Clearly there is a theme to this week, but it’s omnipresent at the moment and I can’t think amout much else. Being with grandma has been amazing and most of the times things just feel normal, as if grandpa is in the next room getting a coke or taking a nap, both of which he did a lot. But then I walk into the dining room and there is a lovely portrait of him that has been prepared for the memorial service and it’s an immediate reminder that he isn’t coming back. Or there will be a slight pause in conversation and someone gets a little misty and we all think about how much he loved sitting around the table “fixing the problems of the world” as my grandmother likes to say. And I think about what he’s missing. The whole family is here and he should be, too.
Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May (Scholastic, $5.99) describes the turbulent emotions of being left behind, and the desire to hold on long after someone is gone. When May suddenly dies, Summer and her uncle Ob struggle between mourning May’s death and holding on to the possibility that she could communicate with them from the spirit world. I come from a rather religious family and the discourse is always clearly focused on grandpa being “in a better place” or “with the Lord”. These types of phrases don’t mean much to me as I can’t imagine him wanting to be anywhere other than with his family. But these are the phrases people hold on to; the ones they say to comfort each other and themselves; the phrases we use to help ease the pain of letting go. I can’t decide if I envy the certainty that grandpa continues on — in another place. But I do know that hearing all the stories this week means that we can let go, without losing him.
As expected Grandma is the most stoic person here. With all the kids and grandchildren, most of whom are adults, there are a lot of voices. It’s hard to know what’s best and everyone has an opinion, but at the same time we’re all following Grandma’s lead and working very hard to remember Grandpa with positive and upbeat memories. Sometimes we even joke and laugh, because that’s what Grandpa did best. He had a kind word for everyone and a joke or story always at the ready.
I’ve discussed it before, but Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light is one of the most poignant stories about death that I read as a teenager. It’s a book I’ll recommend over and over. I wonder if my cousin, 15, would appreciate it right now. Someone said the grandchildren — there are 15 of us ranging from 42-9 — are taking grandpa’s death really hard. I would think 15 is the hardest age of all: old enough to feel the full weight of what has happened, but not yet fully possessing the tools to cope. Despite the subject matter, there is a joy in L’Engle’s book. One I see here as I am surrounded by a family who is struggling to celebrate grandpa even as we all desperately miss him.
My grandmother is pragmatic about everything, including death. She’s very comfortable with the cycle of life concept and approaches the subject with a certain matter of factness and acceptance that I’ve always admired. It’s one of the many things I’ve learned from her over the years. So now, as I’m driving to my grandfather’s funeral, know it is her strength that will buttress the family and I have confidence that she’s going to be ok.
But how to handle the subject with children? I tend to believe that children should be included in the grieving process. Even young children know that something is wrong and being kept out just means they start to fill in the blanks themselves — often in inaccurately. I only have anecdotal evidence for this claim.
Numerous books deal with the subject of death, some more heavy handed than others. I suspect that one of the first encounters with death many children have involves household pets; therefore I’ll start with two books by Cynthia Rylant Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven (Blue Sky Press, $16.99). Both help children envision a paradise constructed for cats and dogs respectively. The soft swirling illustrations are evocative, but also vague enough to allow children space for their own imagination. Certainly utilizing a Christian perspective of the afterlife, these two book focus on providing comfort and security for young readers.
I’ve decided to finish out this week on Fantasy with one of my all-time favorite books, with the promise that next time I revisit this genre I’ll include books that are a little more recent (yes, there are some amazing ones). Madeleine L’Engle is best-known for her sci-fi novel, A Wrinkle in Time, but she has written numerous other books that are all worth reading, especially A Ring of Endless Light (Square Fish, $7.99).
A Ring of Endless Light is one of the later books in what is now marketed as The Austin Chronicles. Readers, however, do not need to have read the previous books in this series. Vicky Austin, a teenager and a poet, meets Adam Eddington, a marine biology student, and assists with his summer research about dolphins. The book has science, music, literature, family, and romance, but mostly it is about death and grief. And yet this is one of the most inspirational books I read as a kid: a book I read and reread. L’Engle weaves science, religion, and love together so expertly, it’s almost impossible to determine whether A Ring of Endless Light is fantasy or simply the reality we’re looking for. As a teenager, her books showed me how amazingly mysterious life could be and as Vicky began to learn how to communicate with the dolphins, I started to learn how to communicate with the intricate world around me.