“I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” - Terry Tempest Williams
I’ve been wrestling with goodbyes. My two-year old began preschool this Fall and each goodbye for those first few weeks was heart-wrenching. My husband summed it up well in an email a few weeks ago after drop off: “It was a heartbreaking goodbye – my heart still aches. Braeden looked me in the eyes with streams of tears coming down and said, “Bye bye Papa.” It was like he knew with courage that the separation is an inevitable part of life but he was also holding his need to cry. I wish we never had to say goodbye to our kids. But this is just a taste of what is to come when they leave our home, and then when you and I die. Painful stuff and yet real…”
And so it was with the goodbye to my grandmother a few days ago. Breathing through a tube of oxygen, she culminates 91 years of life: still poised, nails done, a paragon of loveliness even in the midst of terminal lung cancer. The few days there are like the weaving together of a multi-generational tapestry of Life. Time slows down. My baby mingles with Grandma and he is fresh to this life: non-verbally absorbing the history and felt experience that is unique to each family. We sit together in the smallest room of the house, surrounded by photographs. We all know this is precious time. Priceless time.
Family stories abound, accompanied by the emotional undertones and overtones reminiscent of a life full of everything: Birth and death, the dramas, the pain, the hurt feelings, the love, the mistakes, the brightness, the seasons of youth, the tragedies, the years of habit and routine, the joys and kindness, the neurosis and shadow. Photos from the 1959 vacation to Mexico are unearthed. The scrapbook from Grandma’s 90th. Grandpa’s album from World War II and Iwo Jima. The photos from the last family reunion. Baby photos from the births of each of my sons. Happy memories knit together with sad musings about my Grandpa’s final days. “Remember those pancakes he used to make on Saturdays?” Everyone laughs. “Remember the burned tapioca pudding?” Then, some tears are shed. Some slow rolling, some more fervent. My aunt cooks up a feast and my brother asks my grandmother what wisdom she can share for us young “foolish” ones. “Just keep loving,” she says.
Eva Saulitis, another woman with terminal cancer, wrote in Into the Wild Darkness: “Ultimately, what I face every day is death impending – the other side, the passing over into, the big unknown – what poet Harold Brodkey called his “wild darkness,” what poet Christian Wiman calls his “bright abyss.” Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with…Can I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment?…Death is nature. Nature is far from over. In the end, Nature endures. It is strange and it is hard, but its comfort, and I’ll take it.”
The goodbyes too are strange and hard. They are bittersweet, but mostly sweet – like a cool cup of water on a hot day – or a rest in the shade of an old, solid tree. For a pause I consider my own season of life, traveling in a web of time, knitting myself into a few precious days of drinking up memories and considering those familial ties that bind and the lifespans of those before and after me. Ultimately, it is those younger than us who will likely be at our proverbial death-beds. I reflect back on the tearful goodbyes with my two-year-old. Who will he become? How will I know him as he and I age? If I, like my grandmothers, live past age 90, will I have grandchildren attending me? Rising and falling, the knits of each day unfold. Some stitches stick and others fade away. What will remain?
Love. Nature. Goodbyes.
This time, I don’t grasp. Instead, I practice finding refuge in change. I listen. I sit still. I give myself over completely to this moment. Because I know this is fleeting. I know it is likely the last time together. And so every day should be lived: giving ourselves over completely to what arises. Dip into homage and gratitude. Let go of bitterness or disappointment. Surrender to chaos. Let even the full, zany – often frustrating and exhausting – days and years of raising young children be medicine for a lifetime. In the final hours this shall all fade away with love in its wake. Some patterns dying while others survive. All: a blink of the eye.