The Cloud of Witnesses

This evening, in Mass, Jane Frances climbed wildly on the pew while the older four children tried to ignore her. She was aware of the ignoring, and set about fighting it. Jane is potty training, and must always use the potty during church. When I took her to the restroom for the second time, I somehow managed to tear the side of her Pull-Up irreparably, leaving her bare-bottomed and unladylike, which sent the other children into giggle fits.

Mass is often offered for the repose of the soul of someone who has recently passed. We pray for our loved ones who have gone and for those who will soon die. My Grandmother Joyce is among these; she has end-stage lung cancer and expects just a few more months. I pray for her the best I can while the children sniffle and giggle around and on top of me. As I look at the little ones, I am struck by how much my prayer has shifted over the past year. As a younger mom, I often prayed for protection. Many times, it didn’t come through—or, at least, not as I thought of protection. Now I pray for the strength I’ll need when inevitable losses come my way.

Teresa, a college friend of mine, lost her son a few years ago. He drowned, and was not revived. His faithful parents, full-time foreign missionaries, prayed and prayed, and he died, nonetheless. The toddler daughter of a friend fell into a pool this past spring, where she was found after nearly five minutes. Her faithful parents prayed and prayed, spoke healing over the child, and she lived—miraculously. These moms know each other, and when I heard Teresa comment that she was praying for the recovery of the little girl, I marveled at her generosity.

I wonder about God’s protection. The story of Lazarus causes me to bristle a bit. Jesus raised his friend, but He doesn’t raise my own, or Teresa’s, or so many others. When my little cousin died in a pool accident just before I was married, a priest friend cried with me and told me how sad God was that this had happened. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I had not thought of God’s compassion and His own grief, and it seemed silly that I had somehow missed the crux of it. I had to sift out my lack of understanding of how God could be in control, and a good Father, and allow these terrible things to happen. The answers I was given or could come up with on my own never seemed right, but Emmanuel, God-with-us, God who was really sorrier about my nephew than I was myself, was the answer completely. Jesus wept. And then He raised, as we know He will on the last day—last, because night will not follow it.

Since that first loss, and maybe before, I’ve been a little obsessed over dealing with the concept of death. I felt so utterly unprepared for it. I don’t want my children to be unprepared, so I tell them strange things like, “Anyone can die at any moment,” and, “Everyone dies, you know,” and I’m sure that’s very comforting for them. My husband works with the dying in palliative care. I ask about his patients, if they are afraid, and he says that most often, they are. I remember late pregnancy, how I was afraid then, but ready, and I wonder if old age feels that way. I hope it does.

I have not known my Grandmother Joyce well. She lived in Louisiana, and my family visited some when I was a kid. I went to visit on my own when I was old enough to think Marksville, Louisiana, was quaint and exotic. I loved seeing the old Hypolite Bordelon House there—a standing bit of family history, from the first of us to come to the United States. I loved sleeping on the uneven floor of Great Grandmother Essie’s house, built by her own parents, where she raised my grandmother and her siblings, and where she lost the youngest in a car accident in the driveway. There were images of unfamiliar French Blessed Mothers on the shelf in her living room, and a painting of St. Rita. I was the only practicing Catholic in my family as a teen, and when I saw these things, I felt the roots of my faith. Essie had a strong Cajun French accent, and it made me nervous to talk to her. I brought a chatty boyfriend along once in college, and he asked her a million questions while I stood nearby in the kitchen, eating Essie’s beet salad and learning how to talk to old people. After that, I visited more often, amused by the piquant flavor of Marksville and fascinated by my grandmothers.

Stephen and I visited while we were engaged, and we sang on Grandma Joyce’s porch. It was a folk song with a bit of French I didn’t understand in it, and Grandma Essie cried and hugged us. The next time we visited Marksville was to attend her funeral. I saw the names of all the women in my line there in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. I was too young then to think I would ever be among them. I looked at their names on the old gravestones with the eyes of an observer, but now I know I am part of the story.

When Essie died, much of my sadness was the loss of not knowing her well. I think it will be the same when my Grandmother Joyce passes. We are more connected than I ever knew, and now, it’s nearly too late. When one generation goes, I am pushed a bit closer to my own mortality. What a quick passing it has been. Grandma Essie told me that it gets faster and faster the older you grow.

I have a middle school child now. She is five-foot-one, and I am five-foot-three. When I hear her speak, I think, “Who is the grown up in the other room with the kids?” I see my sister in her smile. I hear my mother and my aunt in her voice and all the women of my family in her quirky, bookish humor. I look at my mostly-grown girl, and time seems a blink. I thought I’d have so long to figure everything out and to parent right, in the right town, in the right house. I have just a few short years before she is grown. How can we live knowing that we are not protected from all of the passings? How can we remember that we don’t have the time we think we have?

Every May, my family gathers to celebrate my sister’s birthday and my parents’ anniversary with a crawfish boil. This year, my sister thought my mom would enjoy having a theme, and my mom thought my sister wanted a themed party, so we gathered early in the afternoon and set up paper pineapples and wore leis for each other. My family is full of crazy people, but they’re my own crazy people. I ask my mom and sister to pay attention to my daughter, to see how she talks to her siblings, to help me figure out how to help her to be kind. They tell me they see that she can be unkind, but that I ought to remember she is also lovely and helpful and sweet. She hasn’t made friends easily here in our new town, but this is it for us, and I, who struggle to make new friends, must help another person do so. The blind must lead the blind. I wonder what Grandma Essie, who was always a little bit spicy, might have said had I ever asked her about the secret of life. I imagine she would have told me that she had no idea—how should she know?

“Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen.You are the result of the love of thousands.”

~ Linda Hogan, Dwellings:  A Spiritual History of the Living World

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