Fear and Loving at the End

My grandmother died this morning.

I mean, my grandmother died the morning that I’m writing this post.  It happened early, I think before I went to my last day of work at my old job (it’s strange to think of it as my old job so quickly), but I didn’t learn about it until I got home.  I left work early because Rachael and I were going to drive to Atlanta to see her for the last time and visit with my family; we still ended up going to visit.

I know it’s been less than a month since I last saw her; I can’t quite place what the context was though.  Was it the morning I got back into town after visiting friends in Los Angeles, when I was exhausted from half a day spent in an airport and an overnight flight spent next to an unfortunately anxious elderly woman and had to help lift my grandmother back into bed before I could get some sleep myself?  Was there another time after that that’s slipped my mind?  Does it matter if there was another visit after that one if I can’t remember it?

So perhaps that was it: my grandmother slipped out of bed, and I helped my aunt lift her back up, both of us exhausted for very different reasons.  It echoes the last memory I have with my grandfather who died of cancer a decade ago; he was in hospice care, and my mother, my aunt (two years last Christmas since she passed; my last memory of her is that Thanksgiving; she was on oxygen and looked sickly, but she was happy we were all together in her mother’s house again), my cousin and I went to visit him for the last time.  His body was shutting down, and I’m not sure he was really lucid, but he needed to go to the bathroom, and I helped walk him down the hallway; we didn’t bother with closing the door, just in case he fell off the toilet.

Dying is an undignified business.

Perhaps a more preferable memory is of the visit Rachael and I had with my grandmother before our trip to Los Angeles.  We told her about our plans for the trip, and we shared the latest news about ourselves.  It was pleasant, but still sad.  I’d not seen her bedridden before.  Even without being able to project the precise gradient, you could tell she was in decline.

Maybe it’s better to go back a few more months to Christmas, when my aunts Melonie and Beverly were beleaguered by my grandmother’s steady stream of demands, which we had all born in relatively good spirits for years because we’ve all buried too many elders not to appreciate the ones we still have.

I could go further back to the time right after my grandfather, her husband, passed (his heart failed while he was cleaning the gutters of their house; I have no clear memory of the last time I saw him; sudden deaths rob us of those crystalline moments, leaving in their place only the sharp impression of what was happening when you heard the news; I was watching a movie with my father that we had to interrupt so he could go check on his parents).  She struggled to be independent after a life time spent depending on him.  I remember her biggest fear being that he had gone to hell because he hadn’t been to church in decades; she insisted on putting in his obituary that he had been a deacon at the last church he’d been a member of many years prior.

This is the grandmother I knew for most of my adult life: thrust into a predicament she hadn’t been prepared for, forced to carry off being a widow with as much dignity as she could muster despite limited independence, and always, always, somewhere in the back of her mind, afraid of what was ahead of her.

In the wake of my grandfather’s death, she rekindled her faith.  Her family has strong ties to south Atlanta, and she sought comfort in the church they helped found many generations ago.  This renaissance of faith coincided with my own conversion, and for a few years our Christianity was a common bond.  On reflection, I think we had similar motivations: the repulsion of fear.  One of the most terrifying things that haunted me when I was an atheist was the experience of death.  It’s easy for me to say now that I converted because I wanted to find comfort in the belief in an afterlife.  I craved certainty that there was something more.

I think my grandmother wanted the same.

Her brand of Christianity is built on selling certainty that God rewards you with heaven if you believe the right things.  It’s an incredibly comforting system as long as you remain inside it, but that’s a difficult thing to pull off, and it comes with a high social cost.  For my grandmother, that meant regularly alienating her daughter, who was also her primary caretaker.  The tragedy of their relationship is that my grandmother traded away good moments for the promise of heaven, and I’m not sure she ever fully felt the comfort her beliefs were supposed to bring.  She lived in doubt where she had been promised certainty.

The redemption of this life exists in the way my aunts cared for my grandmother and loved her even in her worst moments.  They did everything they could to make her comfortable; where I helped her up once because I happened to be there, they did it multiple times because that’s just what needed to be done.  They loved her tirelessly to the end, and with every bit of service, they did their best to keep at bay the fear.

I believe in a loving God who takes everyone in at their end regardless of the state of their lives.  I don’t have any evidence for this belief other than the fact it seems to me like the logical conclusion of the example set by Christ.  I go through periods of intense doubt where I still crave that certainty that my grandmother held on to at the end of her life.  Instead, I cling to hope in things unseen, not only for me, but also for my aunts and for my grandmother, who loved and feared together in beautiful imperfection to the end.


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