As I took in the news that my grandmother has been placed on hospice care, I kept seeing the image of a boat tied at dock that is due to set sail. Whether the craft leaves momentarily or weeks or months out, a voyage lies ahead. The rope will be loosed so that the boat can push off to sea.
My grandmother has always been there for me. In a sea of chaos and change, she has been one of the few constants. Like a boat permanently docked, she has been the sight I have turned to when I needed to get my bearings. She has been my reference point, my visits with her marking the various decades of my childhood and adulthood. She has represented all that was good, safe, and intact within my family. Despite age, her personality, wits, and positive attitude have endured. Once she is gone, I’m not sure what family will mean anymore. She is my last living grandparent and has survived both my parents.
Nearing 96, that my grandma is on hospice should not surprise. Yet it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d just seen her in December. My boyfriend at the time traveled with me to see her. This was quite significant, as I longed to introduce two people I deeply cared about to each other. We had dinner with her in the dining room of her assisted living home while she told us stories and engaged in conversation for well over an hour. She only moved out of her house and gave up driving two years ago. Although she used a walker, she was still relatively nimble and ambulatory.
I’ve made a point to see her every year, knowing that when you have an elderly relative, you never know when a visit winds up being the final one. I wondered if that visit was my last, but then shrugged it off, given that I’d received no calls about falls or decline. Instead, the relationship with my boyfriend was what had changed, so my focus was more on that ending and all that it signified in terms of losses.
Our culture in general doesn’t understand loss. I’ve already been told that my grandmother has had a good, long life, so I should concentrate on that as a form of celebration. And indeed, I celebrate everything about my grandmother that has enriched my life, as well as the lives of others. She is the one of the most extraordinary people I have known, so there is no tragedy. I know that. Unlike my parents’ premature and dramatic deaths, my grandmother’s life continues to be well lived. It will be until her last breath.
What people don’t understand is that she has been my rock of gibraltar. She is one of the few humans I’ve known, for the course of my entire life, who has been a beacon of unconditional love and devotion to me. That is something to celebrate, but it is also a loss. She has been more than a grandparent. She has been the parent my parents couldn’t be. She has been the confidant through the years of hurts and disappointments and life not unfolding as I imagined. To the outside, the loss seems natural and a part of life. Another thing to move on from and absorb. To the person experiencing the pending loss, it’s another huge marker of one’s own mortality. It’s a chapter of family history really coming to a close when so many chapters have already closed as well.
What’s next? Who or what am I without these contexts?
In his beautiful book, “A Grace Disguised,” Jerry Sittser speaks of grief and loss from experience. He lost his mother and wife in a car crash and was left a widow with small children to raise. He writes, “But the self I once was cannot find its old place to land. It is homeless now.” He continues, “Loss forces us to see the dominant role our environment plays in determining our happiness. Loss strips us of the props we rely on for our well-being. It knocks us off our feet and puts us on our backs. In the experience of loss, we come to the end of ourselves.” He then talks about how time stands still in the presence of a host of losses. “Loss puts a sudden halt to business as usual. Life as we experienced it and expected it to be suddenly ends. We find ourselves bewildered that there is no relationship anymore, no job, no health, no marriage, or no family. The process as we knew it ends, the continuum is disrupted, and the growth stops. The motion picture becomes a snapshot.”
What then brings the images moving forward again? How does life resume? How is loss integrated so that one is not stuck in it, yet the reality of what is no longer is not denied?
People often have misconceptions about what it means to move on. They think that everyone can automatically recreate the joys and happiness from the past by just swapping out people, places, and things with new ones. Sometimes that works, but not always. You only get two sets of grandparents and one family. You don’t go to Wal-Mart and pick out another. It may take time to find people who start to take the place of family, yet it will never be exactly the same. Likewise, new romantic love may eventually enter one’s life, but that too can’t be created on demand.
Moving on might be internal vs. external. It might be simply putting one foot in front of the other. Simply putting food in one’s mouth and showing up at work with a smile. It might be boring and tedious and frightening. But that too is moving on. When the boat pushes off from the dock, it bobs and floats and drifts, until the wind finally sets it in the right direction and the vessel hits its course. We then look to new horizons, as the land slips from our view, but never from our hearts. When we push off to uncharted territory, we often don’t have a clue where we’re headed or where we’ll end up. We can be adrift at sea for awhile, unmoored from just about everything except God and our own faith.