Saturday, December 20, 2014

At the Time of My Grandmother's Passing, or, the Kingdom of God Comes Near

My grandmother and I visiting my grandfather's
gravesite on Memorial Day 2014
My grandmother, Patricia Mary Monson, passed away last week on Thursday, December 11. She was buried on Wednesday the 17th. For me, it's an odd sensation because I had lived in her house for almost ten years and after that she was simply a constant presence throughout my life. I've noticed in retrospect that I've just kind of had this child-like sense that she would always be there, like some kind of indomitable force that would keep organizing parties and feed anyone who might walk in the door.

I've been really frustrated because, even though my family knew that Grandma was fading, it's still really hard when someone so special dies. The fact that we're so close to Christmas doesn't help that, either. For my part, I've been trying to reconcile this season of Advent (waiting for the coming of the Savior) with the sense of mourning and loss from my grandmother.

Now, I need to state that this blog post is not meant to be an obituary or a eulogy or anything else. It is just something that I think I need to do. After all, some of you, dear readers, will know that this post is me breaking radio silence in the blogosphere. I am doing this just because I need an opportunity to write out my thoughts and feelings at the passing of my grandmother. And here, at the time of her passing, there are two sets of stories that I want to share.

One of the first things that I learned from my Grandma Pat was an attitude that might be conveyed as "love people; feed them good food." And it must have been an attitude because I can't remember a single time that my grandmother herself ever started a conversation about love or what it means to love someone. There were those times when someone was heading out the door and would say "Goodbye, grandma! Love you, see you soon!" and she would echo what was said to her. But I think everyone would agree that's not really an epistemological discussion on the nature of love. But nevertheless, she may not have talked about love, but the attitude was always there.

My grandmother raised eight children, five of them unruly boys, to say nothing of the three girls (my mother was one of those girls). If I understand the stories, my mother and her siblings would always bring their friends over to the house and everyone would all be fed when a mealtime came.

Let me reiterate that. They would all be fed. Simple as that.

That simple action of feeding everyone carried through for as long as I can remember. At any point during my college career or the years that have followed, all I needed to do was walk in the door, say hello and the next question leveled at me would be whether I had eaten. But it wasn't just me. Anyone who was in the house, for whatever reason, would be offered food like that. It's such a profound, simple thing to do.

But, on the other hand, my grandmother did not have any time for nonsense. If my brother and I were being rambunctious or obnoxious in her house, she would tell us to go outside whether it was the middle of summer or the middle of a Minnesota winter. It was very clear what kind of conduct was acceptable in her kitchen and in her house, and what kind of behavior needed to be taken outside. It was not welcome at her table or in her house.

But through these high expectations, I would still maintain that there was an attitude of love. I really can't come to another conclusion. Grandma Pat was a Girl Scout leader back when my mother was in the program, and since Grandma's passing, so many women have shared what an impact my grandmother had on them. And then there are also the stories of Grandma at church, how she would always provide doughnut holes and coffee after Mass, but she made it very clear when it was acceptable to begin eating them by slapping the hands of children who tried to take them too early. I don't think that was anything done out of meanness, it was just the same attitude that told my brother and me to go outside when we were being rambunctious. There were always these high expectations with my grandmother, but there was also always this presence of giving; when you were hungry, you would be fed. If your clothes were tattered, they would be mended. If you got into trouble with someone outside the family, she would back you up (and then probably give you hell when you got home; that's the story of my uncles).

My grandmother's life has given me plenty to think about. But one thing I wish to hold up is this: loving people and taking care of them does not mean that you like them all the time, nor does it mean that you let them get off easy when they're taking advantage of someone else. My grandmother became plenty irritated with everyone, myself included, at plenty of times in her life. But nonetheless, she continued to love everyone and take care of their needs. That is something that I can aspire to. It is an example that I can try to live up to.

There is one more realization that I made that I want to share by way of another story.

After the initial shock of losing my grandmother, we still needed to attend to the visitation and funeral for her. These rituals are useful in the death of a loved one; they provide closure and sense of serenity. These rituals are also emotional landmines, since they are so difficult to plan and focus on, after the death of a loved one. Fortunately, my mother and her sisters were able to work with each other in order to do much of the planning. What's more is that Granmda had actually left a fair number of instructions on how she wanted her funeral to be conducted.

So as these rituals approached; the Tuesday night visitation and the Wednesday morning funeral Mass, my attitude was one of preparing myself to interact with family and friends, while simultaneously mourning the loss of this amazing woman in my life. And in my life, those two things are kind of at odds.

I managed to navigate around all the emotional landmines during the visitation and there weren't any surprises to speak of, from my point of view. And then afterward, everyone was famished, having not eaten dinner, so a couple of my cousins organized everyone to go to the Olive Garden (Grandma's favorite restaurant). When we got to the restaurant, we were still all dressed up in our nice things, so when the server came over to take our orders, she said "wow, everyone looks so nice. What are you celebrating?" I was about to say "we're not celebrating. We're mourning." But before I could, my cousin Mikey instead said "we're celebrating the life of our grandmother." And he was totally right. That was what we were doing. Sure, grandma was gone. But that did not mean that we needed to cry for our own sense of separation. Instead, we had the opportunity to celebrate all the good things that she taught us.

And so that was how I found myself on Wednesday morning: kneeling in a pew at the church, crying for the separation from my grandmother, but still aware that there is a celebration to be had. And not only that, but another gift of my grandmother's passing was that she reminded me that this is the way God works: it is not a matter that we allow God into our lives when we're good and ready. God comes breaking in our darkest times, the times that we do not want it to happen. God called my Grandmother away at a time that suited God, not a time that I wanted her to be taken. So in that way, it was good that Grandma passed during this season of Advent. In the time of anxiously awaiting the coming of the Savior, we need to recognize that that arrival is a breaking open of the world; the Kingdom of God comes near at that time. Just like how, in the midst of crying for the absence of my grandmother, my cousin's words break into my mourning and remind me that it is really a time of celebration.

These are ideas that I've always been aware of, but actually living them makes them completely new. Recognizing the way that God breaks into my life does not lessen my sense of separation from my grandmother, but remembering her and the way she showed love does give me hope. I think it is good to lift up these experiences and memories at this time of hopeful waiting.

Thanks to Jean Wise for permission to use her image.