A few days ago, my Grandmother on my father’s side, Mary Jane Wildish, passed away. I was fortunate enough to witness her last moments inhabiting her body on this earth and I wanted to honor her by writing this. I didn’t choose to write this right as we heard the news of her passing because so much has happened in this time. I wanted to truly process this and let the power of life and our inevitable death season me.
Last weekend, my parents and I drove up to Tucson, Arizona to see my Grandma in hospice as we knew she was fading fast. My parents have been driving from Orange County to Arizona weekly, and have seen the rapid decline of her health. A few months ago, my Grandma was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Instead of apathetically surrendering to the cards she had been dealt, she, like a warrior, chose to elect in an 8 hour surgery that would potentially give her more time on this earth. When she chose to go through the surgery, all of her close family members were both grateful and deeply worried about the outcome. We knew that this sort of surgery would be challenging to recover from for anybody, let alone for an 85 year old woman. But my Grandma was brave, and to paraphrase her words, she wanted all of her family to know just how precious life is and that it is worth fighting for.
My parents and I drove through the night to arrive in Tucson. We woke up bright and early with just a few hours of sleep to a beautiful desert sunrise, a representation, as I see it of the beauty of life renewing. As we sat and enjoyed our breakfast, I reminded my parents that even though we were tired, we owe it to ourselves and to Grandma to be extremely loving and present with our selves and each other.
When we arrived at the hospice, we saw my grandmother sleeping, and woke her up with a sweet “Hi Mom, Hi Grandma”; her eyes lit up. She was unable to speak or move, but her eyes were clear and her eyebrows expressed so much without the use of words. That day, my parents and I, joined by my two Uncles and a few of my Grandma’s dear friends, watched as my grandmother began her acceptance of leaving her body. We skyped my two brothers and their wives and families and everyone deeply shared their compassion and love for her in their heart warming goodbyes. I sang several songs for her; both with my mandolin, alone with my voice, and with my boyfriend, Russell, skype-ing and playing his violin along with me. As I sang for her, I could feel the presence of God, I could feel our deep oneness and how the vibrations of my voice were for so much more than anything I could ever imagine. I know how easy it is to get caught in our ego’s while singing or performing, but this time, I felt like my voice was being used as a tool to help my Grandma let go. It was powerful and healing for all of us.
During the day, so many memorable moments happened. A few years back, my Grandma made a friend named Marty, who brought so much joy to her. Their friendship at their age was a reminder to me, to all of us, that love and friendship is abundant as long as we are open to it. My Grandma was open to love. Even after the love of her life, my Grandpa, passed a few years back, she still continued living and renewing her life. That was so clear in this room as Marty sat by her bedside, holding her hand and telling her stories as if they had been life-long pals. Love permeated through the room all day; the sunlight beaming through the open patio door and we could hear the sound of the hummingbirds resting beside the delicate outdoor fountain. We listened to beautiful, tranquil music and other times sat in silence. We watched the television project glorious pictures of nature. As Russell so gracefully expressed, "I imagine that people who are close to their death want to be reminded of where they have come from and where they are going". I remember how my mother’s eyes looked like crystals, so passionate and full of love when she gazed at my Grandma. She held her frail hand to her heart and kept reminding her of how loved she was. One moment, when my Mom was kissing my Grandma’s forehead and telling her just how much she meant to her, my Grandma used every bit of physical strength she had to move her arm across her body and grab on to my mother. It was miraculous. My father sat in awe of the goddess that was in front of us. I was witnessing him, in a beautiful way, go back to a time when his mother was the only woman in his life. For so long, he held back the tears, but then he let them fall as he tenderly combed through her shiny and soft white hair. We all felt so drawn to be still and quiet. It was as if all of life had paused for a moment for us to be together in the absolute stillness of God.
During the evening, we had all heard the news of my cousin, Alyssa rushing to the hospital to deliver her baby girl. As we were watching one life pass, we were hearing the news of another life arriving. It was joyous and heartbreaking and so painfully beautiful as life often is.
The next morning, after a restless night’s sleep, we all gathered at the hospice once again to say our goodbyes. Russell and I played the hymn, “Come Thou Fount” with voice and violin. With teary eyes and completely open hearts, we said our goodbyes, knowing that we would no longer get to share our physical lives with this incredible woman but that we would forever be connected in that pure stillness and in that space of love that we were in with her, without the need of words.
In my 27 years of living, I have never experienced being with someone as they were dying. I have never witnessed such presence, love and compassion in one room. I was amazed at how silent everything was and yet how much was truly being said. It reminded me that love doesn’t need words or even physical bodies to communicate; that love is ever-present and it lives on in us eternally. I had heard that the day we left Tucson, there was a celebration of All Souls; honoring the people that have passed and the souls that are still very present in our hearts. I couldn’t believe how perfectly everything had aligned, and yet, I whole-heartedly could. Driving through the desert, after saying our goodbyes, the sunset over the mountains was perfect. I don’t know if it was a particularly beautiful sunset, or if it was just that I was so awake for it. But seeing that sunset reminded me of how both the sun setting and rising is a part of the circle of life. Life and death mirror that. Just as a room can fall silent in absolute awe and wonder after the chaos of bringing a baby into the world, so can a room where you let someone you love leave their earthly shell.
Grandma, I know that we disagreed on many of life’s narratives, but I love you and respect you with all of my heart. I can feel you now as I write this, tears warming up my cheekbones. I miss you already and I know I could never quite wrap my mind around what a wonderful human you were and how many lives you blessed. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you at such a powerful moment. Thank you for reminding me to cherish this life and to remember what I truly care about. I love you. Thank you. I love you.