For me, death is the hardest chapter to bear in the story of a life.
Recently, my brother asked me to share some good memories about my grandmother, who passed on the fourth of July after a long struggle with cancer that clouded the end of a life of caring and connectedness. I told him I wasn't ready yet. And I'm not; I still feel too raw to skip back to the joyful parts.
I know that time will come, a time when I can celebrate and remember without the bitter bite of loss. It's happened with each important death in my life, and I anticipated it as I sat in the funeral. I kept my eyes open and looking up, up. Partly because I was trying to cry less and some liar told me this might help. Partly because upward is, for me, the direction of gratitude.
Even if I don't feel grateful, I can still put myself in position for it. I can remind myself that I will, eventually, appreciateher peaceful death, a death with my grandfather and father at hand. She opened her one good eye to the world, blinked, and turned her head toward the man she lived with and loved for more than sixty years.
There were no more breaths.
I wish I had let that be my last image of my grandmother. There was so much to hold onto: her awareness of the moment of passing, her connection to two men she loved, her release to the heaven everyone in the room anticipated for her.
Instead, at the funeral, I looked into the coffin.
I'm always sorry. I always tell myself, "This time around, I'm really, really not going to look." And I always, always look.
I don't know what we expect from the open coffin. What closure can denying decay for the duration of a funeral service really give us? Maybe it is part of what some people need. For me, it's an obstacle to closure. That frozen, flattened look--the features pressed into place by someone who never saw the person in life--it lodges in me, a dark seed that tells a story that competes with the one I want to tell for my loved one, the one that will let me remember the real life.
The look into the coffin begins a story of deception, of denial, of delay. A lie: I'm just sleeping here for a while. The truth of death is less eloquent: gone, gone, gone. A stuttering that finally resolves into silence.
For far more eloquent thoughts on death than mine, click here.
I haven't read it yet, but I plan to get my hands on a copy of the June 25 Time magazine because the cover story is close to my heart: the plight of young illegal immigrants who contribute in countless ways to American experience.
The most powerful feature of this article? The first word in its title: "We Are Americans." Everything could change for young immigrants if others--especially those with legal status--embrace the fact that immigrants are part of the "we" that makes us a nation.
The Time feature comes right on the heels of President Obama's recent decision to provide a bit of security for young people without legal status. While it's a long way from the DREAM Act that would give the children of illegal immigrants the opportunity to access higher education and a path to legal status, Obama's announcement is important both as a step in the right direction and in the way it has energized the immigration debate. Perhaps we'll see the DREAM Act come back--and pass.
As I wrote back in 2010 when DREAM passed the House (only to fail in the Senate), the DREAM Act is about providing opportunities for children raised in the US—many of whom have no memories of their parents' home country. Without the DREAM Act, there is little incentive for undocumented immigrant kids to pursue higher education because the doors that a college degree would open are bolted shut by their illegal status.
This is a frustrating situation I saw repeatedly while teaching senior English in Southeast Houston. Some of my best students—straight-A kids who spoke perfect English and had been in US schools since pre-K—felt paralyzed by a secret: they didn't have papers. According to a recent College Board report, an estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from US high schools every year. In Texas and nine other states, these kids can attend college and even receive some financial aid, but that is where the opportunity ends.
The DREAM Act does not reward so-called lawbreakers; it relieves the consequences of an immigration system that's broken and protects the children who have been caught up in that system.
Is it hopelessly optimistic to think that Obama's announcement and a story in Time might lead to the passage of the DREAM Act? Probably. But I've got my fingers crossed. And I know hundreds of young Americans who do, too.
Last night I stumbled across these entries written in one of my notebooks during a trip to Belfast in 2005. I've typed it up for you because I still feel the same way about skies. And gratitude. Turns out I'm still, more or less, the same person as I was back then. Pinch myself and command myself to look up.
By 6:00 a.m. the sun is already alive high in the sky. A real blue sky, few clouds. The tiny room I stay in is full to the ceiling with light. ALL THAT LIGHT remembered through one small window. Light burning to the heart of my sleep.
