What I learned while waiting.

grandpa blog post

It was a year ago today that my Grandpa passed away.  I haven’t seen him whole and real since last August, so though it was only a year ago that he was here and then not, it feels like longer. He wasn’t himself for all those months that he was sick. And what I miss is his Self.  His laughing, smiling, slow-driving, made-up-language-speaking Self.

My dad drives Grandpa’s truck now, which is strange and practical and disorienting.  Since I don’t live at home anymore, every time I come home on break, I see the truck in the driveway, the truck that picked me up from band camp and brought me to middle-of-day doctor’s appointments. For a second, I think I’ll see him behind the wheel. It’s funny; my sister says sometimes she sees Dad driving it and he looks vaguely like Grandpa, hunched up behind the wheel.  My dad has been doing Grandpa-y things lately.  I like it.

We had my Grandpa’s memorial in July this year.  I read the piece I wrote last year after he died – it was so much fun to tell that story of him again.  I’m glad I got to do it, but to be honest, I wasn’t entirely excited about waiting until July to have his memorial.  I remember being upset about the waiting, upset that we weren’t going to end what felt like months of stress and grief and busy-ness at the time when they should end.

(Something I’ve noticed about myself is that I often feel like the shoulds of my life need to be the same as the shoulds in everyone else’s.  If something should happen a certain way for me, it should happen that way for everyone else.

I’m usually kind of short-sighted when it comes to my shoulds.)

In the end, it was good to wait to have the memorial, for practical reasons and for symbolic ones.  Practically, considering last winter, it was easier for everyone to get up the hill to the cemetery where we buried his ashes when there wasn’t three feet of snow on the ground.  Symbolically, it was beautiful, because summer personified my grandpa.  He was all sunshine and darkened skin and tattered summer tank tops.  He was more lawn mower than snow plow, more light breeze than stinging chill.

And the wait itself was good for us.  It gave people time to patch up a bit. For months, life had been hospitals and doctor’s visits and stark white walls and trips to Cleveland and where is the joy I thought this was Christmas?  It had taken three months for my grandparents to go from being well to one of them being sick enough for Hospice.  There needed to be time before putting a definitive end to all that.

I learned a lot about waiting last year, but I’ve only just begun to really think about it this year, during this Advent. Advent is about waiting – it is about joyful, patient, hope-filled waiting for the King, for the Immanuel.  Last year, I didn’t care much for Advent waiting.  The defiant optimism of Christmas, while in many ways welcome, comforting, peaceful, was also full of hurt and stress.  I don’t know how others in my family felt about it, but for me, it was like putting Neosporin on a fresh cut: It was meant to help. It was meant to heal. But all it did then was sting.

This year, I have been stoked for Christmas.  I have loved Advent, loved re-learning how to wait with joy.  Last year, I was waiting for death. And while I tried desperately last year to focus my attentions on the hope that Jesus brought, the sheer wonder and brilliance of God-with-us – I couldn’t unstick my mind from the waiting for something I dreaded happening.  It was hard for me to really understand what God had begun to try to teach me, ever so gently, so lovingly, as He does. This year, I’m beginning to see it.

There are two ways to wait for anything. We can wait with hope or with dread.  And maybe sometimes it’s both, because life is full of bad things – but life is more full of good things, of beautiful and awesome and magnificent things.  Jesus came here. He didn’t come as a pig for slaughter; he came to show us a life well-lived. A Full Human Life – that’s what we were waiting for. And that Human Life led to death, but not forever-death. There is no greater love than the love that lowers it’s head to the guillotine, that jumps in front of the gun, that crawls up on the altar itself, that gives up his life for his friends. That life was one spent loving the poor and the forgotten, raising up the oppressed, lifting the beggars and adulterers and lepers up from the dusty path and calling them blessed, wanted, chosen, remembered, precious. When we wait in Advent, we are waiting again for that Full Human Life, that life that saved us by dying and returning, that life that promised us that we would wait with dread no longer.

Wait with dread no longer.

Even for the bad things. Even when we are waiting for death, what we are really awaiting is new life, Full Human Life. We are awaiting a day when the people we love, and someday we ourselves, can step out of these shadows and figure out what it’s really like to live in the Light.

So, yes, today I am sad. Today, I miss my Grandpa a lot. But what I want, what I desperately want, is to remember how to wait with hope. To be sunshine and darkened skin and tattered summer tank tops in the midst of winter. To give myself and others time to heal. To anticipate the beautiful, the King, the Immanuel.

May my Advents be ones of hope.

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Coming to life

I used to think that death extinguished life.
I thought it was a weed,
creeping over the breathing things,
crippling the moving things.
I thought it dragged us into the desert,
slowly –
slowly for a long time,
until it sped,
until it tore and ripped us.
I thought dying was a savage thing –
overpowering.
I used to think that death was a taker
and that it took what was dear
and hid it in the thorns and underbrush.

