I buried my maternal grandmother today.
She died last week, but it didn’t hit me until yesterday that she was truly dead. As Tennyson said in the poem In Memoriam A.H.H:
When in the down I sink my head,
Sleep, Death’s twin-brother, times my breath;
Sleep, Death’s twin-brother, knows not Death,
Nor can I dream of thee as dead:
I walk as ere I walk’d forlorn,
When all our path was fresh with dew,
And all the bugle breezes blew
Reveillée to the breaking morn.
But what is this? I turn about,
I find a trouble in thine eye,
Which makes me sad I know not why,
Nor can my dream resolve the doubt:
But ere the lark hath left the lea
I wake, and I discern the truth;
It is the trouble of my youth
That foolish sleep transfers to thee.
It was only when I saw her in the coffin that I realized my grandmother was dead. That nevermore would I see her in this world. (I’m reminded of a passage in the Lord of the Rings where it is said that Aragorn came never again to Cerin Amroth as a living man.) I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that she was gone.
There is a passage in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People that says:
Another of the king’s chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added: “The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. …”
This metaphor for life seems rather fitting for me at this moment as I am filled with an elegiac mood. What brief time we spend here is bookended by unknowns. As a Christian I affirm the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. But the exact nature of what comes next, of what our resurrected bodies will be like or what things we will be doing, is still largely unknown. We can speculate all we want, but at the end of the day we will be no more enlightened about what came before and what comes after. It is, as Hamlet says, “the undiscovered country.”
But the uncertainty should not be a cause for fear. We should not be frightened of “what dreams may come” (Hamlet again) after we have left this world behind. But nor should we ignore this life in hopes of reaching the next. I am glad for the years I got to spend with my grandmother; glad that she did not give up on life when her husband died 13 years ago.
This week I have learned much about my grandmother. Stories told by my aunts and uncles that revealed things I did not realize. And I witnessed a relative crying that I did not imagine would cry. I don’t have an issue with tears (as Gandalf says at the Grey Havens: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”), but was surprised when this relative cried.
I don’t feel like writing more (see you in about a week), so I’ll leave you with a little more from Tennyson:
This truth came borne with bier and pall,
I felt it, when I sorrow’d most,
‘Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all–
O true in word, and tried in deed,
Demanding, so to bring relief
To this which is our common grief,
What kind of life is that I lead;