The woman in the bed was pale. Not just her ashen skin but her presence, her being, seemed translucent. As we approached the bed, her eyes opened to reveal the child she had been once, expectant but uncomprehending.
My grandfather, with his characteristic gruffness, roughly patted her foot. “Roses came to see you. She drove me here today,” he told those childlike eyes peering out of the faint body. Smiling at the use of my nickname, I removed my mask and walked closer. COVID-19 was the least of our worries now.
Reaching for her arm, I half-expected my hand to fall through air. Surely, she was a reflection, some fun house mirror shadow. The bulk of her person was gone — moved on, dissolved, consumed. Yet some part of her remained staring at me, propped up by hospital pillows and swaddled in blankets.
Her arm was warm and worn, wrinkled like crepe paper. I gave it a squeeze. “Hi, Muga.”
A spark of comprehension: “It’s you!” she said, memorizing my face. I smiled, both embarrassed by and hungry for her particular kind of raw adoration. “Look how beautiful you are.”
Months later, after my grandmother’s death, after a funeral without hugs, after the stripping and selling of my grandparents’ home, I think back to this moment. It was my last memory of her, the final brick in the tower of our relationship. I had caught her on a good morning. She knew me; she was kind.
The sweetness of this last scene, however, stands in contrast with what my family witnessed as we watched her final months. Muga’s death was a battle. Fear, her Achilles heel in life, persecuted her to the end. We could hear it in her breath — the groans, the rasp. We could see it in how tightly she gripped her small wooden cross. She was caught in a purgatory of her own making: wanting to die and meet her God, but afraid of the unknown.
Meanwhile, all during our months-long vigil, the world crumbled. COVID cases spiked; classes were moved online; sporting events were canceled; families were ripped apart; George Floyd was murdered; protests erupted all over the country. Death seemed to creep, shadowlike, beside us all. The stench of it infused the air.
“I brought you flowers.” Placing pansies on Muga’s end table, I hoped no one would notice they were in a Bud Light bottle, the only disposable container I could find this morning. The woman, at another time, would have cared, would have said something sharp, for she was made up with as much vinegar as honey. But I didn’t even think she could see them now. The eyes continued to look at me.
“Would you like me to read to you?” I asked.
A nod. My grandfather, the faithful advocate, was studying the whiteboard in the corner of the room. It had not been a good night. “She likes to hear Isaiah 46.”
And so I read from her Bible, trying to remember passages from every Sunday school lesson, every seminary class — anything to offer something solid:
“The Lord is my shepherd … ”
“To everything there is a season … ”
“God will wipe every tear away from their eyes …”
In the end, my Scripture prowess did not seem to matter much. Exhausted by their efforts, comforted by something familiar, both grandparents slept.
My tower of memories built in honor of Muga contains multitudes: sleeping at her house, enveloped with bare down comforters; the sounds of loons playing over speakers; watching her spray perfume onto a cotton ball and stick it in her bra; how she would rock me to sleep, her body so plump and full, making up songs to sing to me, the smell of that cotton ball in my nose.
She wrote my definition of grandmother. She embodied love. And I watched her evaporate. Desperate for something solid, she clung to her main caregiver – my mother, her eldest daughter – with a waning, consuming strength. Then she was gone: the formidable form of a woman had passed into a memory.
My mother is a grandmother now: Nearly 30 years after the birth of my older sister Hope made Muga a grandmother, and three months after Muga’s death, Hope gave birth to a son during a rare northern Texas thunderstorm.
All 6 pounds and 15 ounces of Davey have shifted our center of gravity in ways we don’t even know yet.
Before we left the small hospice house caring for Muga, my grandfather, always the businessman, took me on a tour. He introduced me to the nurses and the social worker whom he had gotten to know over the preceding two weeks. For a time, with nursing homes being in lockdown, we thought the choices were for Muga to die with us at home or for her to die alone in an institution. It had taken a great leap of faith and a quick decline in her health for my grandfather to acquiesce to this type of facility, small enough to allow limited visitors.
