The Way of All Things

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It’s been an intense fall. An intense year, really, but particularly an intense fall in my world.

We had no rain to speak for a couple months this summer, and so I didn’t expect much in the way of fall color, but it got crazy cold all at once. The one and only benefit of having no fall—just summer and then winter—was that the temperature shock overcame the lack of water. There’s a magic to fall color that never fails to move me, and as I was outside trying, as I do every year, to capture it, I was also thinking of my grandmother, who was dying and not dying and dying again through all of this.

I thought of the hasty trip to St. Louis with my sister, to see Grandma in the hospital, and the four hours of unexpected conversation we got out of that.

I thought of my 30+ cousins rushing into town to see her—she had 10 kids, in case you’re wondering—and chuckling because when another of my sisters called the hotel in Grandma’s small suburban community, they were completely befuddled because their entire hotel was booked full, and they could not, for the life of them, explain why. My sister laughed and said, “It’s all my family.”

I thought of the last time I saw my grandmother, propped up in a recliner with a bipap strapped around her head, and how Julianna was too scared to come give her a hug and say goodbye, so Grandma said, “I certainly understand,” and had my aunt remove the mask so Julianna could see her face one last time.

I thought of our week in Washington DC, visiting museums and eating out of food trucks and hanging out with my oldest friend—another cousin—and how everything seemed so raw and real and vibrant, and half my heart was an airplane ride behind me, with my parents and sisters and cousins and uncles and aunts, and most of all my grandmother—and realizing I couldn’t imagine a world without her in it.

I thought of how flying home to find central Missouri in a blaze of peak color glory.

And I thought, “Death can really be a beautiful thing.”

I intended to blog on this topic a month ago, but then there were fires in California and mass shootings (in the plural) and I thought perhaps waxing poetic about the beauty of death might be not only insensitive, but downright myopic.

Peak is long past now. The trees are all asleep for the winter, and my grandmother sleeps a different kind of sleep, one that wakes only into eternity. I sang the psalm at her funeral, and last week our Thanksgiving table was adorned with a pitcher that used to sit atop her hutch.

Two days before Thanksgiving, my parents finished harvest. Harvest has always been my favorite time of year on the farm, poignant and beautiful and bittersweet. But more so this year than ever, because this was the last. My parents are retiring.

The day after Thanksgiving, my family attended a play in a small community two or three towns beyond my hometown. It was weird enough to bypass the exit for my parents’ farm on the way there. But coming back, in the dark—and it’s so dark out there in rural Missouri—it was hard not to tear up, watching one familiar gravel road and another pass by, organizing the black grids between them into fields with particular memories. Thinking of the time the car broke down on that road and we had to walk home, or the time during the 93 flood, when I got the tractor stuck up to its axles in the field just beyond that field, or the way we once walked across the back fields to the house that lies just down that road and swam in their pond, or the way I stopped in this field just a year ago to ride the combine with Dad on the way home from a rehearsal.

All those memories, and realizing there aren’t any more to be made in those fields. They’ll be farmed by someone else now. I won’t have a reason to drive those dusty roads and navigate the uneven surface of a newly-harvested field. I won’t have a reason to smell that cool, semisweet smell that only comes at harvest time with the pouring of grain and the chewing up of plants in the threshing machine.

It’s disorienting, and very emotional. I got to thinking that I could name probably half a dozen pivotal elements of my identity: things that for my entire life have defined how I see myself in relation to the world. In less than a month, two of them have gone the way all things go.

It’s all beautiful, and I am eternally grateful for the richness of my memory. But it’s sad, too.

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Lifting The Veil

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Image by *jay~bay*, via Flickr

Saturday morning, Christian and I provided music for a funeral at our parish. The man was our age and had school-age children, and it was impossible to avoid the recognition of just how fragile is the reality we cling to, how quickly it can change, and truly, how blessed we are to have what we have–even when all we see is stress and worry and emptiness.

It was the first time I have sung “Shepherd Me, O God” in public since my grandmother’s funeral (can it be a year and a half already?), a fact of which I was very aware as I skirted the coffin and made my way up the sanctuary steps for the psalm. Very, very aware of exactly where I fell apart singing it for Grandma. Praying for the grace to keep it together. I did…mostly. But I couldn’t make eye contact with the assembly as I usually do.

