“Above the mountains
The geese turn into
has to be
So you can find
the one line
—David Whyte, The Journey
Her diagnosis came in November, and she was gone by January. My mom and her seven siblings met with doctors, found hospice care, sorted out schedules and medications. The days bled together as her children stitched the final pieces of their mother’s life together.
Naomi lived her final weeks on this earth with a heightened awareness that death was near. The space in between was filled with acceptance and love.
In 2018, Hawaiians received alerts on their phone that a ballistic missile was en route to the island. Mike McFarland huddled in a bathtub, covering himself and his cat with a blanket, awaiting destruction.
“My life just sort of came rushing in front of my eyes,” He told Ira Glass during an episode of This American Life, “What am I proud of? What am I sorry about? And I thought about Lynn.”
In what he believed would be the final moments of his life, Mike pulled out his phone and texted the woman he had broken up with six months prior.
“Lynn,” the text began, “I just got word that a nuclear missile [is] on its way to Honolulu. I’m not sure where you are or if you’ll even read this, but I thought of you. I wanted to let you know that looking back, you were the love of my life. If it is, in fact, over in a few minutes, thank you for the time we spent together.”
38 minutes after the alert, it becomes evident that there was never a missile inbound. Lynn and Mike gave their relationship another shot.
Keeping the body in the house for the viewing is an old-order Amish tradition. We gathered around the pine box casket where her bed used to be. She was dressed in the same blue dress she wore to my parents’ wedding. The family sang hymns over her body. The house swelled with gratitude for the legacy she left even in her death.
After they lowered my grandmother’s casket into the ground, my grandfather said, “Grief and alcohol,” he paused, “the two things that make a man honest.”
In the Amish church, you do not leave a building or put distance between yourself and a former group of friends. You are excommunicated from the places you previously called home. You are cut off from your family, removed from the good graces of those who worked alongside you each day, who watched your children grow, who attended weddings and church together. From the ones who conceived you, who carried you in their womb, who pushed you from their body and into your life. At meals, tables are separated by mere inches, indicating your separation from your former life.
My ancestors are one of the greatest paradoxes I’ve known. The Amish are a group that shuns their own and, in the same breath, show immense grace and forgiveness towards those who have caused the ultimate forms of human harm to their community.
My ancestors are one of the greatest paradoxes I’ve known.
Six years after a gunman shot ten Amish girls in their one-room schoolhouse, Toni Morrison gave an address at Harvard Divinity School. She said, “The Amish community forgave the killer, refused to seek justice, demand vengeance, or even to judge him. They visited and comforted the killer’s widow, the killer’s children, who were not Amish, just as they embraced the relatives of the slain.”
I am the granddaughter of Naomi and Isaac, of Mayme and Mervin. I am the granddaughter of people who left the community on which their identity and belonging hinged.
In 1948, three years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, C.S. Lewis published an essay titled Living in the Atomic Age.
“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together,” Lewis writes. “If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting with our friends over a pint and a game of darks—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”
To be gutted by this life and to still hold the paradox of beauty and grief, to cleanse our suffering with genuine connection to one another.
These words renew themselves when we must stare right into the eyes of our mortality. When businesses closed their doors and hospitals expanded their capacity, when the Doomsday Clock ticks down and causes us to consider how our earth is changing, when a tech revolution is on the verge of shifting everything we’ve known about the mechanics of our world, when our friends sit across the table from us and share their heartbreak, when we grieve all that is lost.
Great spiritual teachers tell us that the way to a fulfilling and purposeful life is to die before death becomes physical, to detach from ego, and to make peace with our pain. To be gutted by this life and to still hold the paradox of beauty and grief, to cleanse our suffering with genuine connection to one another.
In 2011, poet Sarah Kay took the TED stage to present her poem, “Hiroshima.” She recounts the bombs that fell, how a mini-supernova turned an entire city to ash, and how “some people were wiped clean away, leaving only a wristwatch or a diary page.”
“[What is] impossible is trying to connect in this world, trying to hold onto others while things are blowing up around you, knowing that while you’re speaking, they aren’t just waiting their turn to talk—they hear you.”
As they are soaring toward heaven, geese fly in formation. Their wings flap in tandem, carving the letter V into each evening sky. Even with so much space to soar, they stay aligned until they find their way home.
Since her passing, I wonder what sadness and grief she breathed out in her final breath, surrounded by her children. I have wondered what was hidden beneath my grandmother’s generous spirit and her ability to nurture the people placed in her care.
Her legacy is my guide. She is made of earth and sky. Her soft body glides in the wind. Life rolls off her back. She is light and air. She is a part of all things.