I have a recurring dream where I sit on a porch over-looking a bay. I am very old with a quilt tucked around my legs, an old cat purring in my lap, sea salt breeze clinging to my lips. This is not one of those exciting adventure dreams, because here only a thin film of life lies between me and bodily death. I am frail. In a few moments, I will die. My parents and grandparents, who have all sat here before me, are all hovering all around, but they are not ghosts or figments of my imagination, I am simply half in their world already, and here on this porch with one foot in and one foot out of death, we’re discussing how death is really just the closing curtain of the first act of a magnificent play. My mother is quoting the last chapter of C.S Lewis’ book The Last Battle to me, “But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
I do not know how old I am, only that I don’t mind the thought of death. I’m a mere shadow of the woman peering out of my wedding portrait that hangs in the house behind me. My husband, my parents, my brother, and one of my children have all gone before me, and I long for the eternity to hold them again that death affords. I don’t mind leaving behind the children and grandchildren and great-grand children who are left because, after living it, I realize how absurdly short life is, and I know that in the space of a blink they will be the old, quilt-ladden body here on the porch, discussing with me how one departs this life in peace. I know I will tell them what my father is now telling me. I will tell them it is easy, because you do nothing. You breathe your last breath as you breathed your first: involuntarily, because this is the way you were created to do it. God does the rest. From the first inflating to the last deflating of your lungs, from your introduction to the world as a pink, wriggling baby, to the carrying of your soul from this wrinkled, spent shell, He has always done all the real work.
And then they are all around me, all of them solid, tangible, real, the people I love most. My dear, beloved husband, the only man I ever loved; my father whom I have always loved best; my mother whom I have missed with a deep ache every day for the last thirty years; my darling grandparents; and all my children, the living and the dead, to whom I have given every shred of myself until all that was left was this slight slip of humanity, drawing shallow breaths and singing, as involuntarily as I breath, an old spiritual my daddy used to sing in the shower. “Swing low, sweet chariot, commin’ for to carry me home. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, commin’ for to carry me home. A band of angels, commin’ after me, commin’ for to carry me home.” I draw a breath, and I know it is my last. My grandmother, the one I am named after, pushes a few strands of hair off my cheek, just as she did when I was a child, and tells me, “Your life has been beautiful, it will be beautiful still.” I begin to exhale, and then…
Then I always wake up. Usually, I wake up sweaty, with a warm kitty curled around my feet, and the arm or leg of a sleeping husband thrown haphazardly over my torso. I’ve had this dream several times over the years, but lately it’s been on repeate, as though my mind is trying to cipher something out of it but can’t ever quite figure out what, and so it rewinds the scene, over and over, endlessly trying to find the missing piece.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it, as I have a tendency to do. My grandfather died three years ago today, and the memories have been with me heavily these last few weeks.
I remember my father’s call a few weeks before, telling me just how bad it was getting, and I sat in my office and cried, because letting go of those you love, even those who have had long, full, blessed lives, is painful.
Like in my dream, I don’t think Grandpa minded dying so much. My grandmother had died suddenly a few years before, and he was lonely without his wife of more than fifty years. Most of his children and grandchildren lived far away, and I know that I, for my part, wasn’t as good at keeping in touch with him as I should have been. I comforted myself by mentally repeating that he had thirty-some-odd grandkids, so my inconsistent correspondence was surely not so noticeable. But the truth is, I never got to say goodbye to my grandmother, and talking to Grandpa was a painful reminder of a chapter I was struggling to close. It was hard to call knowing her soothing voice would not even out his rough, but loving, questions. I regret this all now, but I always wonder if I’ll regret it more when I’m old and understand what a call from a grandchild really means.
I remember vividly, though, the last time he talked to me. I choose to visit him and say goodbye before he died rather than attend his funeral. Even if he was changed from the robust man I’d known for the last 22 years, I wanted to remember him alive, not cold and drained of blood and smeared with that vile paste the funeral home insists is make-up. I wanted to remember what his hand felt like in mine, with his pulse thrumming. I wanted to see him for myself, to hear his voice, even if it was just a faint echo of its former strength, one more time.