Following that celebration, the day unfolded in a blur of chaos. I never changed out of my gray dress because our choir was providing music for Saturday evening Mass. It’s been a very long time (though not nearly long enough!) since I wore pantyhose for a full day. In between those two Masses, we had two birthday parties and a playdate to chauffeur our children to, and I had to have a confrontation with Staples over a large print order they had messed up. Two confrontations, in fact.

And throughout the busy-ness of preparing meals and negotiating trade settlements between children, getting the preschooler changed out of his ripped clothes and into semi-passable clothing for church, and the barely-under-control behavior of the kids during church (they do NOT do well at 5:30 in the evening!), the awareness stayed with me. How thin is the veil between our crazy-busy ordinary and the loss of it all. A single diagnosis, a moment’s lost concentration on the road, can change the trajectory of our ordinary forever. How rarely we stop to take stock of what we’ve been given, and put into perspective the petty irritations and stresses that occupy our waking hours.

Saturday evening, when the kids were finally in bed and Christian and I were sitting in front of the TV, I leaned my head over to rest against his, felt the warmth radiating from him, the softness of skin, the roughness of the coarse, whitening hair at his temples. And for a few moments I let the veil blow away and saw my life in all its beauty and fragility, and thanked God for what I have.

On Death, But Without Being Morbid (a 7qt post)

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Labor Day 037This entire week, the subject of death has been front and center, but I promise I’m not being morbid today. In fact, to prove it to you, I will begin with….Nicholas, of course.

___1___

Earlier this summer, when we first thought Grandma was dying, Nicholas took the news very hard. So on Tuesday, I wasn’t sure the right way to tell him his great-grandma had passed away while he was at school. I gave him the remains of Michael’s box of popcorn chicken while I debated, and at last said, carefully, “Nicholas, Great Grandma went home to Jesus this morning.”

“Oh, she did?” he said nonchalantly. He chomped for a minute, and then added, “This is really good popcorn chicken.”

(Mommy throws hands in the air.)

___2___

On the other hand…

Labor Day weekend we brought home corsages from a wedding we’d played. Nicholas found a bud vase and filled it with water. By midweek the corsages were toast, so I threw them away. But the glass got overlooked. Until, ahem, Wednesday night when Michael got thirsty. Nicholas caught him drinking the dregs of the corsage water (no flower preservative, thankfully!) and fell to pieces. “What happened to the FLOWERS, Mommy?” I had to explain to him that flowers die after you cut them, and that’s okay, we just enjoy them while they last. He flung himself around my legs and fell apart.

(Reprise: Mommy throws hands in the air.)

___3___

Wednesday, of course, was 9/11. Alex’s third grade class spent time talking about it, so we shared memories at dinnertime, trying to impress upon him the drama and tragedy of that day. Nicholas (what, you thought this was going to be about Alex?) said, in the reverent tone of voice he saves for the fire department’s bucket truck, “The buildings fell down????” (It feels insensitive, possibly even sacrilegious, to share funny stories that are in any way, shape or form related to 9/11. But you know that when you’re in the deepest tragedy those moments of humor are all the more important.)

___4___

While I was making dinner on Wednesday, we somehow got onto the topic of great grandparents and godparents. “Uncle J. & Aunt L. are your godparents,” I said.

“Who are your godparents?”

“My Uncle L. and Aunt C. You saw her a couple weeks ago when we went to her mom’s funeral. Remember her?”

“No.”

“She’s Miss Chrissy’s mom.”

“Miss Chrissy’s mom died?”

“No, Miss Chrissy’s grandma.”

“MISS CHRISSY DIED?”

Face palm. “Just forget it, Nicholas. Finish setting the table.”

___5___

On Thursday morning I was downstairs with Michael, practicing my flute, when I heard a sharp THUMP somewhere in the house. But I couldn’t localize it. Until I came upstairs and found the bread machine lying sideways on the floor beside the counter in three pieces (and a lot of sharp black plastic shards!). Being focused on the subject of death, I naturally composed an elegy for it. But I’m not sharing it here because a couple hours later it occurred to me I could probably revise it and sell it as a poem or a flash piece.

