a labor of love: on losing a person

Autumn is arguably my favorite season. I love the trees teeming with color: rows of glittering golds, blazing reds, burnt oranges beneath a dull, gray sky. I can’t get enough breath of brisk air, leaves bustling in the breeze and crunching in late October, and of course the endless cups of tea and pumpkin spice everything. But there’s another side to fall: the waning daylight, early morning frost, the ushering in of the season that’s next. Fall is that beautiful, natural surrender unto the death of winter. I find myself there, in all the waiting and anticipation, longing and lament, in the middle of fall, sitting at the edge of death.

I got the call on Tuesday morning. I should probably rush up to Minnesota if I wanted to see my grandmother alive again. She had a major seizure, a series of small strokes, and was now diagnosed with aspiration pneumonia. Her swallowing is impaired and she has no reserves to fight off her infection and sepsis. The evening I arrived she awoke at last from what her doctor warmly joked was a marathon to her body. She opened up her eyes wide, which was welcome improvement from the day before. All six of us, my Mom and I, my aunt and uncle, and cousin and her husband, gathered, huddled rather in her tiny hospital room singing the hymns of old, with tears welling in our eyes. That was the last time Grandma joined in the sacred song, with her beautiful, fading voice, praising the God who gave her breath until her last. The days following were filled with too many meetings: medical social workers, palliative nurses, doctors, and finally hospice social workers.

We have been round the clock keeping vigil, morning and evening, bearing witness, nursing body and soul, breaking bread into tiny pieces, feeding her hunger, quenching her thirst, singing her softly to sleep, reading the psalms, and spilling tears all over their pages. Scripture is a tender love letter for our family these days; I can’t read it aloud without getting choked up. And then there are the prayers: of the visiting pastors and chaplains, stephen ministers and family members. And we are profoundly thankful for the prayers of the people everywhere, those near and far-away, from our families, our churches, our homes.

Dying is most deeply a labor of love. It is the liturgy of mourning, a work of the people indeed. It is holding on and letting go all at once. It is offering the ministry of presence, of patience, of love in the waking and the resting, the rising and the sleeping. Watching someone so dear to you dying is one of the hardest heartaches, but it is also one of the most holy. In the more promising moments, we’ve had sweet conversations about how ready she is to meet her birth mother who died when she was four, to run into the arms of my Grandpa who died sixteen years ago, and of course to gaze into the face of God for the very first time. Her doctor made us cry all over again before she was discharged today: “Harriet, God bless. God is holding you in his arms.”

God is holding her in cradling, maternal arms, now and at the hour of her death. The darker the days become for us, the weaker her body, a dazzling light grows and explodes, guiding her way Home. Soon she’ll be swept up in Glory, like a lovely leaf fluttering in the wind, a flower flourishing in the field, then gone.

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