of my sisters a break from care giving. On one of those latter trips, I experienced one of those priceless windows. My mother’s dementia was advancing, but she was still able to be at home with my father (who was legally blind by then). I’m not sure that she always knew who I was. One night when I was tucking them both in (and that is a strange full circle to be sure), I came to my mother’s side of the bed to kiss her goodnight. When I started to stand up, she gently but firmly grasped my arm to hold me there. She looked at me and said, “PJ, I bet you must look at me and wonder, Where is my mother? If you look closely, you can still see her.”
My heart was in my throat, and I said, “I see you, Mom. I see you. I love you.”
“I love you too,” she replied.
The last window I was able to share was when I saw her the last time before she died. I’d taken my two youngest girls with me for that visit, and this time my mother was in a nursing home. She didn’t know who I was at all, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her granddaughters, and kept smiling and nodding at them. She didn’t speak at all, but it was almost Christmas, and so I sat next to her, stroking her arm or holding her hand, and I started to sing her favorite carol, Silent Night.
Silent night, holy night, all is calm... and then I heard her voice, still sweet and like velvet, joining in. She sang every word of the first and second verse. I sang another carol, and she kept singing, so we just sang Christmas carols together. Not even dementia could steal that.
Leaving her to return home was so sad for me. I fretted when she declined further, and as things often go awry, had to deal with the flu hitting here when I wanted to travel quickly. I was getting ready to leave for the trip back the very day when I got the phone call that she was gone. She died alone. The nurse walked in her room and just found her gone, and called my sisters. That was the worst part of it for me. I wanted to be with her, curled up next to her, hugging her and loving her when she left us. She deserved so much more. The kindest, most gentle and loving being to ever walk this planet, was worth the most loving and beautiful farewell possible. Enough time has passed that I think that is exactly what God provided, despite human failure.
After the phone call telling me my mother had died, I was initially calm (numb) when talking to my kids. We told stories of ‘Gramma’ and each story made us smile and laugh. For just a fraction of a second, I swore I could hear my mother’s merry soft laugh as well. Later on that day, I crawled into my bed under the covers, and wept into my pillow so no one could hear me. I thought of all the painful and horrible things she unfairly endured in this life, and I wept even harder that life had been so cruel to such a bright, gentle soul. In the midst of my hot, silent tears, I could suddenly and very clearly hear my mother’s voice say, “PJ…you won’t find me there.”
In that moment, I knew that if I wanted to feel close to her, I had to think about sunny days, a steaming cup of tea with a good book, a child’s innocent smile, the sweet sounds of a baby cooing, a cat purring on my lap, a dog snoring by my feet, and the fresh scent of bedding that dried in the sun.. I could find her in the cozy satisfaction of washing dishes, folding washcloths, dinner prepared with love and cooking in the oven, helping a stranger, and putting out seed for birds and squirrels. I needed to look everywhere through the eyes of my spirit with the kindness she lived by, and her joy in what was simple and good.
Death can stop everything that fades, rusts, tarnishes, and disintegrates, but nothing that really matters. Not even death can stop that kind of love.
When I miss my friend, I see the mischief in her eyes, and hear her laughter. I think of J traveling across the world two times to bring home a child to add to her family, because after giving birth to her second daughter, the doctor told her no more pregnancies. I’ll remember the look in her eyes when she watched her daughter playing the piano during a school event. How J always encouraged me. The love in her words when she told me how she met her husband, and how they faithfully waited until they could marry. More than anything, how each of her kids, adopted or biological, were just her kids. They amazed her, and brought her greatest joys. Like my mother, she had the clarity and strength of a servant’s heart.
Rest in peace from memories of pain; live in joy where you belong, beautiful women of faith. That great cloud of witnesses grows ever more real and dear.