___6___

After all the week’s emotion, a friend I hadn’t talked to in quite a while called to chat–about flute, life, and death. As we got off the phone, she said, “I know you believe this anyway, but you’ll find that your relationship with your grandma isn’t over.” I was surprised by her words, and perhaps that’s why they stayed with me the rest of the day.

Later that night as I lay sleepless, turning over the events of the week in my mind, I realized I already understood what she meant. I’ve had family members and people I knew or respected pass away before, but this is the first time there is someone on the other side who I already know how to talk to. Someone I genuinely had conversations with, with whom I have a relationship. On the heels of that revelation I found myself whispering, “Grandma, it’s wonderful to have you up there. You must understand so much more now than you did when we talked here, and I don’t have to try to edit what I’m thinking anymore, because you can probably see it all anyway. So I’m going to be asking you to pray for me a lot, Grandma. Just like you did when you were here, only  more perfectly.” And I realized I finally, finally understand the communion of saints.

___7___

Let’s change the subject for the last one. Julianna has added church and church school to the list of places she loves to ask to go: wee lah-ee (swimming lessons), Cock e Keez (Chuck E Cheese), keh-ah-shell (carousel), etc. But on Tuesday I had to tell her she wasn’t going to church school tonight, that church school was tomorrow night. She burst into a tears, dropped her head and flung her arms open wide as she yelled, “I wah hug!”

It’s hard to write that so it’s as adorable as it was in the moment. Ah, well. It’s enough for me to remember it.

Have a great weekend!

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes about isolation, Chardonnaydo, and the creepiness of Furbies (vol. 232)

Ninety-eight

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Grandma with Alex, 2005

Grandma with Alex, 2005

When I was a kid, my sisters and I stayed with my grandma for a few days when my parents had to take a trip to some far-flung northern location to pick up farm equipment. Tracks for the combine, maybe? A ridge-till cultivator? I don’t remember. It probably happened more than once.

We slept in the south-facing living room of her ranch home in town, a home that even then I knew was outdated in decor, including the foldout couch in burnt mustard. Very scratchy. Not at all comfortable to sit on. But it had a silky pattern of curlicues in a lighter cream that I loved to trace. We sat on it and watched Wheel of Fortune on her tiny old TV. Played Mouse Trap on the coffee table across from it. And so on.

I was sitting on that couch yesterday morning at 11:20 a.m. or so in quite a different location: Grandma’s assisted living apartment, talking to my aunts while their husbands were sitting with their mother. The calls had come in at school sendoff time: they can’t wake your grandmother this morning. Your uncle’s on the way up now. Do what you need to do, but it looks like the end.

Grandma with Julianna, 2007

Grandma with Julianna, 2007

I had four hours between preschool dropoff and preschool pickup. I came back home, changed Michael into a disposable diaper, got gas and headed north. By the time I arrived, both my uncles and their wives were there. We took turns sitting by her bed.

After a bit, the parish priest came and anointed her. It was so, so beautiful. When he finished, he leaned over and put a hand on her forehead. “Okay,” he said, “now it’s up to you and Jesus.”

We stood and chatted with Father for a bit, until Grandma’s breath, which had been labored in a way I’ve never heard before–you couldn’t tell what was inhale and what was exhale–suddenly changed. We stopped talking for a few seconds; I thought she was choking. After that the breathing was quieter. We left my uncles with their mother. Not long after, I was sitting on that uncomfortable, burnt mustard couch while Michael did repeated “trust falls” off the arm onto my lap. I was thinking I needed to go back in again when my uncle came out and said, “It’s over.”

Grandma with Nicholas, 2009

Grandma with Nicholas, 2009. Notice the thread-thin wedding band on her finger (she’d been a widow three decades by this time) and the support stocking wrapping her left arm, where she was always cold after a stroke years and years ago. She was nothing if not practical; why spend money on fancy wraps when you can chop off a pantyhose instead?

