When I was in North Carolina briefly last weekend, I tried to sit outside in the insanely nice 70-degree weather and sunshine as much as possible. This resulted in my eventual sunburn. Being comfortable outside in normal clothes? I’d forgotten what it felt like.
I ate lunch on Friday at Vimala’s, an excellent Indian restaurant in Chapel Hill, and sat outside in their little courtyard with my mom and little brother, Sam. Later I shared a beer with a friend on the lawn in front of Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. When I stopped by Trader Joe’s (how I miss you, TJ!) to stock up on trail mix and buy wine for my parents, the wine tasting guy totally recognized me and we chatted about my move out west, and winter conditions. He also noticed my sunburn.
After Trader Joe’s, I drove out to Duke Gardens in Durham, which was not nearly as brown as Laramie’s current state, but was also, astonishingly, beginning to blossom. Daffodils’ little yellow crowns were everywhere, forsythia was in full bloom, and I even spotted a little purple crocus, open just an inch above the dirt.
I met up with a friend who was sitting on a blanket in a grassy sloping field opposite shirtless Duke students. They haplessly and repeatedly tossed their frisbee into a nearby pond between drinking PBR cans, the labels hidden by koozies, and the box poorly hidden under a magnolia tree. The ducks were displeased by the frisbee intruder and flew back and forth between the water and a magnolia tree clear across the field.
I talked about skiing like it was the only interesting thing I’d done all winter (probably true) until another friend arrived, and we later went to Geer Street Garden for dinner to talk about books and feminism and how it can be oddly difficult to form new friendships.
The real reason I was in North Carolina was to visit my grandmother, who has just entered hospice for cancer. It’s strange, having time to prepare for death. For her to consider options like cremation or burial. What is to be done with the body that’s carried you through this life, and how will people seek to remember you after death? Even the act of spreading someone’s ashes is to literally let go, surrender their body back to the earth, to the elements. How hard that moment of letting go would be, opening your hand, loosening your grip, the wind taking over as it pleases.
Death is the ultimate “letting go” of our attachments, letting go of all we’ve ever known: our friends, our family, our home, our body, our passions and compassions. A yoga teacher of mine described the difficulty of letting go this way: you are swinging on a trapeze, enjoying the ride, when you realize it is time to let go in order to grab the next bar. If you hesitate, you miss it. The scariest part is not necessarily letting go so much as being in that moment where you are attached to nothing, between bars, having released the last and not yet reached the next. Complete vulnerability, complete surrender. Trusting in the not-knowing, the absolute fragility and discomfort, even pain.
We all have these in-between moments in our lives – between jobs, between relationships, moving, seeking diagnosis for disease, mourning a loved one’s passing. But facing death is the ultimate in-between and letting go. The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described facing death this way in his poem “Crossing the Bar”:
…Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
You can read the poem in its entirety here. Hope is not certainty. The flood may bear him far, but he’s not sure. From the certainty of light and “Time and Place,” death transports him to “the dark!”; that we know. Death itself is certain (death & taxes!), but everything else about it is the opposite: when it will come and how, what happens to our souls and those left behind in death’s wake.
We experience many small preparations for death in our lifetimes by graciously letting go, by saying goodbye without fear or hatred. Though we can never be fully prepared for death, I think, there is room for us to be at peace with whatever comes next, or, at least, at peace with God.