I got the message mid way through the Star Wars movie I had promised my children weeks before. The text message read, “Grandma Melba has gone to be with the Lord.” After the movie I told the kids the bad news, that their great-grandmother had died. There were tears, confusion, that far off look of loss in my oldest’ eyes. Tears from my son, always the sweet and emotional one. I dropped them off at home and drove north.
My grandmother Melba was born on Dec. 9, 1923 in North Dakota. She later moved to the Northwest and worked as a Rosie the Riveter during WWII. In 1946 she got married to my mom’s father, a grandfather I never met. On that wedding evening in 1946 they moved into the house on South Lake Cassidy Road in Lake Stevens, WA. Melba lived in that home for the next 65 years. She lived in that home for almost 25 years before her beloved husband Joe died suddenly of a heart attack in his 40’s. She grieved in that house, raising the 3 nearly grown children by her self. She met another man later at church, a man who I would think of as my grandpa Glen, and they were married for almost 25 years. She cared for him in that house until he passed away. She was 88 years old when her heart slowly wore out.
Driving north on I-5 in the late evening emptiness of the interstate I thought of the number of times I had driven this route to my grandmother’s house. When I arrived, she had been dead for 2 hours but the men from the funeral home had not yet arrived. I spent some time with my grandmother’s body, saying goodbye. It is a strange and sacred thing to be with a body once the soul has already departed it. It brings us face to face with the mystery of life. When the life has passed but the skin and bones remain, there is no mistaking the fact that it is our souls that give us life, not the earthly bodies we cling to so mightily. The whole family gathered over Grandma Melba and I prayed for her, thanking her for all the good times, and I gave thanks she was in heaven. I told her to take good care of my son Fisher and to enjoy the homecoming. Later, men in suits came and took her body away. Slowly and quietly and quickly they worked, moving her from the hospital bed from which she passed onto their gurney, zipping her into a transport bag. Again, the staggering reality hit me that it is not our bodies that give us meaning, but it is the very breath of life given by God.
For the next few hours, we sat around and told Grandma Melba stories. Laughing about the good times, crying over the memories. It was the first time in my 37 years I had ever been in her house without her. There was a heaviness to the absence. Two of my mom’s cousins departed and my dad and uncle went to bed and then near midnight my mom put in an old VHS tape that had home movies from the 1950’s on it. Shot on an old reel-to-reel camera, my aunt Debbie had the footage transferred to VHS decades ago. The old footage flashed pictures of the events of the years….a fire truck down the main street of Lake Stevens celebrating who knows what, footage from a cabin near an unnamed body of water, visits with family around Lake Stevens. For me, I had no idea what the events were or even who many of the people were. I just wanted to see my Grandma, smiling there and waving, captured at the time when she was in her 20’s. It reminded me that in my family we do the same thing- we take video clips and lots of pictures around the events we think define our lives. A birthday party here, a vacation there, some school event, etc. And yet watching these old movies of my grandmother, I realized the events held no meaning decades later, it was only the people in the video that meant anything. Not what they were doing, or what jobs they currently worked, or what their net worth was or anything trivial like that. The video captured who my grandma actually was, what her smile looked like, they way she held my mother and my aunt. The videos captured her very essence.
At 12:30 I called it a night and drove home. Through Lake Stevens I drove, across the Hwy 2 corridor back to I-5, down through Everett and back to Edmonds. I thought of my own life and the passage of time. I thought of the way in which we all cling to life, as though we’ll last forever. And each time we come face to face with death or loss we’re reminded of the temporary nature of our earthly bodies. Whether we get 88 years like my grandma, or only 61 like my uncle, or don’t even quite get a few days like my son Fisher, the only guarantee in life is that all of us have a short time on this earth. A short time to make a difference, to be defined by our relationships with one another and our relationship with God. I got home and went room by room, kissing each of my children on their head and saying a prayer for them. Yes, it goes fast, this passing of time.
What gives your life meaning? What will you hold on to? For sure, life is a divine mystery, but in the face of life and death, life is never really mysterious at all. It always seems to go too fast. It always seems to be about people and not products, about relationships and not the other stuff we fill our lives with. In the end, it always seems to have gone too fast. May you cling to the people around you today that give your life meaning. And cling to the God who will greet you home one day.
This is my grandmother. She is now with the Lord. This snippet? Her singing “God will take care of you”. Indeed, He will.