And then I watched it at work.
And it was a weed,
and it crept over what I loved
what we loved
loved
And it crippled what once sprang and shuffled.
Death was not slow,
though I imagine it had been slower for 67 years
(we just didn’t notice then).
But in it’s speed and unforgiveness,
despite the taking –
I saw no savagery.
And though I was lost,
I was not lost alone.

So then I began to think that maybe there was more life in death than I thought.
There was laughter
defying the dimness and the silence
of sickness.
Tears and smiles and sighs of relief
from nestled-together family.
Whispered prayer.
A Healer who long ago cast out the fear.

We are found people
He found us in our grief
and mourning.
He found us tearing our clothes
and rolling in ash
and He
lifted us up
and draped us in white
and fed us clean water
and returned us our joy.

Let me tell you about my Grandpa.

When I was very young, he had a heart attack.  I remember: we still lived at our old house in town, and I was standing at the top of the steps coming up from the bottom level.  Mom answered the phone in the kitchen and I stood there, watching her face contort into something I was too young to understand fully – except that it was wrong, faces weren’t supposed to look like that.  After that I remember her crying, and talking to me, but nothing else is as vivid.  My grandpa had double bypass surgery and he stopped working after that.  It was wonderful – from then on, he had time for my sister and I.  He did everything a grandparent is supposed to do.

My dad’s parents are young.  They’ve always been young, as grandparents go.  In their fifties and sixties my whole life.  My grandma was thirteen when she started dating my grandpa.  The other day, at the Hospice House, a woman – she must have been a nun? – came in to bless Grandpa, and she asked Grandma what it was that first attracted her to him.

“He looked like Fonzi,” my grandma replied, smiling.

Apparently, Grandpa was pretty hardcore in his day.  He had a motorcycle.  He took part in street races.  He smoked.  He grew up in Cleveland and he went to Catholic school until high school.  He had great Catholic school stories, but even better Cleveland public high school stories.

One day, my grandpa and his gang of greasers (I’m assuming they looked like greasers) tied some kid to a stake outside of the high school and lit a fire underneath him.  The principle got on the loudspeaker and said “If you look out the window, you’ll see why this school has such a bad reputation!”  Grandpa always laughed and said the kid was fine, and they never actually set him on fire – just the area around him.

That is my favorite of his stories.  The grandpa I knew had never hurt anyone or anything.  He was one of the gentlest people I knew.  I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t like him.  He was funny – so funny – and happy and kind.  He was simple, and liked simple things: there wasn’t anything fancy about him.  When he and my grandma could, they moved their family out of the city to where we all live now, in the beautiful middle of nowhere.  He and my grandma built a really great life for themselves – and I know it was hard.  It was probably harder than I can imagine.  They spent years fixing up the house they’ve always lived in, a small, two-story farmhouse built over half a century ago.  They added gardens and a workshop and a garage.  Grandpa built things – swings, birdhouses, benches.  He landscaped and bought antiques with which to pepper the yard.  There’s a big old tree and a massive rhododendron bush between the garage and the house.  My sister and I used to have a swing tied to that tree, and when we were older we climbed it.  When we got a little older still, we stopped climbing.  I think we need to start again.

I’ve been lucky to grow up fifteen minutes from my grandparents.  Really, fifteen minutes from all of my family, on both sides.  On my dad’s side, my sister and I were the only grandkids until just three years ago, when Lucy was born.  The two of us were so spoiled – still are.  I’m the oldest, and Hannah is three years younger, and we both loved spending time with our grandparents.  They were always active, always going someplace.  When we were in elementary school, Grandpa would come get us every now and again and take us to McDonald’s – just me, Hannah, and him.  The three of us would squeeze into the seat of his truck and we would sing songs all the way there.  Some of them were real songs, and others were ones Grandpa had made up somewhere along the way.  He was famous for making up words (he always said they were real words from a real Eastern European language – Polish, or Ukrainian, or Romanian.  Maybe they were, in some way.  All I know is that everyone knew what the words meant when Grandpa said them, even if we couldn’t explain how or why we knew).  When we got to McDonald’s, we’d eat quickly because Grandpa always let us play in the play area.  Our mom never let us do that, and even Grandma would’ve been hesitant – people catch colds from those things – but Grandpa always let us.  He would sit and watch from the table as Hannah and I played.  I’m sure he must’ve called us back to him at some point, so he could take us home, but I don’t remember it.  In my memory, Grandpa let us play all night long, forever, and never stopped us.

