As twilight softened the edges of heat on that Shipshewana Sunday, we were freshly showered and no longer smelling of lake algae, not yet terribly hungry for a cheese, bread, bean soup, and applesauce supper in our suite. My mom and I decided to take Katie and Eric on an evening walk past the Amish houses and farmlands of Shipshe. It had been a quiet Sunday, for everything closes in honor of family time. We had picnicked and enjoyed three lakes in Indiana and Michigan that day, stopping to catch tree frogs and lady beetles, to collect tiny acorns, to explore old bridges covered with vines.

During our walk we heard laughter coming from family dinners shared with friends. We saw middle and high school Amish boys and girls (still in their dresses) playing a game of volleyball. There were two small children riding a miniature buggy with two small ponies. Wash lines hung high and empty. An Amish girl jumped on a trampoline. Horses nuzzled in the golden light.

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Passing by one home, Katie saw a stiff yellow finch lying on the ground. Knowing it to be dead, she began to cry. Something about the loss of this beautiful creature touched her in a way profound. I still do not know exactly why. I tried to console her in any way that I could, resorting to the rather tried and true: Honey, sometimes when birds fly they knock into things which can stun them. Perhaps this bird is just stunned and will get back up and fly in a moment.

A little while later (shortly after I took the above picture, actually), Katie saw another yellow finch fly past her. Sunshine! she exclaimed. (She had already named it). Sunshine did not die! She was just stunned, Mama! 

I almost wanted to believe it myself. Oh, the pretty tales we tell ourselves for comfort. I wanted to believe it, but the next morning I took my final run in Shipshe and happened to run right past the spot where the finch, still dead, still lay. Sunshine had not escaped her fate, and I had not escaped knowing it. I could spare my child, but only for so long, only from so much.

In the time we’ve been back, I keep up the falsehood. Katie has mentioned Sunshine a couple of times. Where do you think she is now, Mama? Oh, probably flying past Lake Shipshewana. Wasn’t that a beautiful lake? Do you remember?

It works. She believes it. Some part of me believes it, too. At least for that finch, I have an answer. Not so for the questions she has been asking since age two. Are you going to die, Mama? What about Amie? 

Sometimes I am tempted into a boldface lie. Other times, I choose my words with the artful dodginess of the ancient Greek rhetors, or at least today’s politicians.

How can I say: There is no easy way to teach you about death, daughter of mine, and even if I could I don’t know where to begin. 

How can I say: You will lose people who are so much a part of you that you will at once both ache and rejoice at the slightest of memories. 

How can I say: Losing someone you love never will get easier, but your choices about how to allocate your time will get clearer. You must sow the memories today and not wait. You must open yourself fully to the beauty of loving so many people and living with vulnerable intensity, and you must do this even while knowing that all of life is loss and mourning when time takes us all. You must love and hold nothing back, and then you must accept the pain that comes from having chosen to live so fully. 

Our beloved Nana, the last of my grandparents, is dying. Although we knew that her health was faltering, and although this knowledge was the primary factor in my decision to end our music class this year in order to free up days of the week to visit her more in the coming season, we did not have any idea about the extent of her health concerns. Since we have returned from Indiana, her health has been rapidly changing and, with courage and acceptance, she has decided to forego treatment. It has been an emotional few days, especially yesterday, as final decisions and end of life care were determined. Although we were with her in the hospital all day yesterday, she has now returned to her home under hospice care and an around the clock caregiver.

The grief comes in waves. What I have learned over the years about grief through my own reflection and observation of others is that grief cannot be sustained without moments of levity and stoicism to break it up. Grief cycles. It comes on strong, then subsides, then returns. And somewhere in those waves, we take the hand of the person we love and we say what we need to say. We look deep into their eyes and see that there is a connection that can never be undone, not even by time. We might even take a run and feel the tears so tight in our chest that we can hardly catch our breath along the streets by our house but then we find that our body breathes through those knots. We know this is a promise that we will be okay in the end, that we will find a way to be both sad and happy at once for the rest of our lives.

“Mama sad and not happy today?” Eric wanted to know.

I am very sad about Nana, but I am happy, too, about so many memories we have and the time we have left and so many other parts of life. People can be both sad and happy at the same time, did you know that? 

Sad and happy at the same moment…try that on for size, my sweet almost-three-year old. How can that possibly make sense? Figuring out how to lead and teach my children through this time beguiles me. How can I explain any of this? I have no idea, and so I turn to what I know: books and the construction of our family narrative. We read Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie de Paola (a favorite author of ours, we have several of his books), and I bawled. I am really sad and am going to miss her and don’t want to lose her, but I will be okay, you guys. 

And we go on being active authors in our living family story. This time is part of our history as a family, too. We have choices to make about what actions we take, how symbolic we make them, and whether they call back to other actions and therefore form meaning. We make conscious decisions about what we do during this time—just as we have made some key choices this year—and what becomes deliberately weighted with importance in the years when we look back on this time. We know the pinwheels I bought from Nana’s Ralph’s today will still be spinning next year, and we will remember playing with them at her house this week. We know that we will pick up Eric’s favorite Christmas story (The Grinch) in a few months and will be connected to ourselves in time reading it today. We know there is significance in choosing to take a walk to Amie’s elementary school this afternoon while the ambulance was bringing Nana home.

We know the story has to be written until the page changes:

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We brought our suits and swam in Nana’s pool today. It was a symbolic act. I have taken Katie as a young person but somehow never got around to taking Eric swimming there yet. I spent hours in that pool with my cousin, brother, and Uncle Eric. At one point, we would come at least once a week. Eric needed his turn in the family pool, and I believe Nana enjoyed hearing the happy sounds of us playing again in a place so much associated with our childhood. I told my children all about the games Uncle Eric used to make up in that pool.

And just like that, we make choices every day about when and how to jump into the family narrative. I believe we must immerse ourselves all the time, becoming part of the story, and making active and daily decisions about how to perform it.

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Eric watered Nana’s plants: “Nana like me water her plants!”

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Eric visits with Nana.

At the end of the day, I gave the kiddos some dinner at Nana’s kitchen table. Aunt Debbie and I played “crazy piano” just like Uncle Eric used to (he was quite a good pianist but would also make up wild songs for us to dance to). I also gave Eric and Katie a bath (just as we did during our sleepover in October and at Christmas) in Nana’s tub. Eric always loves that.

It was a good day. I cried so much yesterday that today I tried to set my mind on enjoying our time and making memories with her and in her home which was so much a part of my childhood. In this way, too, my children are connected to my aunts and uncle and cousin. Many times we said, “Remember the time we…” We are so grateful for our almost-weekly visits and the chances we had to help out with the marketing or just the simple things that needed to be done.

The hardest part of the day was when it was time to go. Little Eric had his heart absolutely set on spending the night with Nana tonight. “Me not want to leave Nana. Me want to sleep at Nana’s right now! Me want to stay here.” He was crying from his heart. He has such a special, special bond with her. I know he will always remember her, “my fren Nana.”  Every night as part of our bedtime routine we say how much we love her, and we look at the moon and think of how we saw it over her house the night of our sleepover with her.

Sunshine and moonlight…somewhere in between must be a way to guide my children, and myself, through this season.

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