Monday, December 20, 2010

Castles in the Air

I was just on my way to bed after doing a little freelance editing work for one of my Toastmasters friends, but try as I might, my heart is too heavy to sleep without writing. In the midst of this season of Light, there comes stealing in at the corners an approaching darkness.

We learned today that my Grandpa Yoder is in the end stage of heart failure.

My mom and I learned it in a car full of groceries and anticipation for our Christmas dinner, a car filled with the sounds of Katie and Eric, a car dripping with rain, our hair wet, our minds elsewhere. I forgot to get the apples, of all things. We hugged and cried. There will be more tears.

And in this moment we are waiting. Waiting for the hollow in the stomach that comes with death, waiting for the thickness of throat. Waiting for the things that have never been said to perhaps be said, and yet fearing they will never be. Waiting to know: will we share one last Christmas Eve, or will we be grieving? Waiting for the unbearable glances across all the years. Waiting for the memories to fall down, and to be resurrected.

We wait, and in that waiting we wonder, I wonder: if I loved him imperfectly, and he loved me imperfectly, where is the redemption? Can one human being ever love another perfectly? I think we are all far too flawed.

I did not know him very well until just a few years ago, shortly after Katie was born. What I had yearned for all of my life, I finally had: moments to be with him that weren't for a special occasion or holiday, moments that wore jeans, moments watching my mom cut his hair on the back patio, moments of Oreo cookie crumbs on the floor, moments of Katie sitting on his bed in the family room and knowing nothing else except that she could be her glorious carefree self. The loud and lovely sounds of children playing: Katie and Violet, and just recently, Eric and Oliver. He has never been a man of many words---I shared many more with my other two grandfathers, both gone---but in recent years we had some conversations: he listened and remembered, remembered about me and what I thought.

No, all human love is imperfect, one to another. We get too caught up in the things that don't matter. But I know, too, that even in an imperfect whole, there are moments of perfection. Those are the moments and memories we carry with us. And so I set to the task of remembering: the days when my own dad, young and strong, built my playhouse in Yorba Linda---and what a playhouse!---with my Grandpa Yoder. I remember watching them carry the lumber and measure and cut it. I remember once when Grandpa Yoder sat at my little tea table and chairs and pretended to be my student. I was only six years old, but I showed him every one of my little reading books from Kindergarten, and I had him practice his reading.

It is tempting to make wishes, about the time we had or wish we could have had...

Thoreau wrote in his conclusion to Walden: "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

We can trust our perfect moments of love, even when our relationships are imperfect. A person can be the ideal we imagine, if we are willing to concede that the ideal shines through only in moments. It is our job to put the foundations beneath them, that is, to look for the good, to look for the best of the time we have shared. And to believe in those best moments, as if there had never been anything else.

When my Grandpa Mitchell died, I was in my most self-absorbed time, just starting college, not aware of how sick he really was despite signs I should have seen. In my world at the time, Death was not much of a character---just a lurker at the sidelines. When he died, I was in disbelief. To this day, I wish that I had hugged him even one second longer on that day I came to say goodbye to my grandparents before leaving for school. But I said goodbye just as I always did, with a hug that meant "I love you and I will see you again," and I remember heading out the door and thinking of almost nothing else but that I would get to see my then-boyfriend for a date that night. Silly girl, not to have known and caught up in herself and her plans. When people ask about regrets, I don't buy the line that we ought never to have any...

With Grandpa Don, I took more care and I knew I was seeing him for the last time. It was the best last time possible, a day of laughter and stories, of little Baby Kate playing with him and holding his hand. When we left, I got to say everything I wanted...there was nothing undone between us. We had spent years knowing each other, building the legacy of memory. I gave him our secret sign of love before I left---a squeeze of his foot beneath the blanket---and he winked at me. It was a moment of beauty in its own heartbreaking way. Yet when I broke down in the elevator, I was still young and naive enough, and willing enough, to believe the kind fib of my parents: we will go to see him next Tuesday, he will be all right a little while longer. The miracle of parents is that they so often know what a child needs to hear. Part of me knew my parents were just giving me hope...but that's what we do as parents. When Katie asks me if I am ever going to die and leave her, my answer is "no." Sometimes a child needs absolute comfort, more than she needs absolute knowledge.

But you can't kid a kidder this time. I know the way this plays out and the sadness to follow. There has got to be more to hope for than a hope for more time. Time takes us all; but what Time can never diminish is our hope for a Goodness that lasts, and a love that covers over all our imperfections. Build your castles in the air; trust in the perfection that has gleamed like the sun through the cracks in our hourglasses.

Gather your joy while you can.