Only when you drink from the river of
silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top,
then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs,
then shall you truly dance.
– Kahlil Gibran
Last week my family said goodbye to my grandmother, Margaret Helen Parkes. Her body was returned to the Earth, to lie with her husband Arthur and her only son, Brian. In her 97th year, despite facing many adversities in her life, her mind was sharp and able, but her body had let her down. We knew that her time remaining here would be short, but it was still so very difficult to accept that she was leaving us. In her last years, she lost the use of her legs and then hands almost entirely, a loss that would have left many suicidal, but she faced those troubles with her typical dignity, strength and humour.
Gavin joined us in celebrating “Great-Grandma’s” life. He had a hard time understanding why everyone was to be quiet at the funeral. He was troubled by my tears as I listened to the beautiful words that my aunts, cousins, and mother had to say, and gave me tissues and hugs as I cried with my sister. But, like a typical 3-year-old, he became too curious and bored to stay in the chapel, and went away with Daddy to look for cookies.
In these last two years since diagnosis, my grandmother and I have been closer than we ever were before. I never could have foreseen that it would be this that would bring us together. She knew something, and I knew something, that no one else knew. We knew the pain of mothering sons suffering from brain tumours. She knew the horrendous hardship of fighting for her son’s life, and of losing that fight. I have been blessed. Blessed that modern chemo protocols, wizard neurosurgeons and radical stem-cell transplants saved Gavin’s life. My Uncle Brian was not so lucky. In the 60’s, he had to endure the limited therapies developed, and after a long battle, lost his life at the age of 17.
Bean and I have had many conversations in the past week about the passing of Great-Grandma’s spirit. He wants to know where she is now. To paraphrase my Aunt Karen, I too believe that a physical body is just a kind of cocoon, from which our spirit flies free with our death. This is true to me, although I can’t say with any certainty what happens then. There are times that I have longed for the conviction of Christians, so that I could tell my son, absolutely, that when we die, our spirits move on to heaven to be reunited with our loved ones. Despite my religious uncertainty, I know that the benevolent spirits of my family gone before me watch us, protect us and love us. I feel that with total certainty.
These recent events have made the Bean thoughtful. One day he asked me, When am I going to die?
I wanted to say, “Never. Never. You will never die. I will never let you.”
But instead I said, “You will not die for many, many years. You will be an old man, with great-grandchildren of your own.”
And at the cemetery he said, Mummy, when will you die?
I said, “I will not die until I am an old, old lady, like Great-Grandma. I will be an old lady, and you will be an old man.”
I do not know that to be true. But on most days, I feel it.
For Margaret and Arthur. For Karen, Bev, Melanie and Bubby. For Brian.