Back at the hospice room, I told the translucent body and childlike eyes that I loved her. Studying my face once again, she whispered, like it was a secret, “I don’t know why I haven’t died yet.” We stared at each other for a moment, her expectant eyes meeting my somber ones. I swallowed, wishing I had the words she longed for, the security she couldn’t seem to find.
“I don’t know either. But we will be here until you do.”
Months after Muga’s death, I see pictures of Davey’s squishy newborn face, already forming into something solid. I watch videos of him stretching, his growing limbs so in love with the empty space of the world. I hear that he is starting to wake up from the first weeks of newborn slumber and eat every 90 minutes, determinedly hungry for life.
I love him, but I don’t know his weight in my arms. Thousands of miles away, he lives and grows, the barriers of time, distance and pandemic separating us. I long to smell the soft top of his head, to look for whispers of loved ones in his face. He is part of me, intricately connected, but I do not know him. And my older sister, heart of my heart, flesh of my flesh — I never got to feel the surprising firmness of her belly, never got to hold her hand during months of isolation in a new home, never got to bring her dinner on a hard day.
Davey is a life born out of the ashes of loss and isolation. He is hope. He is love. He is fragility and security. But this gift feels so incomplete, locked behind the screen of my phone and beyond my reach.
Setting aside that trusty Christian bottom line – yes, the battle is already won, and all things will be made well – I yearn, like my grandmother, for assurance in the face of the unknown. In the pathway through death and life, I want to pull the spotlight on myself, here and now: in loss, in joy, in confusion, in separation, in between. I am here! I am dizzy. I am adrift. But I am here. And I don’t know how to hold it all.
Where is my help? Where is God?
I know what I would say to a friend asking those questions. I know how my seminary professors or spiritual director might respond. But those feel flat: words on a page. I want a rope. I want an arrow. Something solid to connect me, to break me free from this spiral of comingled love and loss.
But the spiral keeps turning. And I am beginning to realize it is never going to stop. That is the inevitable nature of life. Like bodies in labor, change happens to us. We are ushered forward, ready or not, into the new. There is no option to stay, stand still or turn back. There is no control over how long it takes. Not really.
All we seem to have in the face of death, in the incomplete joy of life, in the movement, is the choice of faith. Faith that, ultimately, there is goodness — located in eternity, yes, but also now in our pain and isolation. We are not alone in the haze.
The only way forward is through: to enter a reality without Muga’s raw adoration; to live without her honey and vinegar but with her love pinned on my chest like a nametag; to pick up the pen and write Davey’s definition of aunt, even at a distance. I can see a vague outline of what this new identity holds. But it is so unknown. And I’m frightened of the discomfort, of the uncertainty, of the time it will take. Yet there is no fighting it.
And so, along with creation, along with Muga and Davey and my sister, along with Mary holding her dead son, I groan in pain. Sweating and panting, I double over, surrendering to the birth of change, to the spiral, to the through line of goodness, to the haze.
I tug on the small silver hoop in my ear. My piercing is sore — probably because of this exact habit of playing with earrings. But I like wearing them nonetheless, especially this pair. They are a part of the miscellaneous inheritance that all seven grandchildren received after Muga’s death. My collection also includes a nail polish, a Turbie Twist, a broken watch, a folding table, a kitschy sign and a leaf blower. But I like these earrings best. Paired with a bird sweater and a silver barrette for her short, white bob, they complete Muga’s uniform in my childhood memories.
Huddled on the gray couch my younger sister and I share as roommates, we search for flights. There is always at least one connection when flying to Amarillo, Texas, best known for massive cattle farms and tumbleweeds. We don’t know what it will look like or how do it safely yet, but we are going to see our nephew Davey. We are going to reunite with our older sister.
In a couple months, my younger sister and I will end up canceling these tickets as COVID cases spike in the cold weather. And then my older sister will cancel her family’s flights home for the holidays for the same reason. But we hold our credit like a promise for another time, another season. In the comingled spiral of love and loss, in the haze, we wait. We mourn. We hold on to love remembered and love from afar. We try and fail and try again to hold all the beauty and loss of this world together. And time marches forward.