Last week, as I was writing on my mother's letters, I noted that my grandfather, my dad's father, didn't ever seem to write any letters. Most of the correspondence was between my mother and Kokomo, my dad's mother.
Kokomo died in the summer of 1971. Mother, ever faithful in her letters, kept writing and this time addressed them to Grandfather and Elaine, Elaine being my father's invalid sister who had lived with her parents after some years in the mission field.
Then, Grandfather began to write. I don't know why I was surprised to see how well he wrote. Like Kokomo, his livelihood had been teaching school, and he was a literate man. But I had only known him as retired, and as the most wonderful Grandfather who could fix anything. We all eagerly awaited his often lengthy visits from Indiana to Texas when he would get to work and do a year's worth of maintenance projects on my parent's aging and often crumbling house.
But he could write, and he did write of his heartbreak. He had lost the love of his life. Grief simply swallowed him. He traded life-long superb health for chest pains and recurring bouts of pneumonia. This independent, energetic man suddenly asked if my parents would permit him to move in with them, leaving his own home behind in Indiana where he had spent his entire life. The answer was an immediate "Yes, we'd love to have you," but every time Grandfather would decide to buy a ticket and see how to make this work, the chest pains took over.
I read of his emotional devastation, and suddenly, after weeks of bleak grief of my own, my mind and heart lightened and cleared. This is my family. An ordinary, American family. Better educated than some, perhaps, but that is about the only thing that stands out. Financially conservative, we pay our bills and live middle-class lives. We have squabbles and differences. Difficult children and challenging marriages litter the landscape, but no divorces until my own generation said a louder "no" to marital misery than the previous ones had been able to do.
We live ordinary lives and we have been dying ordinary deaths as well. Most of the grandparents and great-grandparents lived into their 80's. They had the usual decline, and then death. We have been doing what most American families do: figuring out a way to cope with this, and wondering why it is so hard.
As I was writing this blog, especially as my mother's death came closer and closer, I became painfully aware that most people I know don't have any idea how to handle what is inevitable for all of us. I see too many people agonizing over a parent's decline with no preparation in receiving death as both sorrow and as gift.
People will whisper to me, "I just can't take this much longer." That happens when the chore of caring for the dementia-ridden, lingering, overly-medicalized parent or spouse one ends up hurting the care-givers far more than it offers help to the one being cared for. I hear words of relief when it is over, often spoken in shame rather than recognizing the normality of such a response. Relief and grief hold hands. They are intimate friends, not enemies to be forever separated.
We don't know what to do with our relief or our grief. My grandfather, this so alive man, missed his wife with such intensity that when he died, a year and a half after her death, his doctor actually said, "He died of a broken heart." I understand. I had times after my mother died that I wasn't sure I could keep going. My depression was so deep that I wanted it to end with my own death. Just too much pain. I also knew enough to be aware that it would pass, given enough time and sleep and decent food and good friends to listen to me. And it has now passed. Something about reading Grandfather's ache freed my own. I will always miss my mother, my father, my grandparents. I miss friends that have already died. The places reserved in my heart for loving them still exist. But I am no longer disabled by this loss.
I have also learned something: we need to accept this inevitability. We must learn to appreciate death as a part of life, and to prepare for our own end for the sake of those who love us.
We must first address the state of our souls. This one thing I know for sure: the personal characteristics that you practice the most will become powerfully evident at the end of life. One who practices impatience will become a tyrant. One who practices kindness will be the most loved patient in any setting. It will be revealed. Get those holy habits in place now. There's no "later" here. It's time.
In addition, every adult, even with few assets, needs to have a legal will, and this is absolutely vital if there are dependent children. Each of us also needs to make decisions about the disposal of our bodies so these decisions are not left to those who have just lost someone and are themselves lost in grief. These are acts of love.
Assuming that most of us will die with the usual process--the slow and often lengthy decline until things just start to snowball and finally cave in, each of us need to decide just how much medical intervention we want as that inevitable decline accelerates. Why do we expect others to make those decisions for us? How unfair! And when we've made them, we need to make sure that others who may have to enforce the decisions know clearly and fully what is expected to be done and what must not be done.
There are books written on how we should live with grace and power. It's time to write some on how we shall die with grace and power.