A few weeks before the first anniversary –
Only three weeks until your one-year-gone day. Last year I was visiting you in the nursing home, trying to grab you back, anchor you to your unraveling life. Sometimes Celeste and Lara came with me. We’d try to get you to talk, tried to pull you back from that distant place where you went, all by yourself, when things were too hard: eyes that worked – but not together; walking that was too confusing; a bed that wasn’t your low, sunken cot, shaped to your sleep-curved body; and diapers. The vulnerable chaos of infirmity.
Remember when we came? How we all stood around, talking, joking, urging you to suck in the pureed mess of whatever was served that day – squished turkey, spinach, custard? Baby food – except for ice cream. Even when you stopped talking, when you tucked so far inside yourself that you stopped answering most questions, if they asked whether you wanted ice cream, you said yes. If they asked what flavor, you said chocolate. You were saving your energy, I guess, for what mattered most.
Sometimes, toward the end, you would suddenly sing: all the sweet memories of being young and playful bubbled up and out of you in a creaky-throated song. And you spoke French. In the last weeks, you answered questions in the language of your childhood, of you parents and grandparents, especially when they wanted to talk privately if the children were around. I guess you were going backward before you edged away. Your memories shimmered so much brighter than your now.
And then you were gone.
And here I am, still holding you, still grounding the shimmery, transparent space of your tender, remarkable life, of the things you couldn’t have predicted, but weathered anyway, with grace and not a few sharp words. Oh, your sharpness is gone, but the shine still lingers.
I sure miss you. Do you show up for the anniversaries? Does the love room become a ritual, then? If so, I am standing here at the altar of what used to be, loving you
The morning of your leaving day…
This time last year you were slipping away. All by yourself, you were churning around, tugging away from the womb of the world that had held you in place. You were going home; a reverse kind of birth.
Did you know that you were leaving? Were you intent, and just counting down?
Probably you were praying, talking with the Mystery that had held you up, slipping back and forth in the Great Communion toward your unbecoming, toward the restful emptiness.
I am so happy to be thinking about you, on this, your leaving day. My body wishes it could turn in your direction one more time. But, of course, that isn’t true. If I could turn to you, again and again, I would. One time would not be enough.
I’m wishing so many things: That I could have asked you more questions. That I could have been more open, freer of all the twisty, needy times when I heard everything as a slight, when your sharp and piercing tongue met my shaky tenderness, and I withdrew.
I wonder what you would have wished. How was it from your end? Well…you can’t tell me now. But we did it all: tangled and tussled, learned and leaned toward each other, laughed and talked and butted heads.
Now, I am feeling weak, shadowy, only half here on this, the day the world broke open and took you back. Oh, I want to press my cheek against that small scar left by your passing, and feel you close.
At the frog pond, where I go sometimes when I want to be alone, I lie on dry scrubbly ground, hidden behind small willow shrubs. Ants skitter around me, cicadas drone, crickets screech, red dragonflies dance at the edge of the pond, dotting the shallow water with their eggs. Sun and heat make a kind of womb in this in-between time of your passing.
No one really knows what time you left, but the death certificate says 4 p.m. That’s when they found you, when the nurse who had just told me by phone that you were great—sitting up in your chair and watching out the window, having a good day—hung up and went to check on you; maybe to tell you I had called. That’s when she knew. You were not great. You were gone.
It helps me to imagine that, in those little bits of an hour before you left, you must have been peaceful — communing — stepping over gently, inch by inch, into the Mystery. You didn’t struggle. You slid quietly, sighed, and let go.
I want you to know that I’m holding the door open for you now, in this hour of your end. Maybe you’ll reach through and touch me. Maybe you already are, and that’s why I needed to be in a quiet place, why I feel so insubstantial.
Maybe it’s a little like what I’ve read about Yom Kippur, when the gates between worlds—between whatever heaven is, and here—are open. Even though we’re not Jewish, I’m holding them open for you now.
Today, our love room is all aflicker with dragonflies, aquiver with breezy leaves, warm with sun, sweet and sad with memories and longing and love, damp with tears. I am here with you.
After the beach and some work at home, I talked with my friend Margaret, and asked her to say a prayer to honor this, your dying day. She did, and it made me cry. I’ve needed to cry all day, I guess, but the prayer and the witnessing of your bright and complicated life, the holding on and the letting go, unleashed the tears.
Margaret told me about Yahrzeit, the Jewish one-year anniversary ritual of lighting a candle at sundown and letting it stay lit for 24 hours. So I’m lighting a candle now, small but bright and burning steadily. I‘m setting it next to the picture of you at one hundred and another in what must have been your early teen years: legs bare, your rounded, girlish body perched in the open door of a Model T with a smile on your face.
The hallway light is on, too; will stay on all night and all day tomorrow. I can keep that going for you. I can light your way, in case you want to reach back, or keep the gate open if anything is left of you that needs to leave. Maybe tomorrow, when I’m not so tired, I’ll write down my story of your leaving day.
Now, crickets are ringing all around the house, the ripening moon is pale pumpkin through the hazy, dark skin of the night. The house is quiet. Everything is thrilling toward you, leaning toward your departure into the Generous Unknown that has wrapped itself around you. Everything is love.