Happiest of new years to you! I hope this new year has a freshness for you and that you are inspired by something these days. It's been so long since I have written because so much has happened in my family in this last month and it's taken me a while to figure out how to map that out with words.
In short, my grandmother passed away just before Christmas. Her name was Ida Mary--but I called her Nana, she was the mother of my mother and she passed away on the day after the solstice, on the second shortest night of the year. She was 91 years old and had lived a very full, very human life. During her memorial last weekend, everyone spoke of her as the perfect, cultured hostess and the person you'd call if you wanted to enjoy an afternoon at the ballet. She also struggled with that common insecurity of never quite feeling like she was good enough and sometimes took that out on the people she loved.
I remember her as being beautifully dressed--usually in her favorite color purple, working diligently to stay up on current events, and never saying "no" to a gin and tonic. From my Nana, I learned table manners, because as she said "you never knew when the queen would stop by." I also learned the social graces of following up a nice visit with a thank you note and keeping the conversation going at a dinner table. Throughout my life she was caring to me, in a formal kind of way, but during her last two years of life she really softened. Her face would light up when I came over and she would tell me openly that she loved me. Of course, those last years were also her decline. The first year was hard and this last year was really uncomfortable. As her life until then had been so full, my Nana knew that her limited state was not real living. Toward the end, she desperately wanted to go and talked about it constantly. Because of this, her death was a relief as much as it was a sadness.
I feel lucky to have lived so close to her in these last years. It became our pattern to visit together once every couple weeks. At first we would lunch out at her fancy dining club and then the lunches moved into the dining room of her retirement home and then to her apartment. After a while, I would eat a sandwich while she had cocktail of ensure + ice cream. For the last couple of months, she rarely left her bed. I would sit beside her, helping her sort through catalogues and eating ice cream from fancy parfait glasses. Our talks would range from deep explorations of where one goes after death to her sudden distress that I wouldn't know how to polish the beautiful wood furniture she had gifted me.
The women of my family--my mom, aunt and I--were with her the night of her death. After a long outing that involved fighting pre-Christmas crowds at the mall, I dropped my mom off at my Nana's home. I was exhausted and crabby and almost decided not to stop in to see her before heading home. She hadn't been conscious for the past few days, but the doctors thought she would make it until Christmas. My plan was to spend the next morning with her when I was rested. Yet something told me I should go in. As soon as I saw her face, I knew it was the right decision. She looked shrunken and gray and was breathing with great difficulty. Her nurse told us that it would probably be soon.
I felt ready to be there. So much of my spiritual process has been so tied up with my grandmother over these past years. When met my teacher one strange night in NYC--the shaman who took me to the amazon this fall--my Nana was just starting to show signs of decline. That night, the first words out of his mouth were "we are all going to die." He proceeded to explain that our culture is afraid of examining death and accepting that it will be our final reality. The problem is that if we avoid death, then we will never live fully. We will be afraid of our hair graying and memory weakening and we will not die with dignity and grace. It's in owning our aging, our decline that we realize what magnificent, temporal beings we are.
This wasn't the first time I had heard about this. In autobiography of a yogi, Yoganada writes about how our whole practice of yoga should be to die without fear, with full knowledge of our spirits. Yet from the perspective of my healthy, young body, these lessons didn't feel like much. it was in meeting my teacher that I started to really consider just how earth shattering it must feel to face that with lucidity, and from there a well of compassion opened up inside me. I dedicated all of my yoga practices too her and thought of her discomfort often, trying to feel it as if it were my own.
I left for the amazon just as my Nana was starting her serious decline. When I said goodbye to her, I wasn't sure if I would see her again yet I knew that my taking this deep retreat into myself could help her in some ways. Although I don't think I can ever fully write about those 10 days of personal struggle and liberation in the deepest jungle, I can tell you that I felt the presence of my grandmother so strongly throughout my whole time. One night in ceremony, she came to me in a vision and I knew with clarity that my job was to help to her go to the other side. I lifted her up and told her she could do it and she climbed higher and higher, past what I knew. I told her that I loved her and still she went higher and until she burst into the form of a giant bird with purple feathers. She overwhelmed me in that moment with her beauty. I saw that in death, she was everything she had always wanted to be. I also knew that she would be with me always, that death doesn't take that away.
So the night of her death I was ready to sit with her and witness the passing. We sang her old hymns from the Christian Science Church and I read her a poem by Margaret Atwood and when it got late, I went home and lit a candle. Adam was already in Cincinnati and our apartment felt still and holy even. A few minutes later my mom called and said she was gone and that in death her face looked so much more peaceful. I sat on my bed and cried and felt the supreme liberation of this lesson that does not have boundaries. In that moment I let myself fall apart over the gift of life, the reality of death and that what does not change within it all.