Friday, January 1, 2010

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

The fear of death has gripped me lately;  my death or maybe the death of one of my children. Perhaps it is part of the grieving process to think about your own mortality or those of your loved ones, but occasionally I find myself actually paralyzed with fear over the thought of it. My heart pounds, my pulse races, my thoughts are jumbled -- much what I imagine a  panic attack would be like. It does not stem from my unsurety of where I will go after I die. The Bible tells me that after I die I will leave my earthly body and be joined with Christ in heaven, receiving a new body. My eternity with Him will outshine the greatest days here on earth. Death itself does not create a fear in me. It is for the people I leave behind. The thought of my precious children living life without me, especially in these early formative years, makes me incredibly uneasy.  I think about the experiences I want to share with them and how much my children would hurt if I were not there for them. Yes, fear runs deep in my heart at the thought of what death would do to their world.

The loss I have experienced is limited to grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my pets from my child- and adult-hood, and my mom. Occasionally I experienced the pain of a young person dying but I have been truly protected in my experiences. Until my mom, I am not sure I had ever experienced the heart wrenching grief that comes with losing a loved one. Death was an abstract concept for me until 2 years ago.

My mom and I talked -- a lot.  She and I were friends my entire life. I think it takes a great parent who can be the role-model disciplinarian and yet a great friend, too. Not every parent can achieve this, but my mom did it with excellence. We had the type of relationship that was effortless and we openly and freely discussed every topic you can imagine.  Death was no exception. As we knew her time was coming short, we talked about heaven and who she wanted to see.  I mentioned the two babies they had lost to miscarriage and how awesome it would be for her to meet them. And to see her mom and grandma. Quickly my mom stopped me and said that yes, she would want to see her grandma, Anna.  She died in 1962 at a young age of 61, far sooner than my mom was ready to say goodbye. Her death was described  to me as the most difficult loss she had ever experienced.  My mom expressed frustrated that her grandma not live to see the birth of her great grandchildren and that she was cheated out of the golden years of her life. Yes, seeing my great grandma would be at the top of her list.

Death used to grip my mom in fear as well. As you can imagine by her history she had experienced her share of death and in more ways than most people can fathom. Her earliest memory of death was at age 4 or 5 while still living in Yugoslavia before the Russians invaded. She recalled going to a cemetery with her mom. They would walk there from their home, with some degree of frequency, picking wild flowers along the way. Her mom would tend to a grave of a young girl whose lie was cut short. It was a homemade marker that either only gave the birth and death dates or perhaps only her name. Her mom would take the time to clear away dirt and debris and say a prayer for the little girl. Grandma demanded reverence at the grave site, sad that no one visited the grave based on the condition they would find it. A forgotten little girl with a story but no one to share it. It was obvious that no one visited this little girl and my grandma thought that someone should care for her. Even in death, no one deserved to be alone.

With my grandma's death in 1999, we had found little reason to travel back to Chicago where my grandparents are buried. However, in 2008 we were there for a family reunion and decided to go to my grandma's grave. By God's grace, or by a stroke of luck, or maybe a combination of the two, I found myself back at my grandma's grave for the first time since her burial. It was an emotional realization that she was all but forgotten in this world and I had no reason to believe anyone had visited her in nearly 10 years. She had no living relatives in the area and no friends to mourn her death. She had lived the latter part of her life in isolation, not wanting to trust those who tried to help her. She was alone in her life and in her death.  Tony carefully rid the headstone and vase holder of the weeds and cobwebs that had grown from years of neglect. Tearfully, I stood by as I remembered the story my mom had told me years before and I found the ironic parallel: How life had come full circle and under the saddest of circumstances.

In the camps, death was an unavoidable part of the experience. While my mom was fortunate not to have lost any of her close relatives due to neglect, abuse or starvation, she witnesses many deaths over the three years. Because the Red Amy required the able-bodied people to work, it was only the youngest of victims like my mom or the oldest, most feeble of the Yugoslav's, who made up the imprisoned.  The oldest cared for the youngest so it was usually the older folks who would die. Sacrificing their own health for the care of the defenseless young children who were too young to be workers, but often old enough to realize the conditions under which they were forced to live.  The old protecting the young.

Deaths may have been common place but no matter how often, the adults had a small funeral in the intimate setting. They wanted to honor their lives and give their death honor.  Perhaps in the wake of seeing death so often, there is a complacency that could have taken place in the heart and mind of my mom. Putting myself in her place, I cannot imagine being 6, 7, 8 or 9 years old and watching people die horrible and painful deaths.

I recall my paternal grandma staying with us following her knee replacement surgery just a few years before her death. During a conversation with my grandma who was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer's, my mom visibly shuddered and chastised her for saying "I'm sure she's rolling over in her grave". Her reaction was a strong one and I knew there had to be a story. There was. A woman's husband had died and the elders of the group walked out to the local town cemetery with the husband sewn up in a potato or gunny sack that would serve as his coffin. As they laid him down in a make-shift grave and began to cover him with the loose dirt around him, he moved and then sat up. Quickly someone slit a mouth hole for him to breathe. He had nearly been buried alive. Because of witnessing that frightening image, she had recurring nightmares of the man chasing her, long after her days of freedom. That experience placed such a fear of death in her heart that when her own mom asked her to place a mirror in front of her nose and mouth in the wake of her death  to be assured she was truly gone before a coroner was called, my mom was quick to oblige. She understood.

It was not until her own grandmother's death in 1962, a full 15 years into her freedom and new life, that my mom was physically or emotionally able to attend a funeral. My dad recalls having to physically hold my mom through the wake and funeral. Those fears ran deep and took years to overcome. The one person she loved most in this world was her grandma who had saved her life while in the camps. Devotion came easy but saying goodbye had never been harder--and for more reason than we can truly understand in our white washed protected world in which we live. The love she had for her grandma is the same kind of love I have for my mom.. Her grandma was her hero....and my mom was mine. I'm glad she knew it while we were both on this earth together.


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