Today would have been my grandpa William’s 105th birthday. He only died six years ago so he lived a good long life. But, a good long life, when it ends, leaves a large void, no matter how ready they were to depart, or how long they walked beside us.
After my grandpa died, I took a year away from writing prose. I stuck to poetry. One poem I wrote particularly about his final days shows the depth of grief I was experiencing. I called the poem Sundowning, after the term the nurse used to describe the onset of irritability and confusion that arrived with the setting sun.
It is a warm October evening
and I am feeding you chicken soup.
Your tongue is dry but hungry for the hot hospital broth.
A hard rattle, the rattle that would kill you,
shakes beneath your words,
but you are asking about me, about my pain, about my life.
And yet I am thinking about how the light is both beautiful
and sterile through the hospitals blinds,
aware, somehow I will always remember this moment.
The next night you are sundowning, angry at me
and all who held you down as they start morphine
Is it mercy to shoo along that quiet stranger life
and let the earth have its due?
You are quiet now, the wheeze is all you have left.
Do not resuscitate, do not ventilate, do not incubate.
You are sundowning now,
a puppet string pulling your chest up, then down
but the string is getting longer, weaker, about to break.
I held you and then I left.
I went home to my son who shares your name.
He was asleep in my arms when you died.
Venus rose when you fell and I still see it every night,
a small still dot of white-blue near the horizon,
sometimes wrapped in effusive down,
sometimes stark. But always cold.
A psychic told my aunt
you are with your love in a sea of flowers.
I don’t believe it.
You are still sundowning.
It’s not the best poem, but it was cathartic to write. It’s still a little window into a grieving heart, into a heart made childlike and sad at the death of an elder. We are all perpetually children and grandchildren in the loss of our parents and grandparents, are we not?
But writing today in the midst of Holy Week, I’m reminded of how that experience of holding my grandfather offered me another little window into God’s heart. I remember feeding him his soup and thinking about the sacramentality of the moment, it was like a little Holy Thursday. This man who had fed my mother when she was a baby and had fed my entire family with his life, with his labor, with his presence, was now being fed by me. It was Eucharistic.
I remember watching him as he was dying and realizing that a lifetime of gazing at a crucifix gave me a deep insight into this moment: God is here, even in this horror of death, even on this Good Friday. God is here, and in the end, all of us will become like Christ on the cross, whether we like it or not.
But with God, that place of horror, or the horror we experienced in this life, will be transformed. We don’t transform it, it transforms us, and God shows us that suffering and death do not have the last word. The first word, the word breathed at creation, is love. Love as it was at the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
Looking back, I can see how the phrase “incarnation is everywhere” germinated in that moment, that great insight I am still trying to figure out. I awoke once from a dream and just knew that there is no heart not touched by God, there is no margin or space or even sin that is devoid of God’s sustaining presence, no horror God cannot heal. It’s quite simply impossible to be without God; God is always with us.
At least that’s what I think when I’m wisest. But I fall from that awareness over and over again.
Like all grief in this life, there has yet to be an Easter Sunday. There is just the great silence of Holy Saturday, a void where a loved one used to be. We integrate the loss as we get on with the business of living, of raising children, of making some kind of life for ourselves and those we love. Life goes on, even if we find ourselves shattered. And a lot of us are feeling shattered these days.
As we enter these holy days of the triduum, I’ll carry the holy memory of my gramps, of his good long life and his hard final days with me as I walk with Jesus in his suffering, death, and resurrection. One day my good long life, and yours, will reach its end. One day the hard final days will arrive.
I know God will sustain me, and sustain all of us, as we walk hand in hand with our grief, with our hope, and with one another towards an Easter without end, small candles burning in the darkness.
Burning bright even in the darkness of sundown.