Saturday, April 13, 2013

Grief and Grace

Midlife graces us with many experiences but none so difficult, perhaps, as the inevitable decline in health of the generation one step ahead of us. I know that illness and death don’t simply stalk our elders and that tragedy comes when it is least expected over the course of our whole lives.  However, if parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents live into the twilight of a life lived well and long – I will most likely be a witness to those inevitable passings.

My mother’s oldest and only surviving sister is fading fairly quickly even as I write this. My aunt has been a walking medical miracle for years and she has continued to live a full life pursuing interests and learning as best she can with the limitations of a failing heart.
As I sat with my aunt yesterday in the hospital and I listened to the buzz and flow of conversation with other visitors, she looked at me at one point and said, “Oh, here we are talking about pets – there are so many other things we should be talking about – important things.”

I heard in her voice the fatal knowing that this was probably the last time she would see me. There weren’t going to be any other conversations beyond the rather inconsequential chatter that happens in a hospital room.  We were both, in that moment, grieving the loss of – time. Memories flooded my mind, all the shared experiences we had had together and, yes, all the missed opportunities as well.
I thought about all the stories I didn’t know.  What were her favorite memories of living in France as a young married woman? How did she manage being the oldest child of five – especially after her father died when she was twelve? How did World War II impact her world? What was it like to stay in Seattle and finish out high school when the rest of her family headed down to California? Did she always love to draw? How did she survive the devastating deaths of both her children?

Cooking up one of her incredible dinners
I also thought about what I did know – her love of cooking and challenging herself with the presentation of gourmet (and amazing) meals. I know that not only did she love to paint but that I have some of her most beautiful paintings on my walls – pictures that I treasure because her love of color and medium is so present. She has been stubbornly independent even in her sixty plus years of marriage to a man that still adores her.  What a blessing they have been to each other.  I thought about all the afternoons spent at her house chasing ducks and eating walnuts out of the huge old tree that spread its shade over the backyard. I remembered how beautiful she looked when she came to my son's wedding.
I could add in hundreds of other memories and impressions but in the end I could only smile and shrug and tell her that it really didn’t matter what we talked about . I told her I knew what was in her heart and she knew how much I loved her and that was what was really important anyway. We could talk about anything and I knew through our eyes that we told each other what needed to be said.

I move through my days often feeling like my mother and father are immortal regardless of how silver their hair has become. There are others as well – like my aunt – who are part of their generation and who have been such fixtures in my world that to watch them fade and pass is heartbreaking.
And this is where that grace comes in – the heartfelt love and compassion that gives me permission to accept what is and honor these amazing people by reminding myself that they are part of me - the fabric of my life. Grace also reminds me to not miss the opportunities and invitations that I do have to stay lovingly connected with people who matter to me.

 A friend posted this quote that made me think of my aunt, aging and breathing life into the next moment -
Once you recognize within yourself a hunger for something beyond just continuing, once you taste even the possibility of touching the meaning enfolded in your life, you can never be completely content with just going through the motions – Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Dora Jean – my aunt – touched that meaning and refused to ‘just continue’ as a way of passing time as she grew older. She inspires me and isn’t that the most beautiful legacy of all?

Dora Jean in 1949

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