When I was about six years old, my maternal grandmother died.
I remember the ride from Valdosta, Georgia to Dixie, Georgia for the funeral, with my mother crying and my father quiet and serious. I remember that we passed a cemetery as we were leaving town, and I realized that the two things were connected, though I wasn’t sure just how.
I’m pretty sure my parents explained to me that Ma-mama had died, though how they explained that I don’t remember. She was not very old, in her early 60’s I think, she was not sick, and her death was unexpected. She went out to get a bucket of coal for the coal grate one night and never came back into the house.
She was very dear to me, a kind, sweet woman with long silver braids that she usually wore coiled on her head. I only remember seeing her with her hair down once, standing in front of her mirror brushing it out before bed. I think I remember it so clearly because she turned and looked at me, smiling as I watched her brush her hair, a smile full of the warmth and love that defines her in my mind.
I don’t remember what she said to me, but I remember well the soft voice speaking my name, ‘Johnny!’
I also remember very clearly Ma-mama in her casket. It is one of the transcendent experiences of my life, perhaps a seminal experience in my emotional development.
In the way of things in those saner times, Ma-mama lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse where she had lived most of her life, the house my mother and all her five siblings were born in, and all her family and friends were there together. When we arrived, my parents I suppose were swept into the crowd there, leaving me standing there alone looking up at the casket. The casket was surrounded by a brilliant white light from the white-curtained windows behind it, a light that in my young mind was the light of very God himself shining down on my grandmother.
I had always, as a child, thought that the striated rays of sunlight shining through broken clouds – the phenomena many of the old folks called Jacob’s Ladder – was God. I’m not sure what parts of my religious experience in the Sunday Schools of the Southern Baptist Church had created that notion in my young mind, nor am I sure when it was dispelled, but it was an a priori belief for me.
So clearly, the light around my grandmother was God. That seemed quite natural and proper to me, as she was probably the most Godly, saintly, Christian – in all the truest senses of those terms – that I knew. And somehow, because of that light I was able to accept my grandmother’s death, despite being surrounded by the sadness and sense of tragic loss that filled the room.
Though the memory is not so clear, I know that my parents lifted me up and let me gaze into the casket, into the gray and lifeless face that even in death was as sweet as any I’ve seen, and that also helped me understand what was going on there. Helped me understand that, as my young son said when his great-grandmother died, “She can’t talk anymore.”
I have just today finished reading a powerful and life-changing book, Die Wise by Steven Jenkinson, and all through the reading I have had this growing sense that somehow, my upbringing, my experiences, had given me a wider perspective on death than seems to be common, at least based on his characterizations of how our culture views death.
As I’ve mulled over that, the clear sweet memories of my grandmother and her dying came to me, and I realized that from that early age, I was allowed to be in the presence of death, allowed to look at it straight on, rather than shielded from it and protected from the knowledge of its universality. Though my parents surely ascribed to the “better place” mythology their religion taught them, they never let that become denial of the reality that the person who dies is gone, never resorted to the total euphemisms that seem to be prevalent in our society.
When someone died, they said so, and I understood what that meant from earliest consciousness. I think that has stood me in good stead through the many deaths that I have seen in my life, and I hope that it will continue to help me walk into the ever closer deaths that advancing age brings my way.
I hope that it helps me learn to live, for the remainder of my years, in a way that will allow me to die wise.