Two years ago my daughters and I lost a woman we loved as a mother and grandmother, though she was neither to us. Not closer than kin, but closer than a friend, her loss was sudden and unimaginable. I found out about it through the subject line in an e-mail—not a good way to learn such news. It was left to me to tell my daughters what had happened.
I don’t even remember how I did it.
Only a week ago, my brother-in-law died. It wasn’t unexpected. But death is never expected, either. There’s no way to prepare. Not really. Not for the weird ways you feel when faced with loss.
And for my immediate family, our loss was as nothing compared to Alan’s children’s loss and his wife’s, my sister’s.
But sometimes love abounds. And it has within my family this past week.
The stories are private, not to be shared here.
But the gratitude can be. I know I speak for all of us when I say that the support, generosity and tenderness offered were as close to heaven as can be found in the hellishness of grief.
Nobody knows what to say in the face of death. But the wordlessness of human affection can be salvific. We hold on to one another. And that’s how we hold on.
Then in small, incremental incidents, time takes over. We fill a coffee mug. Then we re-fill it. It’s time to eat. It’s time to eat again. It’s time to sleep—oh, the bane and blessing of sleep.
Hour-by-hour, day-by-day, routines resume. In my sister’s case, new patterns must be—and most reluctantly—forged.
Perhaps the only comfort is in knowing that somebody who loves you would bear the pain for you if only they could.
Amidst these days one of my daughters said she was going to get a tattoo.
I trust her when it comes to tattoos, though I’ve never been inclined to get one myself, having my own commitment issues.
But she’s got a couple of them, one of a flower for which she was named and the other a Latin quote on her wrist, a favorite quote of both of ours.
What will the new tattoo be? I asked. It will say “peace,” she said, and took the car keys.
She returned, her arm Saran-wrapped, a bottle of Dial Gold Antibacterial soap in hand. She knows the drill, having done this before.
Want to talk me through the most painful part? she asked.
Always, I thought.
Just so you know, it’s not that bad, she said.
And off came the plastic wrap.
She gave a short in-take of breath. It wasn’t that bad, apparently. Because there are far worse things and we both know that.
We examined the font, the placement, the precision.
Glenn really knows what he’s doing, she said.
Glenn is the tattoo artist.
What’s “peace abounds” from? I asked.
And that’s when she told me. That when I’d told her about our dear friend who died two years ago, she was away at college and had had no really close friends, no one to talk to about this strange, non-familial, yet so awful loss. She said she went back and sat in her room alone, thinking, worrying, crying. Then she remembered this song she knew, this song from the soundtrack of Elizabethtown.
It was an old spiritual, sung by Washington Phillips, a bluesman from the 1920’s who recorded only 16 songs, self-accompanied on what sounds something like a zither, though maybe it’s not. It’s not clear what he used when he sang “What Are They Doing in Heaven in Today?”
But here are the words he sang:
What are they doing in heaven today
Where sin and sorrow are all done away?
Peace abounds, like a river, they say.
What are they doing there now?
Then we agreed we know next to nothing about heaven. But she added, I like to believe that peace abounds, and I want to trust enough to have that written on my body, too.