Saturday, January 18, 2014

All too soon a farewell


On Sat., January 11, my former mother-in-law, Rachel, died after being in a car accident. Doctors told us she was going to be fine. But she took a sudden turn for the worse, and within hours she was gone. The shock was overwhelming to everyone in the family.

Today, Sat., January 18, we said farewell to her. It was heartbreaking, especially to see the grief of her daughter, my former sister-in-law, with whom she was particularly close, and the grief of her grandchildren.

Not long ago, I saw a video where a father turned 60 photographs of his newborn son into a minute-long look at the baby’s first year of life. If one were to do this with Rachel’s life, the video would be 73 minutes long — shorter than the average Hollywood flick.

We always say that life is short, but it really is. At today’s service, I saw a former brother-in-law I haven’t seen for a decade. He lives in another state, and we have not stayed in touch. His kids are now teens and young adults. In the blink of an eye, they’ll be parents, and we will be the elderly generation — if we’re lucky.

I don’t think I’ve ever been aware how quickly a life can pass by. I remember meeting Rachel for the first time, remember laughing with her, remember looking for wedding gowns with her, remember her holding my first born for the first time. It seems like yesterday.

Rachel loved my books. She read them — and then said things about them that completely embarrassed my kids. No one wants to hear their grandmother talk about sex scenes from a book, especially their mother’s book. But Rachel was always open and honest, holding nothing back, even when other people might. She encouraged me in my career and my writing and told me more than once how proud she was of me and what I had done. It meant a lot to me.

I didn’t get to say farewell. All I could do was look at her body in a coffin and say goodbye that way. It sucked. I placed a scroll inside the coffin that contains the dedication to my next novel — it will be dedicated to her — and a print-out of a poem that she and Benjy had shared and enjoyed together.

One of my sons, in tears, asked me what the point of it all is. If we all die, then what’s the point of living in the first place, especially when no one can prove that anything exists beyond this life. (Such things are a matter of faith, not proven fact, he points out. He wants proof, facts, hard science.)

I think it’s fundamentally human to struggle with that question, and I’m not sure I was able to comfort him. I told him that NOW — this precious moment — is all that we have. Rather than building castles to our egos and slaving to gain wealth or fame or anything else, we ought to do our best to make a difference in the lives of others.

In other words, perhaps we should quit looking for the meaning of life and start living it, giving in service to others so that our existence has value to our fellow human beings.

If nothing we do is permanent, if we are guaranteed nothing beyond the breath we have just taken, then our most profound purpose ought to be to ease the suffering and the burden of all the other people who share this life and this moment with us. As Dickens said, we are all “fellow passengers to the grave.”

If we make a difference in another person’s experience of life, then we have lived our purpose in that moment.

My father once told me something that I found oddly comforting. In this culture of individualism, we all carry with us this great burden of trying to DO something, trying to BE something. When I was struggling with a particularly difficult period of my life he said, “Your life doesn’t belong to you anyway, so quit worrying about it.”

In our culture, a statement like that runs counter to everything we believe about what our lives should be. We focus on what we want, our hopes, our dreams. The idea that a life of service might be the most fulfilling option escapes most of us. If my life is just a borrowed gift, then suddenly there’s a lot less pressure to become what I am not, and a much greater call to serve, to live, to enjoy.

As Gandalf said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Life is so precious, so brief.

Forgive. Love. Laugh. Drop the petty stuff — who said what to whom and what you thought they meant by it. Who cares?

Live like you mean it, not later, but now.



Because Benjamin was unable to be with us at the funeral today — he is still teaching in Europe — he wrote a poem that was read at the service. It expresses so beautifully the unconditional love of a grandmother — and the child’s tendency to take those who love them for granted.

Fortunately, Benjamin did not take Rachel for granted, going out of his way to spend time with this grandmother. Rachel knew he loved her, and he knew she loved him. The photo above was taken during their last hour together at his farewell party before he left for Europe.

Who knew it was the last time they would see each other?

Here is his tribute to her.




