I got the call that my grandmother, the woman who went dancing twice a week and had recently fallen in love, again, collapsed, was in ICU and was not expected to recover. Her brother and sister were nearby and planted themselves in the hospital while her two children got on airplanes, racing to be with her. When I arrived in Florida a few days later, I rented a car and went directly to the hospital. I entered the room and the rest of the family left, giving us time alone. As soon as they were gone, she told me she’s furious at everyone. She told them not to do anything to keep her alive, that she had a DNR and no one, not her sister, her brother, her son or daughter, none of her grandchildren - no one was paying attention to what she wants. She felt betrayed and she wanted me to fix it (which is my role in the family). I called everyone in and asked what was going on-why, when we all knew clearly what she wanted, were they ignoring her directives. Her son, eminently practical, like all of us, said, “Ma, we aren’t doing anything other than keeping you hydrated. You’re alive all on your own. You thought you’d be dead by now, but you’re not.” She then looked at me, laughing and said, “Figures. I’m always running late.”
The next few weeks were centered on my grandmother’s dying. We shifted our lives, supporting each other fully, living communally, sharing all tasks, from feeding each other to getting hospice nurses to paying bills. Some of us moved into my grandmother’s apartment, some in with her siblings who were also neighbors. We became hyper alert to things that mattered as we confronted the fragility of life in the face of impending death.
Death holds Life in stark relief. It is at times of death that we are most present to what matters. The busyness of life moves aside and makes room for the important things. We live in the present in wild and unusual ways. When you are a patient or even more, when your beloved is the patient in a hospital, time stands still. Now is eternal with very little happening outside of Now. There’s a striking difference between patients and their families versus doctors and nurses. Nurses and doctors are doing their jobs. They are working, usually efficiently, attending to things in some order of priority. But when you are in a hospital bed or when you are attending to someone you love in a hospital bed, nothing is happening quickly enough because there is no “later” there is only “now”. Either you have what you need Now, or you don’t. Death provides a doorway into life in the moment in a way ordinary time rarely can.
In those days, weeks, even months before an expected death, we become alert to what’s real. We focus on each other in ways we don’t during most of our lives, what I called before, ordinary time. We attend to things that matter when we are facing the fragility of the human experience. Death shatters it all. Everything we thought was important becomes irrelevant instantly. All other worries disappear as our attention is reduced to a single lane.
Even if death isn’t imminent, the confrontation with the possibility has the same effect. A difficult diagnosis, even with a good prognosis will quickly reprioritize, everything. What is precious moves to the center and very little else is given room. “Adversity doesn’t always bring out the best in people. But the reason it so often does is because adversity forces us to work within tightly drawn limits. Everything within those limits is heightened. We receive as gifts things we tend to take for granted. For a brief, blessed time, what matters to us most really does matter.”
Just over three years ago, my mom had a stroke. She was 73. She was just starting to move back into her life after losing my father a few years earlier. Having recently retired, she was planning a trip to Budapest with one of her oldest friends, was looking at apartments on the Lower East Side so she could spend more time with an aging aunt and uncle, was an active volunteer for the democratic party in Connecticut getting all riled up for the big Trump/Clinton election that was looming, was volunteering with Child Protective Services as a mentor for a woman at risk of losing her children to the foster care system and she picked my son up from school several days a week for quality grandma time.
The stroke ended all of that. She’s now paralyzed on the right side, unable to see clearly, can no longer cook, sew, drive, walk, or write. She also has trouble processing information and accessing memory. A lot of information about my mom’s life disappeared in a matter of hours. She says when she sees someone, she knows how she feels about them, but can’t remember why. She doesn’t remember immediate plans any better than she remembers old stories. We have long conversations about things at the end of which we make decisions, but most of the time, she retains none of it and the next time the topic comes up, we start from the beginning.
So much of who we are is retained in our memories. We are the collection of all we’ve done and all we’ve thought and felt before. And most of our relationships use memory as foundation, with each new experience or conversation building on the last. When someone’s memory fades, they not only lose themselves, we lose them too because the ground on which we stood, the ground of our history together, is cracking. It can feel almost like those things we did together never happened if the person with whom we shared those experiences no longer retains them or isn’t alive to remember them with us. Death comes in many different ways. We lose some people long before they are really gone and some we lose in a flash with no warning or preparation.
It seems to be part of the human condition to want to hold on to our own lives and to do all we can to hold on to the lives of those we love, even when they are no longer with us. We remind ourselves of our stories, of the jokes we told and the moments that were so perfectly us. Once they are gone, we hold on to the people we love through our memory of them. We recall family dinners and Christmas mornings and summer vacations. Often there are stories that feel like they perfectly describe “us”. I have one with my dad when we swam too far into the ocean and fought our way back, falling asleep on the sand. It was perfectly us. Or getting caught in a rain storm with my grandmother and running under someone’s deck to wait it out while we laughed, which my grandmother and I did often together. Or my great uncle pulling me into his office to ask me about some religious questions with which he’d been wrestling. Or being pushed home in a shopping cart by my best friend- both my best childhood friend and high school boyfriend died very young – being pushed in a shopping cart my best friend and I stole from the supermarket we passed on the way home from high school. Those are my sweet memories, the snapshots of our lives that no one else remembers, for which I am the bearer now.
You have them too. Those precious moments, those sweet memories you carry of someone you loved and lost. Those memories are the beating hearts of life and death, keeping people alive while simultaneously reminding us of their deaths, of the great loss we carry. Sometimes those memories are unfinished so we feel our way into accepting those relationships even though they ended mid-sentence. Death offers us little choice but to complete the relationship on our own, without the benefit of shared closure. We imagine those last conversations, the ones that didn’t happen. We ask our beloveds why they did what they did, or why they didn’t do what we needed them to do. We tell them we love them, maybe wishing we’d said that far more often. We make our confession and offer our apology so that we might say good-bye.
Death is our birthright. We are given the great but temporary gift of life, understanding that death is guaranteed both for us and for everyone we know. In 100 years, we will not exist and no one we currently know will be alive. Such is the fragility of life. Death is assured. It gives life meaning. In moments of crisis, we become focused on things that matter. The busyness of life gets trumped by the necessity of the moment. Families gather together. They hold hands and tell stories and love each other as well as they can as my family did when my grandmother was dying and later when it was my father whose bedside we were attending. I’m sure you’ve experienced it too. We slide into acceptance of what we all know. Death is unavoidable and clarifying. Loss calls us to our best selves.
The act of dying can be sacramental, a moment when the Sacred is known, when we face into Mystery in a terrifying and authentic way, when we enter communion. Death is the Great Mystery, the one thing about which we are sure we know nothing and therefore the one thing every religion, every community seeking answers tries to understand. We tell stories, create rituals, imagine entire worlds beyond this one to put some structure on the Unknown, and Unknowable. While I’m always partial to the religious teachers like Confucius and Siddartha Gautama who told their students not to spend too much time thinking about death and other unanswerable questions, I am aware of the pull of wanting answers. There is no greater mystery. There is no deeper or darker question. It is singular and is eternally pressing on the human condition.
Death, and the grief that follows, are sacraments. They are the places the Holy is known, a sacred and common ground. We console, commiserate, and comfort. And we let go. Ultimately, our task, our final act for all those we love…we let go.