My grandmother lived for a few more years in steadily declining health, and when I got the call from my mother that she had passed away one week before Christmas, I didn’t cry.
When we arrived at the nursing home shortly after 9 p.m., the room was warm—it smelled like her skin, like her breath. She was on her back in bed, her chest still, mouth slightly open, one eye open, and one eye shut. There was tinsel on the floor, swept in from one of the decorated trees at the end of the hall. Her hands were clenched, and I saw old dirt collected under her long fingernails. Someone had come for her. Who dissolved the wall and walked to the foot of her bed and took her?
“Oh, how I love him!” These were the last words said by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who died from tuberculosis in 1897 at age 24 in her convent room. It’s so difficult for me, and probably many of us, to understand that complete lack of fear, of crossing over into the next life to meet God—but rather such a longing for it that you’d rather welcome death than live. St. Thérèse lived her whole life preparing for the next, as she describes in her writings: Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.
If you asked me if I’m ready to die tomorrow, my heart seizes a little. I think of everything I’d leave behind: watching my children grow up (Who will hold them at night? Who will bring them their milk?), summer drifting into fall, putting up the Christmas tree and hanging ornaments with little fingers. It’s rending, how even those thoughts leave a hole in me, a panic.
Yet, St. Thérèse was so ready to cross over to meet God, whom she lived her whole life for—and I, a mother and a wife, want to stay rooted here to do the work I’ve been put here to do. Even Jesus in the garden wasn’t ready to die, right, right, I tell myself—the pain that would span his life on earth and returning to heaven was a huge chasm to cross.
The night my grandmother died, my mother called her as usual, and the nurse had placed the phone in her hand, cradled against her withered ear. In my mother’s house, “Ave Maria” was playing on the radio as she listened to my grandmother, suffering from dementia, go from topic to topic until her voice trailed off.
She was obsessed with babies near the end of her life and would cry, “Mama, mama,” into my mother’s ear, and then say, “Where’s the baby? Where?” When my grandmother’s voice trailed off, my mother assumed that she had fallen asleep. But really, she opened her eyes, a baby crowning into a new world.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Anne Carson, like her long poem, “The Glass Essay,” but also her God and Town poems. Carson writes about God frequently, and when asked why, she said that she’s so acutely aware of the thin veil between this world and the next, and so she can’t not
write about God and our journey to him. Here’s a poem I especially love: Town on the Way through God’s Woods Tell me.
Have you ever seen woods so.
Every tree a word does your heart stop?
Once I saw a cloud over Bolivia so deep.
Mountains were cowering do you ever?
Look in so quick you see the secret.
Word inside the word?
As in an abandoned railway car.
One winter afternoon I saw.
The word for “God's woods.”
Are the words for “God’s woods” heaven, paradise, the Kingdom of God? And the word inside the word, what is it? Is that living a dual life, performing the work that we’re put here on earth to do, but also preparing for the next, real life? St. Thérèse also wrote about how she found no inspiration from lofty treatises about trying to perfect oneself, that she looked much closer to earth to find her little way: Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles, surrounded by a crowd of illusions, my poor little mind quickly tires. I close the learned book which is breaking my head and drying up my heart, and I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons; perfection seems simple; I see that it is enough to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms.
I imagine that’s how my grandmother’s dying was, that she had abandoned herself, already child-like, into the arms of whomever came to get her. In the death-room, I could still smell her breath, like a wide exhale had come out of her mouth, she following after it.
I’m afraid thinking of my own death as if it’s imminent: I see myself as if behind a curtain watching my children play, unable to cross back into their lives. But when I consider the way St. Thérèse lived—gardening, cooking, praying, being kind to even those she couldn’t stand—her whole life was a preparation to meet a death that could come at any time. And perhaps that’s how we stumble into God’s woods, holding a child’s hand and wiping dirt from a knee, but seeing some sort of light from behind the trees: a life transparent, a life existing alongside this one.
So when it’s time, could it be that we just cross over, holding the hand of the one who is sent to take us home? Still, I feel sad starting the long goodbye to all the precious things here: my child’s yawn, the trees at dawn, the smell of water. Or maybe this is where I start to wake, learning how to know God, to live in his shadow, as he flings out his hand and says, “Do what you’re here to do well. The time slides through like sand.”
And this is the “secret” in Carson’s poem, St. Thérèse’s “single word [that] uncovers for my soul infinite horizons.” We’re unspooled from another life into this one, and we’re slowly reeled back to it, dangling between earth and the cosmos.
Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, will be published by ELJ Publications later this year. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.nicolerollender.com
Leave a comment
Comments will be approved before showing up.
I call myself a cynical realist—meaning I don’t always look at the bright side or the silver lining or sing about the glass being half full. I figure it’s better to prepare for the worst, like how after my grandmother’s congestive heart failure scare, I grieved for two weeks as if she had died, crying silently into my pillow at night until my throat hurt.