It takes a lot of things
And a very long time
To make a grandma.
Start when you are very little.
Lots of love is the first ingredient.
You don’t know why she loves you,
But you accept it
Reaching up to her with stained hands.
Add the wonder of a trip
to Grandma’s house,
Like visiting a foreign country.
A grandma is a special thing, but
You do not understand.
Now wait a few years.
You’re too old for kisses.
You’re a big kid,
And why does she ask so many questions?
About me, my life, what I’m doing.
You don’t know it yet,
But this is the next ingredient,
Even if it bothers you now.
This desire to know everything about you,
To be part of your life.
You push back because
You still don’t understand.
But she persists for years.
Then, in an unexpected conversation,
You stumble on ingredients
You missed all those years.
Passions and interests
You never thought she had,
As if grandmas weren’t people.
You love photography too?
You like that movie also?
Add conversations that last for hours.
You don’t mind the questions anymore
Because you see other ingredients now
The birthday cards, the phone calls,
The inexplicable interest in your life.
You begin to understand.
But not quite.
Now take away all those ingredients,
Every gesture, every question,
Even the ones that used to annoy you.
A silhouette, the lack of an image,
Is easier to see than the form itself.
It’s like that with grandmas.
All the ingredients,
Even ones you never recognized,
Stand out so clearly
Once they’re gone.
And it is only then that you see,
At long last,
What makes a grandma.
And you finally understand.


Rest in peace, Rachel. You are loved, and we miss you so much already.

12 comments:

Ira Wawilkin said...

I am really sorry for the loss of your mother in law! It is so tragic. One moment a much loved person is with us and the next one she is gone! We should always remember that our families are precious!
I am sure she knew that she is loved by so many people!

Bonnie Edgar said...

God Bless each and every one of you as you travel this necessary but painful road...Benjamin, this is amazing and so insightful and I know Racheal is beaming with pride over your precious words!! I wish you peace and love every day as your remember every second you had with your Grandma, and cherish them. She knows your heart and is filled with the love you have for her.

Bonnie Edgar said...

God Bless each and every one of you as you travel this necessary but painful road...Benjamin, this is amazing and so insightful and I know Racheal is beaming with pride over your precious words!! I wish you peace and love every day as your remember every second you had with your Grandma, and cherish them. She knows your heart and is filled with the love you have for her.

Anthology Authors said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. Rachel sounds like a lovely woman. It's wonderful that Benjamin had such a good relationship with her. Life is short. As we live our day to day, we often forget this in the minutiae that is life. What really is important is not all that minutiae, but the people who make up our lives.

This is a beautiful tribute, Pamela.

Marci

Kathy Dennis said...

I am so very sorry for your loss. I loved what you wrote in this blog, you were able to use your gift with words, to express what many of us have felt but did not know how to express. Thank you for that. Benjamin, your poem brought me to tears. Your Grandma Rachel would have cherished it, you made her proud. You both did.

bc2mc3 said...

What a beautiful poem to his grandma! You should be so proud that he is able to express that so beautifully. I am so sorry for your loss. It is such a painful time. Blessings to your family.

Mia Marlowe said...

Pamela, I'm so sorry for your loss. Death is just such an obscenity, isn't it? I recently lost my favorite uncle after a brief illness and I'm still struggling with the horrible randomness of it.

Hugs to you and your family.

Outlander said...

What a beautiful tribute. She was blessed by you and yours and was a blessing as well. You are in my prayers Pamela.

Vickie Powell said...

Oh my...very poignant thoughts and beautiful poem by your son, also...

Brenda Gayle said...

Such a beautiful tribute, Pamela. No one is prepared to lose someone precious to us. Blessings to you and your family.

Marie R said...

My sympathies to you and your family for your loss. I'm so glad I read this post with all your words of wisdom, Pamela. I will try harder now not to sweat
the small stuff. Life is too short.

librarypat said...

I am so sorry for your loss. Your son's poem is so very true. I can see myself and my grandsons in it and he caught the emotions and reactions perfectly.
You were lucky to have her as a friend as well as a mother-in-law, ex or not. We never know what will happen and the chance to say good-bye escapes us in so many ways. The opportunity to say good-bye is a gift. A difficult one to receive and one so few of us get. Take comfort in the knowledge you were friends and were able to share so much. You gave her grandchildren to love and that is something special. Hold on to the good memories, over time they will be what heals and what you remember.