“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings.
Three years ago today on a Wednesday afternoon, I sat with my grandmother and her two children as she drew her last breath and left this earth. I did not know that she was going to pass away on that day. I just knew that it was going to be soon. It was two weeks before her 91st birthday.
She had been rapidly declining over the previous weeks, and my mother called to say that the medical staff had begun to administer morphine to keep my “Memaw” pain-free. The end was drawing closer, so I went to say goodbye.
I sat by her bedside. She was unresponsive except for her loud methodical breaths that echoed throughout the room. I got very angry sitting there and contemplated leaving. Instead, I just laid my head down on her bed and cried. I let all that was inside of me pour out on to her covers.
After a while my uncle and I began to talk when all of a sudden, we heard her breathing skip a beat. He and I looked at each other. I turned back to Memaw and it happened again. Then all of a sudden, she took one last deep breath and then it stopped altogether. Forever.
She was gone.
All my life, I had feared and dreaded the moment when she would no longer exist. She helped raise me, and we were very close. I was not sure if I could get through the next several days.
This was compounded because most of my friends were set to leave for our churches women’s retreat in two days. Some of them were in leadership and could not miss the trip, so they would be unable to walk with me through the weekend.
I would have my husband and children by my side but not some of my best peeps. I can still hear my friend Jen saying, “Carrie, if the funeral can be on Sunday, I promise you….we will be there. We will get back for you.”
Knowing my predicament, my family gave me a beautiful gift, one of the best I have ever received from them. Since Memaw was to be buried in South Carolina on Saturday, they scheduled her memorial service for late Sunday afternoon where I would be speaking in her memory along with my brother and twin sister.
Friday morning, I sat on my front porch feeling very sad and alone. My friends were set to leave to go on my favorite weekend of the year. My phone rang and I looked to see Sydney Gaylord’s name popping up on my phone.
I answered it literally with laughter and tears, because I love how God works. We chatted for a bit and she asked me questions just like she was always so good at doing. I told her I was so sad to be left at home for the weekend. She too promised me that she would be there for the memorial service.
I was deeply touched by her call and I no longer felt so alone. Sydney was 5 1/2 months pregnant with their third child and not particularly known for showing up to places on time or when she said she was going to. So for me just to have that memory was enough.
Sunday night came and as I walked into the church with my family, I saw all the faces of the friends and people whom I loved. What an amazing gift. They were all there, some only back in town for a few hours. I rose and walked to the podium. I faced the crowd and looked up into the balcony. There was Sydney and her husband, Todd. I could not believe it.
In the weeks that followed, I found it hard to adjust to life and to grieving. I did not think as clearly nor move as quickly and would cry spontaneously in public. This is very difficult in a culture that prides itself on production and efficiency. I was struggling and one day soon after the funeral, Sydney called and asked to watch my children for an afternoon so I could have some quiet time to write.
She knew that it was hard for me to accept help, so she insisted, almost pleading that it would actually help her to have my girls over to play with her younger children. It takes a special person to spin something like that to make you feel as though you are doing them a favor by accepting their offer of childcare.
When I picked up my girls, Sydney and I sat down and talked for a bit. I remember because she made me laugh so hard going on and on about my grandmother’s name. It was Cossetta, but everyone called her “Cozy.”
Sydney kept saying, “Can you imagine a cooler nickname!?” “I’d love to be called that.”
And then came the words I’ll never forget and have thought of several times over the past two weeks.
“Carrie,” she said, “I loved what you wrote about your grandmother for the memorial service. I wish I could have met her. I wish I could have known your “Memaw.”
Yesterday, chilly and alone, I sat by Sydney’s graveside. We chatted for a bit, and I ended our little talk by asking her to say ‘hi’ to my Memaw. I feel certain that they have finally met one another and with further contemplation, was struck by their similarities of sheer courage and determination. I imagined the stories they swapped and shared.
Like this one….
My grandmother was in a potential life shattering car accident when I was in college. She broke several ribs and her femur when she slammed into the steering wheel.
She had to be cut out of the car that day and I’ll never forget her battered face and body when they rolled her into surgery. The road to recovery was long and very painful, but she walked it. Literally.
I remember being in the hospital room when the Doctor came in to advise the family to have her leg amputated. We declined and 5 months later, she walked unassisted into her Sunday School’s Christmas party. Sound familiar?
The day after my grandmother passed away, I went for a long run thinking about all of our years together. It was difficult loosing her, but mostly were the fears I had of the unknown of where she was.
I was trying to work things out in my mind when I stopped jogging and started to walk. It was so lovely out and you could feel the assurance of autumn in the air. The sky was so clear and blue so I just sat down and rested in the grass. That was when I heard these words speaking to my spirit.
They were “Carrie, It is much harder to be left behind than to have gone where I am now. Don’t worry about me. I am complete now. I am whole. I am so happy. There is no “missing” here because there is no loneliness or separation.”
I knew that I did not understand all I was “hearing.” I got up and walked home feeling better and more at peace than I had in a long time because I had finally let her go.
Let her go in peace.
It is not so easy with Sydney. She was so young, vibrant and had so many full years left a head of her before the cancer came. All it takes for the tears to fall is to think of Todd, the kids, her family and her close friends.
But, as I sat there yesterday at the cemetery, I had never been more convinced that she was no longer here. The grass had begun to grow on top of her grave and soon the marker of her name and years will be settled in its place to alert those passing by that this is where her body is laid to rest. But just her body and nothing else.
Her laughter and zeal for life did not cease with her breathing, it only changed locations. And now, our friend who was SO bound and frustrated by time on this earth is no longer late for anything. What brought such chaos, hardship, and discord for her earthly life is no longer a thought or a worry where she is now.
For once in her life, she can truly Go In Peace.
“But the worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well.”
– Frederick Buechner, The Final Beast