I barely knew her. A mother, daughter, sister, teacher, and beloved friend to many, Janis Key passed away in December 2014 at the age of 64 due to complications from her long fight against rheumatoid arthritis. I met her just once, a couple of years ago, but she had a certain presence: strength and gentleness in equal parts. I remember her sitting straight-postured in a wheelchair, quietly attentive, intelligent, and kind. I never saw her after that.
But then, just a few days ago, someone showed me these beautiful words that she had written, a testimonial to grace and equanimity in the face of death, and they touched my heart, and I knew they belonged here in this place where stories and life lessons are gathered and shared:
First she gathered the grandmothers: the one with the embracing arms, the one she never met and the step-grandmother who taught her to read. Then the huge, quiet grandfather but not the other one who left so few traces, although he seemed ever-present in her childhood. Of course the solid father and the fragile mother. An older brother and baby sister. She was going home.
She’s gathering the external. Fading photographs and brittle letters. She’ll transfer them to the internal. Memories and feelings. Accuracy is not the goal. She’s trying to make sense of what arises as she squints back. She is trying to get home before it is too late. It is already late.
Maybe it’s dusk. Age is measured in so many ways. Years and months are counted. That’s one way. By that measure I’m 60, hardly old they tell me. My body, however, must be 90 or thereabouts. Older probably. My body is my responsibility, but it is not me. I refuse to claim ownership of it or dominion. I lug its ubiquitous bulk but possess neither love, nor hatred for it. Not even pity. It is my duty, that is all. I calculate my age by the rich furnishings of the home I’m reconstructing. I consider the love, for instance. How many years is that worth? How old is someone who has collected this much? This much wonder and awe? This much agony? These people? This much ecstasy and this much pain? It must be dusk. I must be nearly 100. I’ve nearly lived too long.
She places the photo of the grandmother who died so young, leaving four children, close to the photo of the sad little girl who grew up and became a mother of her own. She slides the photo of herself aged three next to them. And the loving grandmother as a young telephone operator. A wedding photo of her sister. Only women on the dresser top. That is plenty. Don’t rush they tell her. There is plenty of time. She knows there is not plenty of time.
I’ve been growing older since I was born. I’ve been growing old. I’ve never slowed nor wavered. Steadily traveling. Really, we’re all only waiting. Really, we’re all only going in one direction, heading in the same direction, toward our ends. I’m trying to time it right. I’m trying to last until I get home.
Here is the grandfather whose large body takes up the entire photograph. His heart was that big too. His quiet wisdom, although he only managed to get through sixth grade, steadied her when she shook with doubt. Here he is on the book shelf next to the dresser. She places her father, not as large, but as kind and wiser perhaps, beside his father, her grandfather. Word for word, she remembers his guidance. Don’t judge a man by his successes but by how he handles his failures. Don’t judge a man until you understand the burden he carries. And most importantly, Love everyone, even fatheads. The book case stood in his law office for years. His office was home too. The men.
I’m trying to get it right. And I’m trying to explain or justify something but I’m not sure yet what that is. Or why. Why can’t I just slip out? What exactly must I explain?
There’s nothing wrong about being alone, nothing sad. Maybe because for me it’s solitude, not loneliness. Maybe because I’ve had so much practice. Maybe because I’ve developed so much patience.
Two she never met. The tiny baby girl whose ummbilical cord strangled her on her way. An accident. A tragedy. The grandmother whose brain hemorrhaged and was carried to the hospital never to return to her tea cooling on the kitchen table. An accident. A tragedy. The two she never met. The baby, a six pound swaddled angel. The fine long finger nails, the thick black hair. The grandmother’s loving letters about her four darling children. The purple ink. The artistic penmanship. Those who remained called her an angel. Two angels she never met. Two tragedies. She has carried them and kept them close all of these years. She has moved them into her new home.
Shasta daisies bloomed along the back fence. The swing set was in the corner by the alley. I spent hours on the cool grass, in the middle of the back yard, staring at the stars. Still and dark Colorado nights. The place to contemplate. Sometimes I could hear Mr. Niederhut whistle for his boys to get home on the double. Or I could hear the Crane’s dog bark down the street. On some nights I could hear my mother finishing up the dishes, the kitchen light casting a faint glow across the yard. And on my back I identified planets and watched for shooting stars.
I’ve died before. Grief smothered me.
