My niece and my grandmother both died very recently. The youngest and oldest members of the Cook family.
When a baby dies, the pain is harsh and visceral and immediate. There is an unnatural flavour to it. We are not wired to easily accept death in the generation below us.
When a grandmother dies, the loss is more spread out. The end of an era. It’s like having the house you’ve lived in all your life torn down over your head.
Things touch me in strange ways. The way the funeral home is now a familiar place. The way my niece’s death struck me when I noticed the shoes her body wore in the tiny coffin. The way my grandmother’s voice floated to me while the congregation sang old hymns I grew up with. The shifting, uncertain way I approached the pulpit to give my words at both funerals. The scent of flowers, beautiful and arranged with love, giving a sense of life and renewal, even though they also were cut and would not live long. The carrying of my grandmother’s coffin up and down the same stairs we used to carry her up and down when she went to church, laughing with her as we went and joked about how heavy her wheelchair was.
Memories of my grandmother. How she gave us all Swiss Army Knives one Christmas, and we went home bleeding and grinning. How her little white house on Spruceside Crescent as a sort of second home—a safe and warm place full of people and food and a kind of freedom that only grandparents can give. The message she whispered as I laid her coffin down atop that deep, deep grave: “I lived well. I loved freely. I laughed loudly. I made my home an open place, devoted to the making of peace and pies. I trusted my grandchildren enough to give them knives for Christmas and I didn’t freak out when they cut themselves on them. Remember my whole life, not just the last years since my stroke. It’s not the last words or acts that matter. It’s the whole thing.”
The spark of light buried deep in the shock of my niece’s death. The vibrant life that shone in her for six months, no less full for the quickness in which they were spent. The focused and determined play my daughter had with her during the short time I was blessed to visit with her. The serious depth that struck my son when he heard of it, took her photo off the fridge and cried as he held it—overcome with emotion at the age of seven. The message that she whispered to me as I stood in the funeral home and stared at her shoes: “I lived well. I never learned to waste life on things that gave me no joy. I never learned to give up on my dreams. I never learned cynicism or how to be judgmental. I spent my short and beautiful life clinging to the people who loved me and letting them cling back to me. I left the world undefeated by it—something very few people can say.”
I have a deep and uncompromising contempt for death. It is legitimate and true, I suppose, to view death as a doorway to the next grand adventure. But that does not overcome the deep, visceral view that lives in each of us—death is a tragic and evil thing. Death is the first and universal enemy of mankind. And even if I look at death as a portal to another, better world, it is still my enemy. It is still something that I will not enter willingly. I will still rage, rage against the dying of the light. And I will lose. Death will take me, though not quietly.
But my grandmother Frances and my niece Temia remind me that the best way to spit in the face of death is not to fight it when it comes near, but to live while I’m alive. Like they did.
I miss you, Grandma. My memories of you bleed together, making my stories a sort of collage that only I can fully understand. You were a pillar and a foundation. My life is missing something without you in it.
I miss you, Temia. The light in your eyes and the authentic smile on your lips. The way you look either curious or excited in nearly every photo I look at. You are an inspiration and I long to have some of that light and curiosity and excitement.
You both touched me in a deep place. I’m sad you’re gone. Thank you both for being awesome.