NDJ:8 Andrea Northwood

Between Both Sides of Forever

I found grace in the most unlikely of places. Not in the wilds I scoured with hiking boots and kayaks. Not in the ancient ruins of Turkey and Crete I walked. Not in the sweat lodge or on the couch. No. It was on the dimly lit bottom floor of a country nursing home decorated with faded paper cut-outs and specializing in lime Jello. It occurred as elderly residents watched golf on TV while everything in their small Iowa town lay dying around them. Everything, including my grandmother.

I was thirty-eight, and I had never sat with a dying person before. I was frightened but determined. Driving down from Minnesota, I vowed to be open to whatever I found. What I found shook me to my core and, simultaneously, softened me as if I had been holding a newborn. Whom I found was no one I had known.

My grandmother was not what Minnesotans would call a “nice” person. In keeping with her Midwestern culture she tried to be polite, but a stern judge usually held forth rather unapologetically. She would tell me, for example, that she didn’t see how I could ever write anything well with my left hand (I am left-handed). She once said this as I showed her my handwritten valedictorian speech at my high school graduation. Nothing was good enough or done quite right, it seemed, but I could shrug her off as a weird old lady with misguided beliefs that came from limited exposure to the outside world. She wasn’t my mother, after all; I rarely saw her.

As I got older, my father began to share a more harrowing picture. He couldn’t tell a complete story, but he dropped sentences here and there. His alcoholic father. His mother who beat up his dad when he came home drunk, telling him he was no good and could have “been somebody,” could have been a doctor or lawyer instead of a grocer. My dad cried himself to sleep listening to berating shouts and sickening thuds downstairs. Of course it came his way too. Later, a nonalcoholic brand of this parenting was given to me.

Still later, I learned from my grandmother’s sister that Grandma probably would have become a professional musician if not for the Great Depression. She played the viola in the National High School Orchestra in 1929. She had professional gigs, among them an acclaimed quartet, and then dropped it all to marry and have three children. Fury and grief over this unlived self, the “somebody” she could have been, no doubt found its way to the surface when she was beating my grandfather silly.

In front of me on the bed lay my 94-year-old grandmother, jaw too far open, bare feet splayed. Unconscious for the past four days, she was breathing a death rattle in an oddly peaceful way. No longer eating, drinking, speaking, looking. Stripped bare of all traces of ego. All regrets and rages long gone. Long gone. all the peripheral debris. Long gone, a spirit shone forth, laid clean. I sat down at her side, caressed her hand, and stepped into a disorienting abyss of love. It was so plain, so undeniable. It filled the room, filled me for the next two days until I burst through to some other place, I couldn’t tell you where or how, but I got it, that we are really spirits with a brief human experience, not the other way around. Not the other way around, though this fools us every day. And in that place I understood that I am my grandmother. I am she. I can be judgmental, harsh, rigid, stubborn, cold. I can be the opposites (as could she) and everything in between. It doesn’t matter. All that matters in the end is love, and it comes unbidden, unearned. It is Grace. The hardest part is coming back from this pure place – leaving it, as one must, to live between both sides of forever.

I was there when my grandmother drew her last breath, and I felt her spirit leave the room. She was surrounded by a circle of women – her two daughters, my mother, and her youngest and oldest granddaughters. When we were getting close to the end, we recited the 23rd Psalm. She took her last breath on the last words: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Now she dwells in love. As for me, I am still working on it. But I have a teacher.