My first reaction was: Oh, no, I was sitting out here laughing and talking. I hurried in with Michael clinging to my hand, and realized…no, it wasn’t quite over yet. She was close. The breaths were short, soft, but not gone yet, after all. We all gathered around the bed: two sons, their wives, one grandchild, one great grandchild. And somewhere in between wrestling Michael and watching her mouth, there was no more breathing.

I kept waiting for it to come back. I just couldn’t believe it could be that…ambiguous. We thought Grandma was leaving us six weeks ago–twice. We were so sure it was the end, in fact, that people flew in from halfway across the country. And she came roaring back, moving home, even (briefly) ditching the oxygen tank. She was just so stubborn–and I mean that in the best of ways; Grandma was a spitfire and a spunky, sassy old lady who, much like Julianna, could drive her loved ones mad and create a fan club everywhere she went. “Well, God’s getting an earful tonight,” Christian said last night as we made lunches.

Grandma with Michael, 2011

Grandma with Michael, 2011

We knelt down and said a rosary around her bed. Michael too, on his knees giving me big twenty-one-month “look what a big boy I am” eyes. Until he decided it would be more fun to play tightrope walking on my calves. And I thought that was appropriate. A woman who lived with such fire and vitality probably was chuckling about it. Chuckling, with her hands clasped over her big belly, much like my babies do.

The shelf across from Grandma's bed.

The shelf across from Grandma’s bed.

When it was all over, I stood in the apartment looking around, seeing her in everything: in the broken calculator she kept on the coffee table for kids to push buttons, the Good Old Days magazines, her handwriting on mundane little lists I wanted to grab and bring home and scrapbook.

And when I came home, I pulled out the iron skillet she passed on to me a year or so ago–“I ain’t got no use for it,” she said–and cooked my Italian sausage to make lasagna for dinner. I could almost feel her with me.

Rest in peace, Grandma. May angels lead you to paradise.

Bernadine S., 1915-21013

Bernadine S., 1915-2013

Life, Death, Life

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On December 30th, we got a phone call early in the morning: a new arrival in the family, a gorgeous little boy, very nearly a mirror image of our own little guy. Two cousins, a month apart, destined to be mistaken for each other their whole lives.

Twelve hours later, a friend passed away.

Sharyn was one of those people who breathes calm into the world. You don’t ever know how they do it, you just know that serenity surrounds them. Grace. You come into their presence feeling crazed, sure that the world is precariously balanced on your shoulders, and something about the way they look at you, listen to you, interrupts the stream of freak-out-ness (yes, I’m making up words. Deal with it.) and injects a quiet into your soul that wasn’t there a few minutes before.

This is a trait I’ve witnessed in a few people of faith, and nowhere else. And every time I see it, I think, Someday I want to grow up and be like her.

There are people in your life who are simply there, as inevitable as the sunrise, taken utterly for granted. You may not see them often, but when you do, you pick up right where you left off. Sharyn was like that for me. She was one of the core members of the choir that brought Christian and I together; she sang the day we got engaged, and she sang the day we got married. After we left Newman, we saw her at the music store whenever we went in for church or studio business. A world without her seems inconceivable, and yet I haven’t wept for her, because a person so kind surely has to be fast-tracked into the presence of God.

We celebrated Sharyn’s funeral on Saturday. Three, four hundred people, gathered beneath lit garlands and beautiful red-foliage swags and hanging lanterns. I sang with a choir patchworked together from several “generations” of Newman choirs. Christian and the kids came in time for Mass. They kept waving at me with smiles so sweet that I couldn’t help smiling back, thanking God for the bounty of the blessings in my life, which this occasion so clearly spotlit.

Michael spent Mass sleeping in a friend’s arms, except when he and I retreated to a barricade behind the organ to nurse. He didn’t care for this venue, and into the post-Communion silence he let loose a howl of outrage that echoed around the church. I felt quite self-conscious until I thought how Sharyn would have smiled at that sound. She would have loved the juxtaposition of new life upon the passing of her own. And although the knowledge that she’s left us causes a pang, and for her family leaves a hole that can never be filled, in some ways I think this was her last, best gift to us: to start the new year with such a beautiful reminder that life is, indeed, eternal.