I used to spend every Sunday morning in nursing homes. I used to try to imagine what the old and wasted looked like when they were young and full of life. But now I’m not just some stranger on an altruistic visit. I’m family, sitting in hospice, while my grandmother is dying. And I am dying with her. I can feel it, because the part of me that only she brings out is dying too.
The life we had together is coming to an end. Her muscles are shriveled, her skin hangs loose on her bones like Spanish Moss on tree limbs, her words sound like car tires turning on gravel, and her breathing rattles in her throat. But now more than ever I see her as young. The more her body withers, the more her beautiful soul appears.
When asked to describe her to a friend, I said without thought or hesitation, “She is like sunshine. She turns everything into a song. If once she smiles at you, some infectious moment of happiness compels you to smile back. She is simple in a world that makes everything complicated. She spreads love everywhere she goes. And the day she dies, the world will change forever.”
Lifeless and weak as she is, she still has strength to hold me, pat my head, and stroke my cheek. I kiss her hands and face, and lay my head gently on her shoulder. I sing a lullaby in her ear until she sleeps. Her smile hasn’t changed. Sometimes she looks at me in a room full of people, and her pale, thin lips stretch in that same familiar smile she has only for me. I am closer to her now than ever, even though my fellow Wayfaring Stranger is crossing the final border, “only going over Jordan, only going over home”.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said.
“Save a place for me in your house,” I replied.
“I will,” she promised.
The days in hospice drag on. She grows weaker, but she still shakes her finger at me. I’m onery and she knows just how I came by it; she shakes her finger at me because she knows I’m just like her. “Don’t get sunburned,” she says. “I won’t, Grandma,” I promise.
It is not hard to watch her die. She is ready and so am I. I only weep because I am tired, because I know that the time is coming when I will have to carry on without her. I dread the lonely days of wayfaring ahead: the dark clouds that lie out before me, the days when I want to call her, have coffee with her, read her my latest story, share my joys and sorrows, or ask for her prayers, and can’t. But perhaps I will not be as alone as I expect. Souls and the ties between them are not ruled by death. What are the laws of physics to supernatural souls? For the first time I realize that we are fascinating creatures, humans. We are part physical, part mental, and part spiritual. We are capable of ever so much more than we realize. Perhaps when my grandmother’s soul is at last set free, we will be even closer than before.
She sleeps more and more often. One day she’ll wake up in that other world that I only just catch glimpses of in that space between waking and dreaming. I can see heaven behind her eyes.
“Hi, Grandma.” I have to shout in her ear now because she can’t hear me anymore.
“Who… who is it?” she asks. She can’t see me anymore either.
“It’s Sarah, Grandma.”
Her hands flutter immediately, reaching for me almost desperately, and words tumble from her too-dry mouth. “I love… you. I …love… you.”
“I love you too, Grandma.” She struggles to form the words. “You’re …shuss… to me.”
She can’t swallow and her tongue and lips no longer communicate her thoughts properly. But I know what she’s saying. You’re precious to me. It’s the same script we say every time.
“I’m not going to tell you goodbye,” I say firmly, “because we will meet again. So I’ll just say, see you soon.”
Something feels familiar about this experience, and I gradually realize as one day presses into another, that I have walked in the shadow of death before. I hear echoes of words spoken ages ago: come let us cross over. I see a forlorn face borne away by the train to places I cannot follow. I see the stars at 3 am twinkling in a dark foreign sky and confide in my best friend, “I don’t want to say good-bye.” “So we won’t,” came the reply. “Because we’ll see each other again. So I’ll just say, ‘See you soon’.”
Okay, then. See you soon!
See you soon…
It seems that all my life I have been learning letting go. Practicing little pictures of death. Perhaps this is so that one day when I too am dying, I will not have to be afraid.
Grandma is still teaching me, even as she sleeps now. And this is her final parting gift: by her faith that I am coming after her, by my faith that we will meet again, by her peace and her desire to be quit of this world, by her love, by her very dying, she is saving me.
I am homesick already.
On her last good day, she asks for her swab to be dipped in coffee. She sits up and plays the electric keyboard they brought just for her. On this day, I make my last confession.
“I got sunburned.”
“I’m sorry, Grandma. I love you. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
She summons the strength to lift a skeletal hand, her thumb reaching for the ceiling. “O…kay!”
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go
I’m going there to see my father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home
I know dark clouds will gather around me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie just before me
Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep
I’m going there to my mother
She said she’d meet me when I come
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home