When My Words Fail

I had been planning to reboot my blog right about now. As I write this, I’m staring at a whole outline of things I had been planning to say. They seemed good. And then a pandemic arrived.

As if that is not enough, every week since I shut myself in my house, death has taken another bright, shining star from my community, near and far. These aren’t even people who have died from Covid-19. These are victims of murder, suicide, heart attack—all three were in their prime years.  We haven’t had many cases of Covid here on the West Coast yet, so, along with everyone else, I am bracing for even more bad news. With the news of the first and second deaths, the words I had been putting together for the blog disintegrated. Meaning became elusive, and I retreated with my creativity to the kitchen to cook myself some distraction, find a way to chew the impossible and swallow the unspeakable.

I heard about the third death yesterday, and I decided to come back to the blog to write grief for a bit.

When my Grandma passed away several years ago, I had the privilege of saying a few words at the funeral. My family tells me I said something articulate and meaningful, but I don’t remember a single word I spoke. I remember the weakness of my face and my gulping for air as I cried uncontrollably in front of a roomful of people who had come to honor her. I remember telling stories that were half-empty, stories that had been home for both her memory and mine, now empty of the presence that gave them life. With family you’ve known since birth, memories are like living in each other’s skin. The hours in the garden, the marmalade toast, the sun tea sipped on the patio, the hugs, the smiles, the way her favorite soap felt when she washed my face, the smell of her hair. It feels empty and silly to say that someone “lives on in your memory” when her presence with me in it was what made the memory alive to begin with. Words fail.

There are plenty of things being said about our current situation, words to use. How to avoid getting sick. How to avoid getting other people sick. What the economic impact will be.  There are the symptoms, the shock and grief of those of us left behind. There are people helping and people fighting, doctors, scientists, millions of people dusting off sewing machines to make masks. There are the refrigerator trucks for bodies, there are the funerals we cannot hold, the absence of anyone to hold us in our grief. But those are matters of the living, of life, of coping and continuing in the face of…

In the face of… nothing. Void.

No, no, spare me the afterlife for a minute. I’m talking about death itself. It is like staring into what I would imagine a black hole to be. Blackness so deep that your imagination cannot even create ghostly outlines. Darkness so dark that if you stare at it too long, you will go blind. Emptiness so vast that if you yell into it, it swallows the words as if they never existed.

Really, though, why should there be words for death? Words belong to the the life we know. They are our creation, our salvation, our day and night. To speak is to exist, to exist is to create, to hear is to be present. We have words for destruction—Plants die and return seasonally. Animals become food. Even fire produces heat as it consumes. The economy of mass and energy defy the reasoning of death, of total and utter disappearance. It is no wonder that, even in the absence of an afterlife mythology, our minds would probably spontaneously create one—We do not have words for oblivion.

It was a few years after my Grandma’s death that I had my first opportunity to sit with someone as she was dying. Grandma Sue was my ex-husband’s grandmother. We were close—I loved her stories, and we had spent hours one-on-one talking about her unique and intriguing personal history. I planned to write it all into a book one day. With my own Grandma, our shared experiences created memory. With Grandma Sue, remembering was our shared experience.

I will tell you now that someone who is dying looks very different from someone who is sick. Unable to digest food any longer, her already petite frame was getting smaller every day. But in the way that a personality can fill a room, who she was seemed to be growing even as her body shrank.

We’d chat for a few brief minutes, then I sat in the dark while she slept. She’d wake again and talk, and then we sat in silence for awhile. If grief after death guts words of the presence of meaning, in the moments before death, they positively burst with presence. Grandma Sue was THERE when she slept and when she struggled to say a few things, present in a way that she had never been in all of our conversations over tea and sour soup. There were so many stories left unshared, but they were set aside in the face of being with each other. The essence of Grandma Sue-ness so thick in the air of the room I could almost see it.

There was one moment I will never forget. Grandma Sue woke suddenly and gestured at something in front of her, at first I assumed at the drawings from her geat-grandchildren that were hanging where she could see them:

“Should I do what the paper says?”

“Which paper, Grandma Sue?” Words came out slowly, each carrying the fullness of presence I felt in the room.

“This one,” she shook her raised hand. I looked closer and saw she had her fingers pinched together as if she held a piece of paper pinched between them. I got goosebumps.

“What does it say?”

“It says I should say, ‘Lord Jesus, come take me.’” I was surprised—Grandma Sue had grown up in a cult and had little use for religion. She hadn’t really found she wanted to deny God’s existence, but she’d kept an arm’s length most of her life.

“Well… do you want to do what it says?”

“Yes.”

“Then I think you should go for it.”

She nodded and went back to sleep.

That was so like God, I thought. The One whose constant presence is so near at hand that, if you embrace it, it can be like having someone sharing each moment of your life from the inside. The One who spoke life into existence, the Word made life, writing Life for Grandma Sue on a slip of paper she could hold in her hand. The One whose whisper into the void exploded into Life that continues to roll and expand across the universe and time. The One whose words are carried on the breath of life, who speaks dirt and water and sunshine into infinite flowers. The One whose Presence is awesome because its power does not obliterate, it makes us more ourselves. Love personified, offering presence, patiently, because, well, what is love if it’s not a choice?

If I ever write Grandma Sue’s life into a book, a hundred pages of words could raise projections of a life long gone by in the screen of our minds—a large immigrant family crowded into a small California bungalow, the shared neighborhood steam bath where they cleaned up by whacking their skin with eucalyptus branches, little Sue conspiring with the neighborhood kids to steal from a barrel of homemade pickles. But without her presence with me, my words stop at the void. I can only write the life I know, and my grief belongs in a void that swallows them before I can even speak them. Why seek her in my words? The life in my words is past.

The life written in a few words on a slip of paper that only Grandma Sue could see… I imagine those words igniting her. The Grandma Sue I knew and shared life with, the Grandma Sue who I could write, was potential energy stored in a little body. The glow of her presence in that dark room was the silent flash at the beginning of an explosion, one that would incinerate her frame in its outward expansion into… the void. Roaring into the unspeakable, rolling past paper words, expanding beyond what my memory can say. Life, recreated. Existence erupting. Not life here where we know it, life in the void where there was none.

Some day I hope to know, to speak those words of Life that fill the void. In the meantime, I will write shadows around it in the language of the living. I will chew the seeds of grief and swallow the unspeakable. I will store their energy, waiting, to erupt.