I've been telling colleagues and students about my grandmother's terminal illness, not to garner sympathy, but for pragmatic reasons. I need to find someone to cover my classes for a week so I can visit her, and I need simply to explain my sudden, seemingly random bouts of teariness.
As I said in my earlier post, I've been almost weirdly untouched by death. A very few friends and dear but not intimate family members; sweet though remote great-grandparents; a baby sister who had barely begun life. No one truly, truly close until now. Because I teach very young adults, no semester (indeed, almost no month) goes by without someone's grandparents, and sadly even parents, dying. Some of this falls into the joke category. There are those students whose grandparents routinely die when papers and projects are due. But most of it is genuine. I've seen real pain and confusion on these students' faces, in their eyes, in their words. I've even cried with them. I've offered sympathy and an ear for mourning friends. Still, I've only experienced this as an outsider. Until now.
Now I, too, am a member of the culture of death.
The death or impending death of a loved one is new territory and difficult to navigate. The maps seem to be disjointed and printed in Russian. How am I supposed to feel? How am I supposed to act? The two conversations I've had with Grammie since I heard the news have been weirdly full of laughter and optimism. For instance, it's damned funny that her step-great-granddaughter B (who never visits) has been by the apartment like the vulture she is to sniff around at the spoils of death. Grammie was so alarmed by B's coveting of a particular figurine that she insisted she get "later" that after B left, Grammie promptly wrapped it up and gave it to V, another great-granddaughter. B's tasteless behavior is occasion for a good belly laugh; Grammie's checkmate is even funnier. My son M and I are going to travel to see her in a few weeks (God, please let her still be ok in a few weeks), and she was thrilled by the news; it gives her something to look forward to.
Grammie doesn't want to die. And I am utterly unable to imagine the world without her any more than I can imagine the world suddenly without gravity.
Now students are not telling me stories of the parents and grandparents who just died or are dying and whose deaths are interfering with their schoolwork; they're coming to me in droves telling me about the parents and grandparents who died a few months ago. They're still mourning, but they're also joyful over the parts that were blessings: the swift deaths with no suffering; the situations like mine where there was still precious time to say and do things that ought to be said and done. These people know what I don't fully, yet: what the road ahead looks like and how it feels to travel it. Today I have shared a half a river of tears with people I only slightly know; I would never have considered doing this last week.
However, now, like it or not, I too am a member of the culture of death.