14 July 2010

only love

It is early summer, and my family loses one of its patriarchs. My friend loses a child. Another, her father.

The season is cool and unseasonably wet. In the midst of it, I spend several weeks with my 91-year old grandmother. She is frail, slow of step and hard of hearing, but with a quick wit and a girlish giggle. Her hair is a perfect coif so white it is silver.

Grandma tells me stories easily. I have only to ask a leading question and then sit back and listen. Her courtship and marriage to my grandfather. A miscarriage. The births of her children, three cesarean deliveries. The military years. The family Cadillac. Her house in China where they were stationed until the Americans were evacuated. How she was the only one to get off the ship in Japan, a young military wife with three small children, to wait for my grandfather. The estate in England. Her bridge club. The car crash that left deep purple scars on her knee. The other one that left her unharmed, belted into the flipped-over car. The beloved red cocker spaniel, stolen the night before they were transferred from Ohio. Texas rain. Hill Air Force Base.

She tells me how it was for her the night my grandfather died. She had become fatigued by his extended illness, and on that night, she slept alone in their king-size bed. She had been his wife for more than 70 years.

When we walk together, I support my grandma at her left elbow. In the grocery aisle. At the hairdresser. On Friday when we go to Ruth’s Diner with my aunt and mother. Grandma orders mac and cheese because it is soft for her new teeth. She eats most of her lunch and drinks two full glasses of raspberry tea. She is engaging and chatty. By the time we get back to the house, she is tired. I hug her goodbye.

"I love you, Grandma."

"I love you, too, dear."

Blue rainclouds hang low over the Wasatch Front on the morning I board my plane for home. The teenage boy next to me says he is from Kansas City. Missouri, not Kansas. His mother has told him to watch out the other side of the plane when we land in Oregon to see Mt. Hood. He's on his way to summer camp. The plane taxis down the runway for takeoff, and I am crying. Goodbye.

So many gone from me. My grandfather, his last days in the nursing home. Goodbye. My bright, beautiful, addicted cousin, last seen through the glass window of a jail cell. Goodbye. My friend, like a brother, died too young. Goodbye. My first two babies, given for adoption more than 25 years ago. Uncle John. Aunt Vernetta. All of my other grandparents and great grandparents.

Grief opens up a hollow space, fresh as dug earth and rich with the loam of loss that I will carry all my life. The plane turns at the end of the runway. Sunlight slips through the clouds to glitter in the rain, and I understand that only love could give rise to such sadness. Profound love.

The boy in the next seat fidgets and tries not to look at me. Our plane takes off, circles the valley, turns out across the Great Salt Lake. Goodbye.

I have nothing else, so I wipe my face with my jacket.

"Missouri, huh?" I say.

"Oh, yeah," the boy says. His eyes are blue. He looks relieved.

"Is all your family there?" I say. "In Missouri?"


The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

~ Thomas Hardy (1900)

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