|Photo by Chichacha|
I visit Grandma in the nursing home where she is rehabbing from pneumonia. It is a lovely, mild summer day, and I wheel her out into the garden. We sit on a bench and talk. She asks about my job situation, and I launch into it all. I am renewing my contract to teach adult literacy and I enjoy it and it is stressful and not forever and it is good experience and helps my resume and I am learning and I love working with low-income and marginalized people and I am somehow not using all my gifts and I want to work in an area more basic and physical and human.
“You think very deeply about your career,” she says when I finally stop to take a breath. “I’ve never been so deep and thoughtful as you.” I start to protest but she keeps going. “I am sure you will be wonderful at whatever you do.”
We are standing around her bed in the ICU. We have just made the decision to pull the feeding tube and the oxygen, because we have all, in the last week, slowly come to terms with the fact that this stroke was fatal, that even if she were to wake up she would not be herself, that this is not another cancer she is going to fight off or another bout with pneumonia that she will come through. This is the time to say goodbye.
The doctors say after they pull the oxygen, it will be a matter of hours. We gather and call in her pastor, and we begin to pray and sing hymns. Our family is founded on music, so in four-part harmony, we sing her favorite songs from the Presbyterian hymnal. The words to the hymns have never meant so much. This is grief, this is letting go, this is worship. The pastor brings our singing to a close with a liturgy for the dying. We unclasp our hands, touch our faces to her still-warm body, and exhale, surrendering to the blips on the monitor.
At one a.m. we are still sitting there, blinking to stay awake, alternating laughs and tears, waiting for her to go. We are her children, all, and this grief has brought us together, and we have never been so certain of our calling as this moment, in which are called to be with her, to be a family, to fill this room with love.
On Friday afternoon when it is finally over, I go home and write three poems for her and then I cry and fall asleep.
I write a thank you note to her pastor, enclosing the generous donation of my friends. I say, You will probably never know how meaningful your presence was, how life-changing those days were for me, learning to lean into the loss and celebrate the life and release her into resurrection. I think, what meaningful work it is to be a pastor, to be with people in those crucial moments, to offer a prayer and a liturgy in which they can pour out their goodbye in the presence of God. I think, I would love a job where I could be with people in that basic, human way.
Now, four years have passed, and I have enrolled in seminary, and this summer as a pastoral intern in the country, I visit lovely old ladies in homes and nursing homes and hospitals. There is one ninety-something firecracker who is organizing a Fourth-of-July parade; she shows me the archives of photos for the last eight parades. There is another ninety-something who is thoughtful and kind and wants to hear about my life even though her hearing impairment prevents understanding most of it.
There is a little bit of Grandma in both of these women, and I think of her often this summer.
I am waiting in an airport when the desire hits me strong—for just a cup of coffee and a couple hours to catch up.
I would tell her about my new path, seminary, the road to becoming a pastor or chaplain or minister of some sort. She would ask me how I came to this path, and whether I mind public speaking. The idea of me as a minister would make her happy, I think, and over it she would speak a word of encouragement and acceptance and love.