It seems to be our lot in life at the moment to be in a vortex of death and dying. None of it is wholly unexpected. Most of the people involved have had long and full loves. Still, the confluence of so many loved ones on watch at the same time—a perverse bit of natural economy, if you ask me—is a test of one’s fortitude.
When families are separated by hundreds of miles, it can be tough to have frank discussions about the kinds of things families have to talk about in such circumstances. Besides, nobody wants to have these “final” discussions, as if they’re an admission of the mortality of people who’ve been such constants in your life, and whose personalities, appearances and genetic markers explain so much of why you’re you.
All of my wife’s siblings, their spouses, all but one of their children and a favorite aunt and uncle gathered in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia last week to share Thanksgiving with my mother-in-law and her husband, both of whom are in the final stages of terminal diseases.
It was a wonderful gathering. Since everyone was traveling some distance to be there, a local supermarket prepared the food. Outside of a few traditional dishes that no one in the family was willing to go without, preparation consisted mostly of heating things up. It was likely the first Thanksgiving meal since her childhood that my mother-in-law did not have a big part in preparing. This bothered her at first, but she soon settled down to enjoy the pleasure of spending time with her grandchildren while her children did all the heavy lifting.
After dinner there was a furious bit of dishwashing and cleaning up before the ritual turning on of the television to watch football. Those of us who don’t follow football closely decided to go out and take a walk. My mother-in-law lives on a foothill opposite Tinker Mountain. It’s a beautiful site and it was a warm and clear day.
After a while some of the walkers decided to take a break and sit in the sun. There was small talk at first, punctuated by the kind of laughter than comes from recalling both poignant and embarrassing moments in family history. But conversation eventually turned to the serious matters at hand. Decisions and plans were made. Responsibilities were divvied up.
Eventually the sun dropped behind the mountain and everyone wandered back up to the house for dessert.