Later each day I marvel at the morning sun’s precocious brilliance. Oh I know it’s really a matter of latitudes, but in my mind the Belfast summer sun is simply ambitious, determined to get the work of the day started, and the sooner, the better.
If you want to see blue sky over here, you have to be equally ambitious. 6:30 a.m. ambitious. Because by 10:00, that giant blue chalkboard is hidden, and the sun is lost behind bank after bank of clouds. They blow in suddenly, blot everything out. Even I, daughter of Texas (don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!) find this to be a fickle sky. You can never trust it. One minute it’s balmy. Next, thunderheads have rolled in, and they don’t spare you any wetness, neither. Raingear a must regardless of how the sky looks when you leave the house.
Today Julia and I went to Castle Hill, a high hill at the edge of town, a mountain by my Texas standards. The weather was foul when we got off our bus and started climbing toward the park path. The clouds flicked spiteful spit down on the pavement, dampening our hair, stilling hopes.
Then, suddenly: hot sun, blue sky. We sweat up the steep path. The perspiration rivers down my back, pools tellingly below my pack, dribbles down my arms.
Halfway up, Julia points out blueberry bushes she saw the last time she was here with Ralf. We check them out, and though the peak of the season has passed, we find perfect, late-formed jewels hanging amid the tiny juice-stained leaves. We pick and eat them until our hands are painted as well.
Julia tells me of her own berry-picking, mushroom-hunting childhood escapades. “Our dog was just the right height to graze straight from the bushes. Of course, you didn’t want him around when you were picking, such a slobberer, but he was so funny coming home with his big happy grin and lolling purple tongue.”
Some two heaving hours later, we arrive at the top, at the cliff’s edge. Wind so strong I fear it. Julia remembers a dell (think: crater in the hillside) where we find shelter from the wind. We plop down, lying on our jackets, and admire the green of the field and the blue of the sky. I squint up at the whipping seas of grasses. Also the heather, a lavender wonder. The real stuff of books. (Macbeth’s witches: “We shall meet upon the heath.”) I try to photograph the wild whipping of that grass, which puts me in mind of the celebrants of some ascetic sect for whom self-flagellation is a must. Photographed, though, it seems to say only, GRASS. Not “the grasses beating themselves under a broad blue sky.”
We are talking of past loves and fault lines in relationships. Our backs press into the earth as we eat the butter and cheese sandwiches we carried up in our packs.
And then it happens.
Our eyes are closed to let lids soak up the wonder of it all, but we can still feel the change. The sun vanishes from us. Just like that. Clouds whip across us fast, pitching raindrops in earnest. “Jesus,” I mutter, “from where…?”
Julia, ever the geographer’s wife, explains. Our nearness to the coast means that when the sun shines bright, it heats up the water of the sea. Said water rises in vapor, forming clouds. These clouds gather, then roll in on inland winds.
“But now it means we’ll get soaked,” I cry.
“Well, let’s hurry!”
Out of the dell we can see that half of the world is still holding strong under benevolent blue. The other half is in the storm. We run down a goat trail, sliding on the rocks. I laugh hysterically as I skid left and right across the steep path. Julia shouts caution. As we find a real footpath and run down the hill it becomes clear that we are on the dividing line.
We’re running at the edge of the weather, tracing its skirt.
The sky at sunrise: suddenly, mountains of orange and gold, a sea of pink. Rivers of light. A whole changing skyscape. Gone before I can raise anyone else in the house. But I saw it. Majestic.
Light flying toward heaven or space. Heaven—ascension—angels—words we must have invented for skies like this. A miracle of color and cloud. How could you look at this and not see BEAUTY? Beauty—a construct, yes. Beauty—subjective, yes. But... how could my heart not rise to that?
I try to send my gratitude in volleys heavenward. Then I look up and see SKY and am amazed again. Simply: I feel more thankfulness than I can give to other people. I have to do something with it, send it somewhere. Up feels right.