During Mildred’s last days (see “Cherishing stories from a dying woman” and “The return of the prodigal dog”), my grandmother, mother, and I all helped take care of her. We resemble each other so strongly it seems God made the same woman in three different generations with a special purpose for each. We have the same brown hair, brown eyes, short, strong stature, external mode of process, passionate verbal expression, and zest for life. More than anything, though, we are all neighbor-people who like full houses.
When it came to caring for Mildred, my grandmother and mother had stomachs of steel, locomotive energy, and experience on their side. They knew what to do and did it. I, on the other hand, was taking this ride for the first time.
My greenness showed when my mother came into my room Saturday night to tell me of Mildred’s death.
“Mildred went to heaven,” my mother whispered over my bed.
“OK,” I said. Which it wasn’t. “What time is it?”
“Two o’clock in the morning.”
I lay in bed the next hour, sick to my stomach. I sorted through the sickness in my gut: I didn’t know that death would be so intestinal, or that only two thin doors would separate me from it.
Just the day before, I had unveiled the jewelry that Mildred left to me. I felt like a costumed princess, thrice endowed with clip-ons, strings of beads, and Avon lady deliveries in every conceivable shade. But the celebration of inheritance always comes with a death-price.
At 2:28 I heard feet shuffle on the porch outside my bedroom window. Mildred’s family.
At 3:30 a man wheeled the gurney over the porch boards. As I had no glasses on and peered through the blind slats, I could only see that he wore white. Later he exited, his burden clattering over the stones. Mildred’s son followed.
That poet John Donne said what I felt in those moments:
“No man is an island, / Entire of itself, / Every man is a piece of the continent, / A part of the main. … / … Any man’s death diminishes me, / Because I am involved in mankind, / And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; / It tolls for thee.”
So it meant this to involve yourself in mankind? Feeling sick in bed, knowing that the seed of death existed not only in old women, but also in you?
My grandmother, mother, and I can talk interchangeably on the phone for hours. We tell everyday stories from our people-filled lives: missionaries who’ve gone out, barns that have burned, rabbits that excelled in the county fair, stitches gotten, babies born, quilts quilted, coffins purchased, flowers planted, congregations split, churches started, ad infinitum. We are never boring, ever—at least to ourselves.
And though similar, we each have our own people-niche. My grandmother, a nurse, knew exactly how to transport Mildred from room to room and administer medicine. My mother, a business major, knew how to take care of Mildred’s finances and arrange her appointments. I knew how to watch, write it all down, and sit by the bed and sing. I hope to learn the rest.