She asked for a hummingbird feeder outside her bedroom window. Her son-in-law surprised her with one on a Saturday morning. Now she can rest in bed to support her neck and watch the hummingbirds gorge and fight for territory, A tulip tree the next block over is green all year round. She contemplates her old life as a hummingbird: flitting to the classroom, then to meetings, then to pick up her daughter then home to fix a meal, then to drop her daughter at dance lessons, then to the grocery store, then to pick her daughter up, then home to grade essays, then to her daughter’s side to help her with homework, then. . .a few years ago she ceased being a hummingbird. Soon she will cease being.
A new friend recently insisted, tell me your life.
I looked around the tidy, new home. The photo of a man in a WWI uniform. A blue plate, purchased in Boston to honor a tiny new angel. A pencil drawing of a chaotic corner of another home in Boulder a thousand miles and forty years away. A color-tipped photo of a rosy-cheeked young girl, eyes downcast, lost. A black and white snapshot of me, blushing and holding a ribbon after my first 10K, first in my category, the sole entrant. My red weaving. The red and green quillt given to me and my then-husband for our first Christmas, pieced by his great grandmother. Floor to ceiling bookshelf filled with literature I still think about. A graceful young woman en pointe, my daughter.
Which one, I asked?
She slides several packets of letters onto a shelf in the closet. One day she will read them. They have been bundled in ribbon for more than thirty years, since they were packed in the car and moved from one coast to another.
Thirty one years ago on this day in October I had to find a safe place for my daughter who could not stay, and so I invented heaven. Or accepted its ready-made version, because I was rushed. My baby had to be comforted and swaddled. My mother and my three grandmothers could sing lullabies and rock her, and feed her and hold her and hold her and hold her. The idea of heaven was so perposterous to me until I was desperate for it. Hell, a crazier idea, one I’ll never have need of.
She has placed them beside each other, her mother’s Bible and her own, on one bookshelf. Her Bible was an award for perfect attendance at Sunday school. She loved Sunday school and church. She learned to genuflect properly and cross herself carefully. She felt God’s presence nearly as mysteriously as she felt the presence of the holy ghost. She read the King James version and her Bible now looks worn, read, handled. But she has no memory of reading it. She can’t cite a single verse. She thinks Genesis a ridiculous story. She’ll tell you to be resposible for your own sins and not hand them over to Jesus. Yet she loves him, and because she loves him would never ask him to burden himself with her sins. Her sins are hers to keep. She has the two Bibles. And she has her mother’s Shakespeare and her own. Hers well worn. And she can quote to you from it.
I have been saved so many times and by so many people.
Stories have a way of getting told again and again until they become the truth. Again and again I was told the terribly sad story of my mother returning me, six weeks old, to the hospital. I had cried all night long, refused a bottle, and had a dangerously high fever. My grandmother swaddled me tightly and placed me in a basket. Take her now, she insisted to my mother, and I’ll stay here with Greg. My mother returned, hours later with an empty basket. Everyone cried. My grandmother, my grandfather, my brother and my mother whose husband was fighting in Korea and probably didn’t even know he had a baby girl. A letter took so long to arrive behind the lines. I have the letter now, 60 years later. Written by my aunt. Dear Earl, You are the father of a beautiful baby girl. She is small. Six pounds. Jeannie is doing well. Greg is lively. Love, Carol. The empty basket story. This story probably was true. Certainly, someone cried every time it was told.
I am not puzzled by death. I am not afraid to cease being. In this form, I did not exist before I was born. I don’t mind returning to that state, non-existence. Death does not puzzle me. Life does. Existence does. Consciousness of existence does. And that is why at the age of 60 I must peer back, sift through what is left or what is remembered and try to make some sense of it. Try to draw my life, try to decide who I’ve been.
They ask me, but isn’t it unsettling, the thought of what you’ll miss? No. I wonder, every so often, how my great grandchildren, should I have any, will live. Who will they become? But I have left the party early many times and never regretted it. I’m content with what I have; I’m not greedy for more and more experiences.
In junior high school she was taught how to draw perspective. Draw the horizon. Place the vanishing point on the horizon. Draw the scene to the vanishing point. And she drew western ghost towns and modern cities and her neighborhood and orchards of fruit trees from the viewer’s point of view back to the vanishing point. She entered her drawings knowing she could travel toward the vanishing point but never reach it. The vanishing point was imaginary; it had no width. She could travel forever into the drawing. But now she sees something, an object perhaps, at the vanishing point. It no longer forever recedes in the distance.