Deathbed Confessional

When I was 17 my grandmother started dying. It was a long process and quite strange to watch. She had always been very independent in nature and our family honored that by taking shifts for months to care for her, so she could avoid the “old ladies home” as she called it.  My mother would come home from work on Friday evenings and we would drive for 2 hours to northern Rhode Island to her mother’s house.

My memories of those trips exist mostly as still photography in my brain. Driving by these roadside staples at 50 miles an hour they somehow became part of me.  We had made this journey for years to celebrate annual holiday traditions with the extended family. This weekly journey affixed these objects into the context of my grandmothers death. The cemetery with its New England style headstones covered in moss and snow and fallen leaves. The trees that lined the road and made for breathtaking landscapes as we rose and fell with the mini-mountains of the east. I saw them, stop animation style, change by the week from lushly green to brilliantly colored, to barren and then snow covered.

My grandparents had purchased a summer home in their early married years, on Naragansett Bay in Rhode Island. They fixed it up and created a home for their children to discover and grow in. My earliest memories are of playing in their garden, swimming in their pool, and large family dinners with laughter and games. The days of my grandmother’s death were a strangely subdued experience, completely at odds with the loud laughter and animated conversations that were typical of our family gatherings. We would enter the house in the late evening. My cousin or aunt would be there, sometimes kneeling at my grandmother’s feet, rubbing them.  Sometimes reading by the wood stove.  It was a strange experience to enter the house that was filled with laughter and joy in my heart and feel the heavy anticipation of death.

Most of my family were atheists, so it was left to me, at 17, to explain the concept of heaven and god to my dying grandmother. I would sit with her and hold her hand while she begged me to tell her that god could forgive her for her sins. I told her god was love and could forgive anything. I didn’t know then how unkind people could be. How hard it was to believe in a loving god when our daily lives are so frequently filled with random acts of cruelty or, even worse, indifference. My belief was rooted in my innocence and hope. And she held it tightly to her. This became my weekly routine, when the older family members couldn’t bear to watch this strong matriarchal figure doubt and fear for her soul, uncertain in their own faith, they would call me in to sit with her. I would set aside the sewing project I was working on to go to my grandmother’s bed in a strangely confessional style. I would sit in the recently vacated chair and take her spotted, wrinkled hand between mine while she sought reassurance in my conviction. I didn’t really think it strange that of all the people in the house, I was the one she needed to guide her to god’s love. Now I wonder at the willingness of my family to leave such a task to the youngest person in the family. But maybe there is a symmetry there. The matriarch and the youngest daughter of the family.  Alpha and Omega and all that.

I’m leaving on retreat in a few days and have been told it is similar to death- a letting go of how things are and facing the unknown. It calls to mind the things my grandmother said as she drifted from us — the questions she had about what she would face. It’s not the same. I get to come home again, she never did. But the questions and the fear of the unknown bring me closer to her and my memory of her last days with us.