The other day, my mom shared one of those Facebook memories that pop up on your News Feed from time to time. Sometimes those are fun, sometimes they’re sad. This one was a little of both.
The memory was in the form of a photo of myself, my mom, and my grandmother (Mimi) from that day in 2015. We were out to dinner in New York City as part of a girls’ trip we took along with my sister.
None of us knew then that just under a year later, she would have a stroke that would weaken her mind, already starting to get foggy. Or that not quite 2 years after that, another stroke would cause a brain bleed from which she would not recover, that we would lose her within the week.
My mom planned that trip to New York because she had the foresight to know that Mimi might not have many years left of being able to travel. She got tickets to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—my grandmother was a pioneer in liturgical and modern dance, so this was perfect for a trip with her. The performance was incredible, but watching her watch it was an even greater gift.
Seeing that picture brought up for me a deep sense of gratitude for something I have been able to hold at the forefront even through my grief at losing this amazing woman. That is, that when I got to the hospital and heard that it didn’t look good, I was devastated, but not desperate. There wasn’t unfinished business. There weren’t unhealed wounds. There was just my Mimi and her loving family coming together to hold her and one another, as we always have.
We were fortunate in that Mimi was surprisingly responsive for several days after the stroke, so we were able to tell her we loved her and hear her say she loved us. Siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces, friends, all were able to pay their respects. But I also knew that even if she had died on the way to the hospital, nothing, or at least nothing of importance, would have been left unsaid.
She knew we loved her; we knew she loved us. We still cherished every moment that we were able to remind one another of that—I will never forget the many times in that final week that my grandfather leaned over and said to her, “Jean, all these people are here because they love you. I love you. God loves you.”
My mom worries that Mimi died not knowing how amazing she was. I think this may be true to an extent, but a friend I shared this with reminded me that her experience of my grandmother was of a woman who was proud of and always willing to talk about her accomplishments. I don’t know that any of us come to our end with nothing unresolved, and as a granddaughter I’m sure there’s plenty I’m not aware of in her interior life, her marriage, and opportunities in work and education that weren’t open to her by virtue of her gender and the time in which she was born.
And there will continue to be things to mourn. I am deeply grateful she was at my wedding—but I preemptively grieve the fact that she will never meet any children my husband and I might have. I cherished the years she supported me in my work in the church—and I’m saddened that I can’t share with her whatever the future might hold for me and my new family.
I know that not all deaths—perhaps you would say not many deaths—happen with the same sense of resolution that we were fortunate to have for the most part with Mimi. I have mixed feelings about what I want to say here:
I want to encourage everyone to cherish each moment with their loved ones, but hypervigilance around that can put an awful lot of pressure on a relationship.
I want to embolden you to reach out and try to heal broken relationships while you can, but I know some relationships, including a few in my own family, cannot be mended this side of heaven, and we must know when to let go of them.
I want to celebrate my Mimi’s life without devaluing the preciousness of lives cut much shorter than hers by illness, accident, or some other unexpected cause.
In my most recent blog post, I shared about Ben, whose death just before Christmas was sudden and tragic, leaving questions and doubts with so many of his loved ones. There is no remedy for that kind of pain, and no way to prevent or prepare yourself for such a loss. Those wounds are raw and will take much longer to heal, if they ever do.
My friend, the gifted guitarist and songwriter Sam Frazier, wrote a beautiful song for another dear musician friend, Martha Bassett, to sing, and I keep coming back to it as I mull over these things. Sam was inspired by the Shaker community, a Christian sect that originated in 18th century England and came to America after being persecuted there. Now, because of their commitment to celibacy and a decision to close the community to new members, the Shakers are slowly dying out. There is currently one Shaker village left, in Maine, with only 2 living members.
The song is called “Mother,” a reference to Mother Anne, the leader of the original Shaker community and, to their belief, a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The line that runs in my head these days is repeated in the chorus: “Love one another while you still can.” There is nothing in the song of anxiety or clinging to. Rather, it is an honest but gentle acknowledgement of our mortality, a reminder to cherish the present moment—and then to let it go.
Maybe you can identify with this in a similar context—a family member or friend who is dying or has already passed, or perhaps is very much alive and you want to be more intentional with that relationship. Maybe you feel the grief more than the love because of some estrangement or loss, and you feel you have missed or perhaps never been given the opportunity to love someone the way you wish you could. Maybe it resonates with you as you read the news and wonder where this world is headed between gun violence, threats of nuclear war, the opioid crisis, racial and class tension, climate change, and so on. Either way, the message is simple:
Tell Mother, stranger and friend,
Sister and brother,
Again, tell Mother, tell Mother,
When you get to the end—
Love one another while you still can.