Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Work in Dying

"For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten." Ecclesiastes 9:5

There is a laborious process to dying, for the person who dies, as well as those left behind. The work in dying is a job for which few voluntarily apply; it is dirty, painful and without reward.  Nonetheless, every living thing is eventually called in for work.  There are books that describe the duties, stages outlined to assist those who are new on the job. I, however, am an experiential learner; books can only take me so far before I must simply jump in and deal with the work at hand. Such is the case in my grandfather's death.

We all knew his time was coming. My mother had been preparing me for 20 years. Every time I went to visit him, I stepped carefully, thinking This may be the last time I see him. That's what makes my memories so vivid; I was coloring them in even while he was alive. Still, his death hit me harder than I expected.  Most alarming is how the color is fading, time and tears washing out the brightness of his image.

My grandfather died on a Thursday morning. I received the phone call an hour before I was scheduled to work "job A " as a server in a Mexican restaurant. There was no way I could provide good customer service with a smile that night. I called my boss; "My grandpa died, I'm not gonna' make it in." I spent the night with a bottle of wine to depress my depression. For a week following his death my emotional response ranged from snot and slob sobbing to numb indifference. This, too, matched Grandpa’s personality, bi-polar mood swings was his normalcy.

The day after his death I was longing to be by a river. Fortunately, the Santa Fe is only a 15 minute drive from my apartment. My hibiscus had a new bloom; I picked it and took it with me to the river. I watched it drift in the shallows, wondering if it would be carried away into the slow and easy current or if it would simply get stuck in the slimy muck on the side bank. I imagined Grandpa’s afterlife the same way; was he lifted to heaven or is he arguing even now, cussing out the reaper at the gates of hell?  Rain started falling, so did my tears. I fell to my knees and let go.

I went to lunch afterwards, ordering a bowl of clam chowder cooked with bits of bacon.  I ate the meat in his honor, topping it off with two doses of rum and coke. The server, Christy, comped my meal; I must have looked truly pathetic. By five that evening, I was sufficiently cried out, eyes red and puffy, but went to work anyway. I was glad we were busy; it's hard to recall fond memories of dead relatives when filling up chips and salsa for table six, calling in sides of guac and sour cream for table three, and trying to remember if the woman at table four wanted sweet or unsweet tea. Saturday night was equally busy, though there was a raw moment when the grandchild in a large party walked up behind her grandfather and gave him a loving hug, just as I used to do with my Grandpa. I swallowed the lump in my throat and asked the mom what sort of dressing she wanted on her side salad.

Sunday morning I went to a lively church service but felt dead inside. The Holy Spirit tried to move me, but I didn't feel like feeling. Sunday evening I learned the memorial service would be the next Saturday. I panicked: I have to get there! I want to be a part of the service! I need to say good-bye! I went on-line to search ticket prices that started as high as $2,500 roundtrip for two - I was very insistent that my daughter come with me, for my own comfort and to share with her the significance of her great, great grandfather Franz.

I finally found two tickets for $1,400 - an amount that equaled my entire savings. My aunt offered to help, and I was sure my mother would pitch in, but money woes would surface eventually, something I am avidly trying to avoid, especially given the current recession.  But this was Grandpa, the man of my life. I called my bank to make the transfer. Strangely enough, I couldn't remember my pass code. I was forced to wait and call first thing Monday morning to finish the transaction. I called the airline to at least reserve the tickets. When I hung up, I felt a sense of peace; I was going home.   As I lie down to sleep, however, I was nudged by worry.  What if I need that money for an emergency? What if my hours are cut, how will I make rent? What if….. Financial insecurity is the surest way to attack faith.  I said a prayer requesting the Lord's guidance, as it was clear I was too emotionally attached to think clearly.

The next morning I performed the usual routine, got the preschooler ready, jumped in the car and prepared to leave for "job B" as a writing specialist at the college. The car stalled but started on the second attempt. That's when I saw the warning light reading "security." This advisory didn't make much sense for my car's functioning; I don't have a security system. I proceeded with my morning agenda with the spirit of anxiety sucking on the lining of my stomach.

After I dropped off my daughter, I immediately pulled into the nearest service station. I called into work after learning I would need a new battery, an oil change, and two new tires. "I'll be in tomorrow night," I promised, and would need to be - with one night's work loss from job A, and one day's work loss from job B, I didn't have the luxury of missing much more. Attending the memorial would take me out for a week. What was I thinking?

While waiting on my car, I realized God was working for me. If I'd purchased those tickets the night before, I wouldn't have been able to take care of my car or anything else that may come up in the months to come. All praise be to God, for He can see what is truly needed: security for the insecure, not a memorial for the mortal, a human attempt to fill in hues of what is now like a black and white photograph, absent the colorful life. Besides, Grandpa wouldn’t know whether I was there or not, "...the dead know not any thing." It's more important that I get to work and provide for the living. Grandpa would want it that way.

The next day I went to job B, helping students with their essays. I walked in a few minutes late.  There was a student waiting. I dumped my purse on the designated shelf, picked through the nametags, found mine and attached it to my shirt. As I sat down, I glanced at the student's assignment sheet: Compare and contrast two poems about death. "You've got to be kidding me," I said in defeat. The student looked up at me, questioning my response. I sighed my resignation, "It's been a long week."

I hadn't visited Grandpa at the cabin since my now four-year-old was just crawling.  I brought her home to accomplish a specific mission; baptize her feet in the river.  I took pictures, wrote my thoughts down in a journal, brought a few rocks home.  But how can I ensure she will appreciate the significance of that captured moment?  More importantly, how do I express who Grandpa was to me, to our family?  She’ll never know him as I did, for when I die the memory of [him] is forgotten."  My only hope lies in a high and rocky place.

If one wants to know God, walk in His love.  I suppose the same can be applied to Grandpa. As the man and the place are one and the same, I will go home to walk in his presence.  My daughter and I will search for rocks shaped like hearts. We’ll take hikes high into the hills and listen as the mountains share their lessons, the kind Grandpa might teach: There are highs and lows on every trail; wear the right shoes, watch out for poison oak, and stay away from the edge.  I’ll cook whatever is growing, I may even add a bit of meat.  When night falls, I’ll tuck her in to sleep on the patio and together we’ll lose count of the stars.   In my prayers, I’ll give thanks for good food, good company, and a good place to enjoy both.  I'll miss you, Grandpa.

No comments: