In the days before my Grandma died, she never wanted to be alone.
She started off the 6 day hospital stay leading up to her death with confidence and peace. But then there was a procedure that failed and an anesthesiologist that failed. Just a simple procedure we were told and told her, but one that she ended up feeling every second of. The pain meds didn't work. She said it felt like she was being kicked in the stomach repeatedly and she was screaming for help, but no words came out. It was like a bad dream.
And so, my sweet Grandmother who loved more than everyone I ever knew, didn't want to be alone.
Sometimes we sat in shifts, one at a time. Other times, there were 10 of us in the room, watching movies, typing on laptops, reading books.
On the morning before she entered the semi-coma that she never woke for long from, my Mom took her turn with her Mom - sitting with her quietly, holding her hand, never leaving. She had the book that I had brought for Grandma to read during her stay-- assuming there was more time--Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne LaMott.
Anne LaMott is my favorite author. I first read Traveling Mercies while sitting next to Ella in our old NICU days. Like Grandma, we took turns sitting by her side, holding her hand, letting her not feel alone. When my Mom and Nick would take their shifts, they read Traveling Mercies too. It was healing for our souls. It made us laugh and let us cry. Grandma wanted to read it after our five-star reviews and so we passed it along. It's been passed to many of my friends and family and is out on loan to Ella's O.T. right now. I was hesitant to let Grandma read it because Anne talks a lot about cancer and dying from cancer. I thought it would make her sad, but instead it made her happy. It discussed raw-ly (is that a word?) what she was going through. There is no sugar coating with Anne LaMott. That's why we love her so.
Anyway, on this particular day, as my Mom was reading the first chapter of Plan B, she started laughing out loud. My Grandma, who had been in and out of sleep, looked at my Mom and said "Well, what is so funny?" She told. "Well, I want to hear it too."
And so with tears and hysterical laughter, my Mom read her Mom a story for the first time in her life. The woman who made her children love books because of the thousands she read to them, was hearing her first born read to her. Laura, my Mom, is not a crier. But, the whole scenario - Anne LaMott, cancer, hospital, reading to her Mom, death - brought her to tears.
Her Mom turned back in to the mom and then started holding her hand and saying "It's OK. Everything will be OK. " A true Mom never takes a break.
And so, on this beautiful May day, as I try to forgive May for overflowing with celebration, I share the last story my Grandma ever heard by my dear friend, Anne LaMott. (If you know her, let her know I want to be her friend, please.) Yes, she gets political. Yes, you may not agree. Just promise you'll read it all the way through.
"Ham of God" by Anne LaMott from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death. These are desert days. Better to go out by our own hands than to endure slow death by scolding at the hands of the Bush administration. However, after a second cup of coffee, I realized that I couldn't kill myself that morning-not because it was my birthday but because I'd promised to get arrested the next day. I had been arrested three weeks earlier with an ecumenical bunch of religious peaceniks, people who still believe in Dr. King and Gandhi. Also, my back was out. I didn't want to die in crone mode. Plus, there was no food in the house. So I took a long, hot shower instead and began another day of being gloated to death.
Everyone I know has been devastated by Bush's presidency and, in particular, our country's heroic military activities overseas. I can usually manage a crabby hope that there is meaning in mess and pain, that more will be revealed, ant that truth and beauty will somehow win out in the end. But I'd been struggling as my birthday approached. So much had been stolen from us by Bush, from the very beginning of his reign, and especially since he went to war in Iraq. I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration. A friend called to wish me Happy Birthday, and I remembered something she'd said many years ago, while reading a Vanity Fair article about Hitler's affair with his niece. "I have had it with Hitler," Peggy said vehemently, throwing the magazine to the floor. And I'd had it with Bush.
Hadn't the men in the White House ever heard of the word karma? They lied their way into taking our country to war, crossing another country's borders with ferocious military might, trying to impose our form of government on a sovereign nation, without any international agreement or legal justification, and set about killing the desperately poor on behalf of the obscenely rich. Then we're instructed, like naughty teenagers, to refrain from saying that it was an immoral war that set a disastrous precedent--because to do so is to offer aid and comfort to the enemy.
While I was thinking about all this, my Jesuit friend Father Tom called. He is one of my closest friends, a few years older that I, a scruffy aging Birkenstock type, like me, who gives lectures and leads retreats on spirituality. Usually he calls to report on the latest rumors of my mental deterioration, drunkenness, or promiscuity, how sick it makes everyone to know that I am showing all of my lady parts to the neighbors. But this time he called to wish me Happy Birthday.
"How are we going to get through this craziness?" I asked. There was silence for a moment.
"Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe," he said.
Father Tom loves the desert. A number of my friends do. They love the skies that pull you into infinity, like the ocean. They love the silence, and how, if you listen long enough, the pulse of the desert begins to sound like the noise your finger makes when you run it around the rim of a crystal glass. They love the scary beauty-snakes, lizards, scorpions, the kestrels and hawks. They love the mosaics of water-washed pebbles on the desert floor, small rocks that cast huge shadows, a shoot of vegetation here, a wildflower there.
I like the desert for short periods of time, from inside a car, with the windows rolled up and the doors locked. I prefer beach resorts with room service. But liberals have been in the desert for several years now, and I'm worn out. Some days I hardly know what to pray for. Peace? Well, whatever.
So the morning of my birthday, because I couldn't pray, I did what Matisse once said to do: "I don't know if I believe in God or not...But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer." I closed my eyes, and got quiet. I tried to look like Mother Mary, with dreadlocks and a bad back.
But within seconds, I was frantic to turn on the T.V. I was in withdrawal-I needed more scolding from Donald Rumsfeld, and more malignant celebration of what everyone agrees, in April 2003, was a great victory for George W. Bush. So we couldn't find those stupid weapons of mass destruction--pick, pick,pick. I didn't turn on the T.V. I kept my eyes closed, and breathed. I started to feel crazy, and knew that all I needed was five minutes of CNN. I listened to the birds sing outside, and it was like Chinese water torture, which I am sure we don't say anymore.
Then I remembered the weekend when 11 million people win the world marched for peace, how joyful it was to be part of the stirrings of a great movement. My pastor, Veronica, says that peace is joy at rest, and joy is peace on its feet, I felt both that weekend.
I lay on the floor with my eyes closed for so long that my dog, Lily, came over and worriedly licked me back to life. That cheered me up. "What did you get me for my birthday?" I asked. She started to chew on my head. That helped.
Maybe the old left is dead, but after we've rested awhile we can prepare for something new. I don't know who on the left can lead us away from the craziness and barbarity: I'm very confused now. But I know that in the desert, you stay out of the blistering sun. You go out during the early morning, and in the cool evening. You seek oasis, shade, safety, refreshment. There's every hue of green, and of gold. But, I'm only pretending to think it's beautiful; I find it terribly scary. I walk on eggshells, and hold my breath.
I called Tom back.
He listened quietly. I asked him for some good news.
"Well," he said finally. "My cactuses are blooming. Last week they were ugly and reptilian, and now they are busting with red and pink blossoms. They don't bloom every year, so you have to love them while they're here."
"I hate cactuses," I said. "I want to know what to do. Where we even start."
"We start by being kind to ourselves. We breathe, we eat. We remember that God is present wherever people suffer. God's here with us when we're miserable, and God is there in Iraq. The suffering of innocent people draws God close to them. Kids hit by U.S. bombs are not abandoned by God."
"Well, it sure looks like they were," I said. "It sure looks that way to their parents."
"It also looked like Christ had been abandoned on the cross. It looked like a win for the Romans."
"How do we help? How do we not lose our minds?"
"You take care of the suffering."
"I can't get to Iraq."
"There are folks who are miserable here."
After we got off the phone, I ate a few birthday chocolates. Then I asked God to help me be helpful. It as the first time that day that I felt my prayers were sent, and then received- like e-mail. I tried to cooperate with grace, which is to say, I did not turn on the TV. I asked God to help me again. The problem with God- or at any rate, one of the top five most annoying things about God- is that He or She rarely answers right away. It can take days, weeks. Some people understand this-that life and change take time. Chou En-lai, when asked, "What do you think of the French Revolution?" paused for a minute-smoked incessantly-then replied, "Too soon to tell." I, on the other hand, am an instant-message type. It took decades for Bust to destroy the Iraqi army in three weeks.
But I prayed: Help me. And then I drove to the market in silence, to buy my birthday dinner.
I flirted with everyone in the store, especially the old people, and I lightened up. When the checker finished ringing up my items, she looked at my receipt and cried, "Hey! You've won a ham!"
I felt blindsided by the news. I had asked for help, not a ham. This was very disturbing. What on earth was I going to do with ten pounds of salty pink eraser? I rarely eat it. It makes you bloat.
"Wow," I said. The checker was so excited about giving it to me that I pretended I was, too.
A bagger was dispatched to the back of the store to fetch my ham. I stood waiting anxiously. I wanted to go home, so I could start caring for suffering people, or turn on CNN. I almost suggested that the checker award the ham to the next family who paid with food stamps. But for some reason, I waited. If God was going to give me a ham, I'd be crazy not to receive it. Maybe it was the ham of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
I waited ten minutes for what I began to think of as "that fucking ham." Finally the bag boy handed me a parcel the size of a cat. I put it in with feigned cheer into my grocery cart, and walked to the car, trying to figure out who might need it. I thought about chucking the parcel out the window near a field. I was so distracted that I crashed my cart smack into a slow-moving car in the parking lot.
I started to apologize, when I noticed that the car was a rusty wreck, and that an old friend was at the wheel. We got sober together a long time ago, and each of us had a son at the same time. She has dark black skin and processed hair the color of cooled tar.
She opened her window. "Hey," I said. "How are you--it's my birthday!"
"Happy Birthday," she said, and started crying. She looked drained and pinched, and after a moment, she pointed to her gas gauge. "I don't have money for gas, or food. I've never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I'm asking you to help me."
"I've got money," I said.
"No, no, I just need gas," she said. "I've never asked someone for a handout."
"It's not a handout," I told her. "It's my birthday present." I thrust a bunch of money into her hand, everything I had. Then I reached into my shopping cart and held out the ham to her like a clown offering flowers. "Hey!" I said. "Do you and your kids like ham?"
"We love it," she said. "We love it for every meal."
She put it in the seat beside her, firmly, lovingly, as if she were about to strap it in. And she cried some more.
Later, thinking about her, I remembered the seasonal showers in the desert, how potholes in the rocks fill up with rain. When you look later, there are already frogs in the water, and brine and shrimp reproducing, like commas doing the macarena; and it seems, but only seems, that you went from parched to overflow in the blink of an eye.