The Juxtaposition of Life and Death

Another of winter’s intermittent episodes forced me to bundle up and brace for the cold as I set up on the front porch for a much-needed writing indulgence.  White puffs of breath remind me I’m alive.  The patio heater my parents gave me, Charming’s pilfered grad school hoodie, and Gram’s blanket can’t seem to warm past the skin to thaw out the numbness in my chest.

My grandmother passed in her sleep Thursday night.  My brothers and I were in Syracuse by Saturday night.  The wake was Sunday afternoon at the funeral home.  We held a church memorial service on Monday, concluding with her burial at the cemetery.  Charming and I started the drive south.  I finished this morning and was wobbly transitioning to teaching this afternoon, surprised that a half-day was such a struggle.

The one commonality in the way humanity handles grief is simply that each of us go through a process.  The sameness ends there.  We can follow along with the grief manual guide steps, a curiously constructed set of stages that help us explain, justify, and defend how we feel.  The reality is that no two of Grams’ eight grandchildren will mourn in the same way or grieve on the same timeline.  I don’t know what stage I’m in.  Maybe I’m hovering over the entire grieving process an alternate, existential cloud.  Absent clarity, questioning consciousness, reminded too often of the subtle space between life and death.

I prepared for Grammy’s final breaths by producing a memorial video to bring her back to life for all of us at the viewing.  Comprised of still and moving pictures arranged as a visual narrative of her life, it seemed fitting to accompany the photo story with a soundtrack of Gram’s favorite hymns. Thursday night, I’d finished converting files and editing the storyboard and transitions of stills.  Friday night, I should have been packed and asleep, but selecting compositions where the piano and violin highlights would do justice to the recreation of her life took over two hours.

I was still editing video footage after I’d picked up Charming Saturday afternoon and he drove us the rest of the way to my parents’ house.  I understood that I went home because Grammy was dead, but my brain was having a hard time to justifying the obvious truth and reality when the cumulative sum of daily hours lost in her memorial project flooded my subconscious with a steady stream of pictures and videos of her alive and well and dancing.  When I blogged last week, I spent enough time sitting still to accept what was going to come.  Complete devotion to creating a tribute that would honor her memory and comfort her loved ones allowed me to evade grieving Grams altogether.

After a tire blow-out on 81 N and quick spare switch out on the shoulder, Charming and I crawled in the door met by hugs and lots of people despite the hour, and all of them were gathered there to attend my grandmother’s funeral.  The sweet serenity of the memorial project had allowed me to suspend all rational conversations, but Mom told me just before bed that all of the grandchildren would be speaking on Monday at the funeral.  I tried to engage with my cousins’ fiancés a few times, but mostly, I was a mess… I wanted desperately to be alone where no one would notice I didn’t have the capacity to be a loving daughter, sister, niece, or cousin. With family gatherings before and after the wake and people dropping in with food and condolences, I’d have to wait until late that night to write my mini-eulogy.

The irony in this is that I’m not a procrastinator.  I hated to have to wait until the last minute to write something of such import for a woman with high expectations equal the standards for her own life. I saw Grams that afternoon lying in an open casket in her favorite dress, the purple one she wore to all her grandkids’ weddings.  Directly opposite, the video tribute of a smiling Grams played on repeat for three hours.  After everyone had gone and the video screen went black, I snuck back in to say goodbye, to squeeze her cold hand, to talk to her face to face one last time, even if it was through the one-way glass of heaven’s floor.  Maybe for some of us, even the Type A personalities, we’ll procrastinate when it comes to saying goodbye.

Mom had urged me to simply share my most recent blog post, but that was about me.  So, Sunday night, I had another writing night for Grams.  It took three hours to compose a five-minute speech, and I already had a head start with some bits from last week.  It pained me greatly to change words like “live” from present to past tense.  For an English teacher, that singular editing act of shifting tenses may have been even more convincing than touching Grammy’s hand in the casket.  She is dead.

