Thursday, January 27, 2011

Conversation: Of Grace and Obligation

Death is like a natural disaster -- no matter how much planning and preparation is done once it hits everything changes. You cannot prepare for the flood or numbing of emotions. You don't know exactly how the laws will work themselves out. You can't anticipate how others will react. You just have to go along for the ride and see what comes.

I didn't know how much my grandfather's passing would challenge me. He was a man I always adored. He was on of my childhood heroes -- tall, strong, and always there with a helping hand. He was also everything I was not -- a staunch Republican, an avid sports fan, nimble with his fingers, cautious. He had a philosophy of live and let live as long as he didn't need to see or hear it.

A few hours earlier on the day he passed, I booked a ticket to come see him in Arizona hoping I could say goodbye before his final exhale. I didn't make it. He died in hospice quickly at the age of 80. He never wanted to live in hospice, and he was terrified of losing his reason, but there he was in hospice doped up because his mind had completely deteriorated. It was a beautiful thing that he only had a few days of that kind of living.

I kept my flight. I wanted to be here for my granny and lend the same helping hand my grandfather would have lent me. It was the best way to honor his life. I wasn't prepared for the internal conflict that came.

I inherited my grandfather's strong will. I did not inherit his ability to still my tongue. I have had to learn how to quiet both my lips and need to argue, and I haven't been very successful in those lessons. Slowly, I have made progress, and the greatest lesson has come from being here in Sun City West supporting my granny through this transition. I see what he saw in her -- beauty, faith, fortitude, quiet rebellion, dedication. I amazed at her ability to meet obligation with grace.

My granny didn't want a memorial service here in Arizona. She preferred to only have services back in Minnesota this summer. He will rest there in a crypt in Resurrection Cemetery. It is the place of our Soderberg clan's birth, and, minus myself and my granny, where the rest of our clan still reside. But what you want isn't always what others need. Others wanted to say goodbye here.

My mom arrived in Arizona a few days before me. She was one of the people, despite her claiming otherwise, that needed closure. She didn't get to say goodbye, and it pained her immeasurably. She wanted to hold his hand and give him a final hug.

I received a phone call the Tuesday before my planned arrival asking if I would do one of the readings at mass. I agreed knowing how much it would meant to my mom and granny. Immediately, after hanging up the phone, I grew uncomfortable. I was raised in a family whose Catholic heritage stretches back generations. While I identify as catholic, I am not Catholic. This was going to be difficult.

I arrived on Thursday. The memorial mass was Saturday. Two days of restlessness ensued, and a story was shared about the struggle to get the readings and songs my mom and granny wanted. I did the reading in my best church voice as gracefully as possible. I can't share more. It doesn't feel right, and it seems to soon. Needless to say, my difficulties paled in comparison to those of my mom and granny.

We had a reception at my granny's house after the mass. I was in charge of the kitchen, so my granny and mom could be with guests. I hustled making coffee and setting everything out. I was amazed at how impatient some of the guests were. The coffee couldn't brew quickly enough, and when they rushed me to pour some of the coffee from the unfinished pot complained that it wasn't hot enough. I noticed all of the paper plates were gone while I was finishing up setting out some more cookies. I was going to get them momentarily, but that wasn't quick enough. Everyone knew I was the grandson, but many folks treated me like the catering help.

A couple of times I got testy telling people to back off and get out of the kitchen. At one point, I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to have a silent meltdown. I definitely wasn't prepared for the pushiness of retired folks.

Then, I saw my granny and mom. They were also entertaining guests. They were gracious and welcoming, and I started learning the art of grace and obligation. While this service and reception were about my grandfather, they were not for my grandfather. They were for everyone else. It had nothing to do with us. The best way forward was honoring my grandpa the way he would want to be honored. I smiled and said thank-you.

I'm not sure this is how I want to live my life. I believe that emotions shouldn't be tucked underneath everything in order to be stoic. I'm not sure I believe in the obligations of others. If I did, I'm not sure I ever would have come out.n What I did learn is that when you do show up for others it is important to honored them the way they want to be honored. This doesn't mean compromising on who you are. It does mean finding the grace by which to do both at the same time.

I've learned a lot during my time here in Arizona with my granny and mom, and while my grandpa is no longer here with us he is still teaching me. And to me, that is what is heaven. It isn't a place. It is these moments of transcendence, these moments when contradictions become harmonious.

Cheers grandpa! I look forward to the many lessons you have yet to teach.

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