I recently lost a beloved member of my family. At 46, she was much too young to die. Though we had known of her incurable cancer for months and prepared for the inevitable, the end came suddenly, and too soon. The burden is great for her mother, who lost another daughter to cancer few years back, and for the last of the three sisters, whose bewilderment is as heartbreaking as her grief.
We gathered together last weekend, as families will, to mourn the loss of our bright, funny, kind, sarcastic sweetheart. To celebrate her life and wonder at her death, to console one another and remind ourselves that life is sweet and sharp and not to be taken for granted. That love endures when life does not, that the mysteries of the grave are not fearsome but only unknown. That though this one life has ended, ours go on, with future joys and sorrows yet to unfold.
For all of us, the urge was great to imbue the moment with meaning, to make sense of this ultimately senseless loss. There was a church service Saturday morning, and a sun-glazed, windblown graveside ceremony, and a muted afternoon reception afterward at the big hotel in town. In the evening, we gathered again at the house for a simple meal and more conversation.
Everyone was exhausted, but the opportunity to visit and catch up was too important to miss. We were a big roomful of siblings and step-siblings and in-laws, cousins, neighbors, old friends from long ago, professional colleagues, grandchildren, significant others and even one long-lost half sister who was adopted at birth and only recently reconnected. We seldom see each other, now that we’re all grown up and spread across the country, busy with our separate lives. With the wine and whiskey flowing, we found plenty to talk about beside our new, shared sadness. It was, ultimately, a happy evening, full of spontaneity and laughter as well as tears. It pleased and comforted us all.
Sunday morning dawned clear and cold. The house was quiet, the remains of the night before cleared away and order restored. In the kitchen, with the sun just cresting over the mountains to the east, I loaded a small daypack with a bottle of water, some cheese, a homemade yeast roll and an apple. By the time I was ready to leave, people were filtering into the kitchen for coffee.
I slipped out the front door, drove my rental car up into the mountain pass and spent the rest of the day walking along a gentle ridgeline stretch of the Appalachian Trail. As important as it had been to grieve the morning before and to socialize in the evening, I needed time now alone with my feelings in this dear and familiar place, the landscape of my childhood. The sun filtered through the bare oak forest and the air was scented with the sweet dying of their leaves.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” says Mary Oliver in her much-loved poem “The Summer Day.” “I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down in the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.”
I don’t know what a prayer is, either. I don’t know how to make sense of or find meaning in the death of this sweet-spirited, right-minded young woman, in the life she lived or in the grief of her loved ones left behind. I suspect it’s all random, when it comes right down to it — that we live out our human lives, in all their magnificence and inanity, against the dazzling but unmoved backdrop of the natural world, that there is no cosmic arbiter of meaning, that we make up the meaning we need along the way and share it, for better or for worse, with those who matter most to us.
I make an effort these days to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” in my day-to-day life. I find it helps me let go of trifling irritations and inconveniences so I can get on with more interesting and rewarding stuff. There is nothing trifling about my sadness over the death of this dear family member, but still, I choose to be grateful — for the happy times I shared with her, for the joy she brought to everyone who knew her, for the comforting presence of my friends and family last weekend, for the loveliness of the church service and the still beauty of my walk on the mountain.
Thank you, sweetheart, and godspeed.