On Death and Days Like Today

My grandmother is dying.

I was never terribly close with her — which is perhaps something worth mourning in and of itself — so I don’t feel qualified to tell her stories or presume to know what she’s going through right now. Experiencing the death of a friend or family member, however, has a way of jolting us back into our present tense and forcing us to face our own fears and beliefs on mortality. For my grandmother, her fight is almost over. It won’t ever get better, and I ache with fear and sadness wondering what must be going through her mind, knowing her short time left is slipping by.

Just before receiving the sad news of my grandmother’s current condition, I heard my almost-two-year-old crying in her crib after hearing a siren pass. I ran up to soothe her and lay her back down for her nap and then almost immediately heard my three-year-old jumping on his bed as well. I hurried over to his room, tucked him back in with an exasperated sigh, and crossed my fingers they would stay put this time. I’d had my own overdue lunch waiting for me downstairs, work to be done, a fussy infant to feed. I was tired and eager for a break from the chaos, in a kind of self-serving survival mode.

And then I got the call that things were looking bleak, that my grandmother was barely hanging on, with one foot in this world and one in the next. The thought of her laying in a bed somewhere, reflecting on her long life and preparing to step into the complete unknown, shook me to my core. Is she thinking about days like this? I wondered.

I began to imagine what might be running through my own mind, knowing I was at the end of this beautiful, impossible life.

Of course, I would tumble through the highs and lows of a lifetime, my heart swelling over the memories of my childhood, my wedding day, the births of my children. I’d recoil at all the mistakes I’ve made, some big enough to catch in my throat even so many years later. I’d wonder if I ever did enough to make up for those mistakes, earn forgiveness from those I’d hurt, create enough good in the world to make up for the bad I had also brought into it.

Between those highs and lows, however, are days like today. Days that get lost in the to-do lists and the blur of priorities that mean nothing in the grand scheme. I began to suspect that days like today might be the hardest and most painful to come to terms with at the end of a life because they’re bitter reminders of how quickly everything passes when we’re not paying attention — and how much we yearn for the way things were once it’s too late to go back.

I wonder what I might give, in that moment, for one more regular day like today — to hold my children as babies again, even on a day when they’re fussing or acting out for my attention or keeping me from doing other things I want to get done. I wonder what I’d do to hear my children calling for me to come be near them again, to be the one to soothe them from their fears, to be needed and adored in the way only mothers of young children can be.

Whether we’re facing death or just the reality of our children growing up, these kinds of days tend to fill us with a sort of resentment and sadness over the precious time that is so often wasted. We look back wondering what could have been if we had done it differently — put more life and fun into the mundane, swallowed our anger and impatience, shifted our priorities — and how those days may have been spent if we had taken the time to consider how we might feel looking back on them once they’re over.

I know we can’t enjoy every day. I know things do need to get done, things that aren’t Candyland and make-believe. I know we all must make mistakes, that we’ll take things for granted and even hurt those we love throughout our lives. But imagine how much more we’d get out of our time here if we shifted our perspective now and then, if we could turn our days into memories that cause our tired eyes to well with happy tears at the end, instead of sad.

As is usually the case, my kids gave me another few chances to play their up-and-down nap time game that day. This time, my heart had softened and the laundry list of things to do faded into my periphery. I found myself holding them each a little tighter, letting my embrace linger a little longer, and I breathed in a moment that will soon only be a memory.

I have no way of knowing what my grandmother is going through at this pivotal moment in her existence, no way of comprehending how she is reliving the days with her own three children or how she is processing the foggy sights and sounds of whatever is to come next. But I pray she finds peace in her passing, and I thank her for reminding me, in her own way, how much promise lies in all the days we have together, especially days like today.

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