I wrote once in college that you’re born, you live, and you die, and that somewhere in between you touch lives or don’t touch them or change the world or don’t change it.  The paraphrase is close enough to the original sentiment echoes again in my mind.  I can imagine more than a few of my family members felt snubbed by me this weekend. Whereas when we were children and I constantly vied unsuccessfully for my cousins’ attention, always the odd-woman out peering into the boys’ inner circle, these past few days have me wanting to disappear, to retreat, to regroup and find a new normal.  In every setting, in every gathering, I saw life juxtaposed against death, and just like the concept of infinity, I couldn’t wrap my mind around all of the “stuff” that we put between life and death.

It’s quite possible that there are others who, like me, when faced with a loved one’s death, find themselves hovering in a cloud above the stages of grief, unable to participate with those family members and friends who are progressing quite normally and naturally through the mourning process, grateful for these purposeful gatherings intended to comfort one another by coming together to honor the memory of a person who no longer exists inside this earthly body.

This blog isn’t another tribute to her; I turn thirty-five next week, and I’m numbed by all the numbers in between us.  Grammy will never sing another happy birthday chorus around our dining room table, but she was there for every important moment in my life four over three decades.  She’d always ask me to sing for her, and I relished the opportunity.  I don’t sing anymore, but I had promised Grams long ago that I would sing a hymn at her funeral, anything but “In the Garden”.  I suggested that I sing a verse and have the congregation join in and that the song be a cappella, absent piano because the accompanist is now in heaven, probably playing with a choir of angels by now.

At the wake, a former neighbor of mine stayed an extra moment with Charming and me after sharing her condolences to let me know how much she enjoyed my blog.  She’s the first person besides my gym mentor Chuck who I think ever went back to the beginning… nearly three years of blogging nights by now.  Not only had she been moved by the subtle transformations in my sphere, but it had comforted her in some personal way during a challenging season, and that’s why I am doing what I am doing right now.

I don’t know if there are other believers who watch a love one die, and simultaneously thank God that she’s with the Lord while fearing our own end?  Or is it that no one says it out loud?  My neighbor is an accomplished woman much older and wiser than I, and the only way to explain the ability for my words to affect her at any level are in my willingness to be authentic and real and say what nobody else is willing to say.  As each of us spoke and my cousin played a violin solo, the video track played on mute on the screen behind.  I tried to focus on the words of my speech on the platform but was distracted by her closed coffin directly before me and the contrasting footage of her kissing my Grandpa on the stage monitor in the back of the sanctuary.

I didn’t want to be a fraud, boasting in words I can’t live up to right now, so I sang one verse of “It is Well with My Soul” as if I were Grams who believed every word all her life, and as we sang the rest of the song, the pallbearers carried Gram’s coffin down the aisle and into the hearse.  The funeral procession brought us to a familiar place.  It was always easy to find Grandpa’s grave because it’s right by the statue of the Praying Hands.  When we left, I asked one of the drivers when they were putting her in the ground.  His answer was vague, but it wouldn’t be before Charming and I had to head back to DC.

funeral2

I think like Carl Sandburg’s poem, I need grass to grow over Grammy and Grandpa’s grave.  Then I need to see the reminder of what lies there, the gravestone which will now have a year of death added to Gram’s side.  I visited Grandpa’s grave countless times over these decades past, though always he was alone.  As a result, it has become a familiar and comforting place, peaceful and calm like Grandpa was in life.

I want to visit Grammy and Grandpa in the spring.  I’ll bring them flowers.  I’ll sit and talk to them like I used to do when his body was under the earth waiting for his bride to join him.  The spring and the flowers and the stones are all symbols that mark the great lives and legacy of a simple pastor and his wife.  Grammy said she felt closer to God in the garden than anywhere else.  Maybe the stone marking my grandparents’ remains has the same effect… especially if I bring her fresh cut roses.

Writing about my grandmother in past tense has become natural over the past few hours.  I still don’t know where I am in the grieving process, and I’m not sure that it matters.  I think I’m getting old, and to participate in Gram’s legacy, I need children to give those graceful genes to someday, and if I died tomorrow that branch for me on the family tree would just end.  And that doesn’t mean God won’t reclaim, restore, or renew all things, even this existential flirtation.

I write to grow, and I feel closer to God on my front porch than anywhere else.  It’s safe to question life and purpose and meaning while, at the same time, I watch my breath change color in the cold of night and believe firmly that I was fearfully and wonderfully made.  The juxtaposition of life and death is the new infinity for me.  Just give me time.

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