My sister and I spent one full summer going to our grandparents’ house every day while our parents worked.  Since Grandma worked too sometimes, often it was just Grandpa watching us.  It was one of the best summers.  Their house doesn’t have air conditioning, so in the afternoons, when Grandpa was outside or in the barn working, Hannah and I would collapse onto the couch in the cool darkness and watch ABC Family’s entire summer afternoon line-up.  Family Matters, Full House, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Step by Step.  We ate chewy Chips Ahoy and sometimes fell asleep.  Grandpa didn’t say we were lazy or silly.  Sometimes they took us to Pamida on senior citizen discount day (“old geezer day,” Grandpa called it), or we’d go to the drug store for ice cream sandwiches.  You know the feeling of walking out of the hot, humid summer air into chilly air conditioning?  That summer made it one of the best feelings in the world.

We found two kittens that summer, too.  They just showed up at my grandparents’ house: a black and white one and a calico.  They let us put out milk and cheese for them, so they never left.  I chose the black and white one as my own and called it Friday.  Hannah picked the calico.  “They’re names are just Kitty Kitty,” Grandpa would say, pointing to each cat.  “That’s Kitty, and that’s the other Kitty.  I just call ‘Kitty Kitty!’ in the mornings and they come running.”  After we went back to school, the cats stuck around for a few weeks, then they disappeared.  Grandpa had bought food for them and everything.  My sister and I were sad that they’d gone, but I think Grandpa was a little sadder.  He liked them.  I think it was easy for him to love anything.

Summer wasn’t the only time we spent with my grandparents.  Since Grandpa was always free, he had us for snow days, too.  Once, he plowed the snow into a little mound at the bottom of the big hill my grandparents lived on.  Hannah and I would sled down that hill on saucers, and when we hit the pile of snow Grandpa had made us, we flew high into the air, crashing back to earth moments later.  We had to bail before we got to the road.  I don’t remember how long we sledded that day, but I do know that we kept demolishing our bump every few trips down the hill.

He kept rebuilding it.  Every time.  I don’t remember him telling us to come inside then, either.

I’ve been home on break from school for the past week.  I’m blessed, because I could be here for the end.  I’m blessed, because I got to be with my family, see them love each other with a fierce kind of love.  I’m blessed, because I was here to hear stories and see tears and laugh with them all.  I got to be with Grandpa.  I got to tell him I loved him.

I know I had one of the best grandpas anyone could have.  He picked me up from band camp every day for two years.  He took me to doctor appointments while my parents were at work.  He came to my shows and my concerts.  He told me once that I was going to be a movie star – it didn’t matter that I was only talented enough for my little rural high school, because to him, I could make it anywhere in the world.  When I acted pretentious, he listened like I was the most intelligent person he’d ever met.  Even when I wasn’t pretentious about it, he listened.  I didn’t doubt that he actually listened.  He thought I was the most of everything.  My sister and I – we were always the smartest, the funniest, the most talented, the most beautiful.  And when Lucy came along, so was she.  I never doubted his love.  I never had a reason to doubt.

A few days ago, a woman – maybe a nun again? – came to my grandpa’s room to give him communion.  He was able to take it then, and the lady held his hand and asked him to say The Lord’s Prayer with her.  He said it faster than she did.  I didn’t even know Grandpa knew The Lord’s Prayer, though it makes sense – I imagine Catholic school ingrains those types of things into a person. My Grandpa wasn’t really a church man.  But last Saturday, I realized that he knew the Lord.  I can’t tell you how I understood – I just did.  I felt peace for him.  I had always known whose hands he was in, but I had finally realized that Grandpa knew, too.

I wish you could’ve known him.  I wish you could’ve been loved by him, too.  I’ll miss him – I already do.  I don’t know how a person can be fine, and then gone – in just a couple months.  But can you believe this: I got to spend almost 21 years being the granddaughter of perhaps the funniest, kindest man in the world.  I got to hear his ridiculous stories, sing with him on the way to McDonald’s, and love him back.  I could tell you about him for hours and hours.  I love him so much, and I’m so happy that I got to grow up with him in my life.  I want to celebrate that.

Joe Raymond: August 20, 1945-December 19, 2013

Almost three years ago, Grandpa and I before my senior prom.

Almost three years ago, Grandpa and I before my senior prom.

Advent.

