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Monday, March 10, 2014

saying goodbye

A few months ago I was telling Sandi's father how much the last year had changed me, about how I am caught off guard almost daily by something beautiful or tragic or completely pedestrian but no less miraculous and I cry because it affects me so deeply.   I told him that I have come to understand the impermanence of life and how the moment I'm in will never be repeated, how my kids are growing and everyone I love is aging, including myself, and that we won't always be here.

Dwight, ever wise, said to me,  "Well darling, I would say then that you are having a life."

Today my heart is open and bruised and awash in love as I live this life.  We spent Saturday with Sandi's family and saying goodbye to her amazing grandfather.  He has been declining steadily for the past two months and his body had begun to shut down.  We traveled yesterday morning to the Downeast Community Hospital to give our last kisses and say anything that needed to be said.

(I want to just acknowledge my gratitude for what this hospital has set up for families in this exact situation.  They had a sitting room adjacent to the hospital room where the family could gather.  There was comfortable seating, a TV and a table so people could eat.  It was the ideal way to provide comfort for a family keeping vigil and it benefited this family enormously.)

I have had a lot of experience with loss, but not much with death.  I have lost two grandparents and two friends.  In coming to terms with the way life actually works (rather than the way I've liked to believe where I can control everything) I have come to accept this stark, sad and miraculous reality: people are born and people die.  Nothing is stagnant.  It is not possible to escape the cyclical nature of life.  You can not hold on to anything or anyone forever.  Behind every loss is a new beginning, behind every winter an eventual spring.

Last year I read the book Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron.  It is about this very concept and learning how to cultivate a deep peace and stillness within, allowing you to surrender to all that changes.  I could see the depth of this work in me as I walked into the expanse of the unknown of death and all that it rattles free in me about uncertainty, loss and impermanence.  I kept thinking of something I had read somewhere: nothing real ever dies.

My most resounding experience of the last few weeks with Sandi's family has been one of admiration, love, privilege and awe.  I have always adored her family but to see their love and dedication to their father, husband, father-in-law, grandfather has changed me.  It is one thing to tell someone you love them.  It is quite another to stay awake all night at someone's bedside and try to settle a confused and agitated mind, to drive 30 minutes to a hospital more than once a day to seek comfort, to turn your lives upside down and inside out to care for a dying man who would otherwise have to be cared for in a nursing home.

I have never witnessed this kind of devotion.  This family rallied and gathered, committing to a round-the-clock schedule so that no minute was left uncovered.   They dealt with some immensely difficult things and cared for her grandfather with the utmost love, patience and attention.  I suppose I knew that this kind of care for a family member existed but I have never experienced it firsthand. I admire each and everyone of them and love them anew.

As I sat by his side holding his warm hand in the hospital on Saturday as the morphine dripped all I could say to him was I love you and thank you, over and over again.  Thank you for creating this wonderful family, for leaving this legacy behind and for all that I have been given because of it.  If not for Sandi's paternal grandmother and grandfather (as well as her maternal ones) I would not have this life I have today.  Sandi wouldn't be here and so we wouldn't be together and our girls would not exist.

I hugged one of her uncles and told him how deeply I appreciate being even a small part of this truly amazing family and he seemed affronted telling me I was certainly not a small part but an equal and important part.  This is the kind of family I am talking about here.

I cried on and off all day Saturday, my whole person so overcome with the exquisite interconnectedness of life and the gifts that are constantly bestowed on us if only we are open.  Yet, if all life is connected in this elaborate web than I must accept the whole package; as I wept in profound gratitude for this man's life and all that it has given, there is also the staggering loss of his absence.

Sandi and I sat with her grandmother while she talked about his impending death.   Her primary concern was that he was not in pain of any kind and if he would wonder where she was.  Even in parting and facing her life without him, her focus was on what he needed and not the hole of a future without him.

While dying at 87 does not a tragedy make, my heart was splintered to hear her talk about him and to imagine the aching emptiness of life without your partner of nearly 7 decades.   I thought of them raising a family of six, of the back breaking hours of fishing and providing for a large family, of nurturing and caring for so many children so selflessly.  I thought of Sandi and I and how we could only be so fortunate (not in years but in longevity) to grow old together and face each other's deaths.  I know it sounds morbid but it is the truth.

If you are as fortunate as you can be in life, you will end up dying at an old age alongside great love.  If you are most lucky, life will hurt because you will have loved deeply.

As we said goodbye in the hospital, Maya went up to Grampie and gave him a kiss on his hand.  She told him that she loved him.  She cried.  Her compassion and sadness made me proud of her and how she loves.

I sat with Ella as I broke the uncertain news that we might not be able to leave on our trip to Florida (the one we have been planning for 3 years) because things were so uncertain with her Great Grampie.  I held her as she cried for nearly 30 minutes and I hurt for her and was proud of her for letting her heart open to pain so fully.  She grew up a little in that half an hour as she realized what it means to stand by your family when they need you most.

I watched Sandi be there for her family and with her family, as a medical advocate and a gentle presence, and I could see the love that came from her grandfather threaded right through her.

I think death opens doors that are kept shut in day to day living.  It is an opportunity to let your guard down, forgive old hurts, remember what is important.  Death is the biggest reminder we have of the preciousness of life.

I cried so much on Saturday I told Sandi I felt like I needed some Gatorade to replace my sodium loss.   To curl into bed that night grateful to have each other and our girls and praying for a peaceful departure for her grandfather was all I could ask for.  Just minutes after we tucked in the phone rang.  Grampie had let go with a daughter and granddaughter by his side.

Six children, nine grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren.  Our girls had two sets of great grandparents until they were six and nine.  What an enormous blessing.  What a life lived and shared, what a world changed by one man and his wife.

To know love, to be broken by it, opened by it, changed by it, that is the gift that this life offers.  It isn't about achieving goals or accumulating stuff, accomplishing this or looking like that.   At the end of it all, be it the end of a day or the end of a life, all that really counts are matters of the heart: how well did I love and how open was I to love?

At the end of Grampie's beautiful life all I can really say is that I hope I do half as well as he did.   He  transformed me in his life and in his death and for this I am forever grateful.

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