The old woman lies supine in her soft recliner, her thin legs stretched out, heavy blankets covering her body, her face caressed by a thousand wrinkles, each of which represents a story, a veritable roadmap of a lifetime of hardships, joys, worries, fears, heartaches, and exuberances. A machine hums in the background of the crowded room, forcing air through small plastic tubes that feed into her nostrils. She’s awake and alert, her bright eyes sparkling, her lips, freshly coated with lipstick turned up in a smile. The smile quivers, and her eyes change from sparkling to glistening as she chats with her grandson over FaceTime. The old woman is dying. She has cancer, and it’s in her lungs, one of them already shut down, the other struggling. She lives entirely in the past now, her future non-existent, as is the case for so many elderly people. She lives through her memories of her life, both good and bad. Her eldest grandson has called to say goodbye one final time. It’s a tough call, forced and awkward with both of them emotional, the conversation more difficult than it should be, heightened by the distance between them.
Ten miles to the east, the old woman’s great-granddaughter also reclines, her legs stretched out, her eyes closed as she rests, her hands lightly rubbing her swollen belly. She can feel the child inside her yearning for his freedom, restlessly moving about in her womb as if he knows that his time in eternal darkness is drawing to a close as rapidly as his great-great-grandmother’s is drawing nigh. The great-granddaughter’s face is smooth, her few wrinkles showing merely a hint of what they’ll one day become, only really visible when she smiles brightly. She feels joy and hope for the future as she awaits the impending birth of her fourth child.
The grandson is me, and I’m a thousand miles away from both my grandmother, who’s waiting to die, and my grandson, who’s waiting to be born. I’m caught in the middle of two momentous events, and the polar difference between them tugs and tears at me. I FaceTime’d my daughter yesterday, and my grandmother today…two very different calls, the parties on each end in vastly different places. One waits for death, and the other waits for life, and, like things have been for time immemorial, the loss of one family member will be accompanied by the gain of another, though rarely seen in such a close time frame. The circle of life will soon come together for my family, the iconographic ouroboros personified. My grandmother has mere days to live, and my grandson has mere days left before his birth, and I will experience the sadness and loss of one and the joy and gain of the other in very close proximity.
I’ve often felt that we shouldn’t mourn too deeply the loss of those who’ve achieved great age. I’ve been wrong. That’s an easy enough thought in isolation, but much more difficult when it becomes less abstract and more personal. Loss is loss, and mourning accompanies that loss, regardless of how far the dying person has outkicked their coverage, to borrow an adage. Rarely does a person live long enough to meet their great-great-grandchildren, and my grandmother has already met three of hers. She won’t get to meet the fourth, but she’ll pass on knowing that he’ll be filling the void that she’ll be leaving, and I hope that gives her some comfort. It takes both genetic longevity and a proclivity for youthful procreation to experience five generations in a family. And, to perhaps an even larger extent, it takes a great deal of luck, and I know that my grandmother understands this. Her life has often been difficult, marked with challenges and struggles, and she’s overcome them all. But her life has also been filled with joy and happiness, as evidenced by the size of the family she’ll leave behind. She’s the matriarch of a very large clan, and her legacy will live on in so many lives that are traced directly back to her.
I hope that the thoughts of so many people who have loved her for their entire lives gives her comfort in her final few days. I hope that the birth of the boy who will fill the emptiness she leaves eases her final transition. I hope that she understands that our last call was marked by only the awkwardness of emotion and sadness on my part, because of the love that I feel for her.
I hope that the knowledge of our love for her envelopes her final thoughts in the coming days.