Waiting.                                                                                      Waiting.
We sit waiting for phone calls to be made                   We sit waiting for candles to be lit
and medicines to be brought.                                            and songs to be sung.
Waiting:                                                                                       Waiting:
for answers                                                                                for the Answer
or solutions                                                                                and the Solution
or a definitive statement                                                      the Definitive Statement
about how many answers we can expect.                     the Answer we didn’t expect.
Waiting:                                                                                       Waiting:
dying is strange.                                                                       dying is strange.
Stretched flat,                                                                            Stretched out,
broken and asleep but listening,                                        broken, beaten and listening,
because hearing is the last to go.                                       because hearing us is all He can do.
From far off,                                                                               From far off,
it looks like something difficult.                                        the manger and the cross were disconnected.
But from this close,                                                                 But waiting for one means waiting for both,
it is simple,                                                                                   and it is far from simple.
and it makes sense.                                                                  Love like this does not make sense.
Waiting.                                                                                        Waiting.
That’s what makes it hurt.                                                    The joy is building.
Tired eyes from premature grief                                       Widening eyes from the victory we already know
and twisting hearts from untold stories.                         and twisting hearts from the pain until then.
We hurt for ourselves, too.                                                  We hurt for ourselves.
It’s a selfishness that makes sense.                                    It’s selfish. But it hurts.
Waiting:                                                                                         Waiting:
breathing in, out, in.                                                                 breathing in, out, in.
Clasped hands.                                                                            Clasped hands.
Waiting.                                                                                          Waiting.

waiting for some One
to stop the waiting.

Restoration

I feel useless here.  I know I’m not useless – I know.  But I saw him in the hospital – small and weak and sleepy.  My grandfather was fine in August.  He was young in August.  I left for school the same way I always left: with a hug, and an “I love you.”  If I would’ve known that he would be so small and weak and sleepy in November, I would like to say that I would’ve said something more, in August.  But how could I have known?  How does something take over an entire person in just a few months?  I have never seen my grandfather look old.  And now, he looks old enough to make him like a child again, frail.  Breakable.  But all I am doing is sitting in a classroom, staring a computer, putting together hypothetical projects and trying not to complain too much (and failing, I think).  I could be at the hospital, keeping him company.  I could be at home, making dinners and doing laundry and putting up Christmas decorations.  I could be doing so much more.

But I am giving presentations, rehearsing scenes, making up fake nonprofits, and studying for gen-ed exams.  For the first time in my life, I don’t understand how school makes a difference.  I can’t see how this matters.

I am such a Martha, always moving, always busy – and I think in my mind I am convinced that if only I could just be done with this semester, then I would be less Martha and more Mary, doing what really matters.  I could take care of my family.  I could be present and helpful.  Surely, Martha is concerned with things that do not last, but Mary is content with the meaningful, busy with the important details.  If only I weren’t so busy, if only I weren’t so stuck in a place where I feel useless, then perhaps I could be a better daughter, a better granddaughter, a better servant of the Lord.  I could be more like Mary, if only.

Mary was busy with important things, like family and Christmas decorating and laundry and hospitals and –

Oh.

“Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what He taught.”

Even if I thought I could be like Mary, I think I would be an awful Mary.  Because all I’d be doing is trading one busy-ness for another.  One stress for another.  One I-can-do-this-on-my-own mindset for another.  It’s not to say that being with my family isn’t important.  It is.  And yes, maybe school is rightfully on the back-burner.  But something is broken inside of me, and being in another place, even if I would be better off there for now, isn’t going to fix me.

Martha was stressed.  She was concerned with the world: with fixing dinner and tidying the house because oh my word the Lord was in her home.

The Lord was in her home.  But her mind was in a thousand other places besides.  So is mine.  I feel useless because unless I am sitting at the feet of Christ, I am.

So what do I do?  I listen when he tells me that I need to glorify God in my schoolwork.  I trust God to have perfect timing.  I believe my mom, who reminds me that next week will come quickly.  I whisper it to myself over and over: The Lord is with you.  You are going to be okay.  You are going to be taken care of. 

And I pray, with fervor from some dusty corner of my heart, for healing and miracles and peace if miracles do not come.  I pray for my hurting friends, by busy friends, my patient, loving, beautiful friends.  I am loved in different ways, and I do not understand how I deserved any of it.  And I am allowed to love, too.  I am selfish and broken, but I am loved and I love.  As death and stillness hang over me, abundant joy surrounds me, engulfs me.  Nativities appear around me, delicate porcelain babies placed in tiny mangers meant to remind me of the One who vanquished death and stillness.

It doesn’t feel vanquished.  Right now, it feels powerful.

“But the Lord said to her, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details!  There is only one thing worth being concerned about.  Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.'”

So until I find the feet of my Lord, setting aside the projects and the exams and the hospitals and the laundry, I will find purpose in none of it.  The desert is getting tiresome now.  I have been here for too long, dancing on the edge of the mirage and convincing myself that I spend enough time in the oasis to justify my wanderings.  Lead me to the well, draw up a bucket of the good stuff, the living stuff, and pull me into the living room.  I will pull up a patch of floor, and I will listen to Him here.  This will not be taken away from me.