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It's been nearly a month now, since they passed away, my grandmother and her mother. Life feels different, less rich, as if dynamic voices in the great background score of life have fallen silent, leaving the melody to carry on in a weaker form; or as if you awoke to find walls and roof-beams missing from your home, opening it to the wind, falling leaves, and stars.
They, too, had their losses in life to reckon with, and yet they remained strong and vibrant. I kept going back to one particular memory during the first week. It happened one summer in Chicago when I was a child of ten or twelve. I was going off to bed and stopped to give Grandma the usual quick hug-and-kiss goodnight, but she held on to me tight and told me, "I love you so very much, Jessie." I knew it was true. Bigger, wiser, and stronger than I, she never stopped seeming larger than life, an enveloping, protecting, and above all loving presence in my life.
Death affects us all. It defines our world and our species. Some cultures in certain periods in history show a disconcerting preoccupation with it; for many decades American culture has been busily trying to keep death locked in the basement as it distracts itself with whatever is new, shiny, trendy, savvy, sporty, sexy, and youthful. But the closer it hits to home, the more death reminds us of our own mortality, which should be another way of saying it rejuvenates and motivates us. The more powerfully we experience it, the weaker all our distractions become.
Distractions can be good. It wouldn't be possible or indeed healthy to go on breathing the rarified air of death-sharpened consciousness all the days of our life. There is a time to mourn, and a time to dance, after all. But that rarified air brings the horizon into focus. We can no longer keep up the pretense at immortality.
That is not exactly a comfortable realization, but neither is it as unbearable as the burden of fresh grief, when our minds are filled with precise sensory memories of the beloved dead and thoughts of "never again."
When that first, bitter grief gives way to time, we take stock of the situation with some marvel and alarm. What delicate beings we are! Rooted in earth, needy for water, for air, for food, for shelter and heat, we step moment to moment with our lives in our hands. There are many things too big for us, many chasms we can never cross with our feet.
When the sun has sunk well below the horizon and all we have is the damp earth beneath and the dark sky above, perhaps we may find peace in the realization that we are, after all, only mortal. We honor the dead as we loved them in life. We remember them. And being simple men and women, we forge ahead, as they did before us.