On cards and other gestures

For more than 25 years, H. and I have been observing an almost daily ritual. We get up at six and drink maté, a Paraguayan tea.* During the half hour we’re imbibing our caffeine, I wake up (as a morning person, H. is already wide awake), we usually read Rejoice!and we cross-check our schedules for the day. Then we get on with it.

Weekends, it may all take a little longer, and may include reading the paper and listening to music.

The past weeks we’ve added something else to our maté routine. We’ve been re-reading — three or four of them a day — the sympathy cards we received after my father’s death in December. We think about the senders and what they and the cards have said, and we include them with gratitude in our morning prayers.

I hope it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings to say that most of these cards then land in the recycling bin. The point I want to make is how much the cards have meant to us. Sometimes a person forgets the power of the small gesture — and how large small can be — until one is on the receiving end of one after another after another.

Some cards came from people we would not have expected to send one, and the surprise of that touched us. Some people who knew Dad took the time to share their memories – memories that enlarged our own memories of him. Some added a poem or reflected on similar experiences. Each card was unique, each one was appreciated.

We were the recipients of many other gestures-for-times-of-loss as well, such as emails and phone calls of condolence. Last week, we got the list of people who had donated money in honour of our father to the charity we’d chosen. Again, it was a humbling and touching experience, to see the names and think of what these gifts meant about Dad and us and these givers, and for the recipient mission agency.

Some gestures took the givers significant time. One friend spent the day baking cookies for us because she knew we were having a lot of out-of-town company. Several friends and a neighbour brought meals, including some of the most spectacular soups I’ve tasted in a long time. The church deacons came to visit, bearing  a fruit basket.

These are traditional ways of caring; they’re gestures and rituals we bring out for certain times. But like any ritual, whether it’s a daily one like our morning tea, or something practiced for specific circumstances, they build and maintain community. And what a wonderful thing it is to be part of community.

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*Drunk alternately as an infusion of hot water over yerba tea leaves in a container called a guampa and sipped through a metal sieve-straw called a bombilla. (Yerba leaves and paraphernalia pictured left.) Let’s just say it grows on you.

Grief and gratitude

On Monday this week, my father died.

That’s the easy sentence to write. Now what do I say?

I can say that in some deaths, grief so out-powers gratitude of any kind, the latter cannot be found until much later. In this one, there’s also grief, but gratitude rises more quickly to the surface — because my dad was a good man, because he lived a long life (88 years and 8 months), and because his last years were ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease (and I use the word “ravage” intentionally with all the meaning it holds: “to work havoc upon, to do ruinous damage”) and so we’d already been grieving slowly and subtly and I trust it won’t be surprising to hear that we’re relieved the suffering of that illness is over.

I’m also grateful I could be at his side when he died. Although Dad had been declining physically as well as mentally, that decline had accelerated in the past weeks. When we left for our Christmas holiday travel, I said good-bye as if I’d not see him alive again. By Christmas Day, he was expected to die before the day was out, but when we returned on the 26th, he was still breathing. He lived a further two days. The staff at the care facility marvelled: such a palpable shutting down, no responsiveness, and yet his heart kept beating. We who knew him were less surprised. Not only had he always been strong and athletic, but this persistence was symptomatic of his temperament. He had a stubborn determination about him; he was not a quitter. Whatever he’d committed to, whether it was his commitment to Jesus Christ at age 14 or his commitment to our mother more than 62 years ago, it lasted by virtue of diligent going-on with it, one hour after the other.

My dad as a young man, with Curly

 

Our last vigil at my father’s side was as much listening as watching. When life is so reduced, one only notices what’s left. In this case, it was his breathing. The day before his death, Dad would stop breathing for up to 30 or 40 seconds at a time, then resume a further round of it. The day of his death, another pattern ensued, with very few pauses but the breathing faster and shallower and noisier. While we waited and listened, my mother and whoever else was there passed the time talking, singing, reading. We often stroked Dad’s forehead or held a hand. Sometimes I found myself glancing from the black and white photograph on the wall, of my father as a lean young man, holding his dog Curly, to the shrunken body, mouth slack, eyes half open but seeing nothing. In his last hour, his extremities already cool and purplish, the eyes now open completely though still not seeing us (though “seeing” the unseen eternal, as per 2 Corinthians 4:18, perhaps), his breaths became very quiet and scarcely deeper than his throat. Then, each one quieter and shallower, they stopped.