He wasn’t very responsive, and hadn’t been for some time, when I first entered his room at the nursing home. I’d been to the house already, where my parents and aunts and uncles were all staying, and also preparing it to be sold. I could not imagine this house without my grandparents in it, without their collections of bird figurines and bells, without its funny mis-mash of old and new, without the crush of our family, much too large for this space yet all somehow arranged within these walls, without my grandpa’s gruff morning chatter and bird feeders and homemade chicken noodle soup, or my grandmother’s strawberry patch and sky-high sunflowers and rhubarb pie, but the evidence of their departure was all around me. I hadn’t been here since my grandmother’s death, and now it seemed my family had managed to dispatch with 95% of my grandparent’s belongings in record time. With so many kids (7), and grandkids (nearly thirty, I think), and great grand-kids (putting us well within the 40’s range total), we all wanted a piece of them, something to remember them by. I took a quilt of my grandmother’s that I had always loved, several birds, and a few bells, and in this way we magpied away a good portion of stuff. Whatever was left my aunts sold at a garage sale. Still, this draining away of assets did not prepare me for the draining away of life.
My grandfather was bloated, his hair was wispy, and he had that peculiar smell that always seems to hover around those who are closest to death. His skin was yellowed and his breaths came at uneven intervals, often leaving whoever was in the room to listen with their heart in their throat, wondering if this was the end. But no- there was another ragged breath, another slow heart thump. The wait continued.
My grandfather’s last wish was that he not die alone. So his seven children, their spouses, and assorted grandkids all rallied around him, each of us staying as long as we could. My father and several of his siblings, as I mentioned, had battened down the hatches in my grandfather’s home, determined to wait it out for the long-haul, however long that might be. He would not, we all silently determined together, die alone. Instead, he would die knowing that he was the opposite of alone, he was surrounded by love. We would do what family is supposed to do, we would carry each other, and him, through this last parade of his long life.
I remember walking the short five steps it took to get from the doorway to his bed, and being hyper aware of my own father’s presence, as though it was the weight that was holding me down. He took my grandfather’s hand. “Dad, are you awake? Dad, Amanda, your granddaughter, is here to see you.”
I think he said something else, but I don’t remember what. I remember wondering if Grandpa would get confused and think I was my grandmother, whose middle name was Amanda, but he didn’t. Instead he gave me the most beautiful gift. This man, inches from death, took my hand, and mumbled as best he could, “Amanda. I love you.”
Though I saw him several more times over then next few days, those were the last words he ever spoke directly to me. They were enough.
I do not know when or how I will die. I do not know what my future days hold, or the way my own children will remember me, but this is my hope: I hope they remember me as a woman who loved fiercely and would not stop, whose faith in her mighty God anchored her in every storm without fail, whose hope never ran out. I hope someday when my grandchild sits down to write out her memories of me she will be inspired to live with intention, to live with her eyes open to the beauty that can always be found in the world, even in the nastiest of times, because that is what I learned from my grandmother. I hope he finds strength when he opens my worn Bible and reads the years of underlined verses and scribbled margin notes, because that is what I found when I opened my grandpa’s good book, sitting in his livingroom so many years ago. I hope they remember me as the woman who never stopped running after God, even in the midst of her own mess, because that is who my mother is, a modern-day Mary pouring her perfume on Jesus’ feet no matter what else is going on around her. And I hope they remember me as a light tower, always pointing them to Jesus, to truth, to wisdom, and to love, because that is who my father has always been to me.
This morning, sitting on my twelfth story patio, slightly salty wind whipping my hair, a sleeping kitty curled up in the window behind me, I do not know for certain if I can be all these things. I am a fragile vessel, but perhaps, like all my parents before me, these treasures can be found in my jars of clay. Perhaps my mind can finally put to rest these dreams of death, because I know that it will come, and the details do not matter so much. Death will come to me involuntarily, as did life. I did not pick my birthday, I will not choose my death day, but whatever day it is will be a good day because my life is already beautiful, and it will continue to be beautiful no matter what storms pass over me. I can’t tell you why I know this, I just do. I will not be a perfect wife or daughter or mother, but I do not believe I will look over my life in the end and regret its sum. I will look over life and be thankful for the marriage I built, the children I raised, the lessons God taught me, the hope He imparted.
And anyway, today, this day which is all I truly have, is beautiful. I have the only man I have ever loved sitting next to me, I have the memory of my grandparents resting warmly in the scoop of my soul, and I have the early morning sun shining warmly on my face, a gift from the Heavenly Father who has orchestrated all the details of my days, and knows what their total will be. Today, though I have dreamed of death, will be filled with life, and I could not ask for more.