The day after my mother-in-law died, we went to church and then to my oldest son’s baseball game. It had been a long illness with no real doubt about its conclusion, but the end still comes with a fresh harshness and finality, however long it’s been anticipated and however welcome the release from pain and struggle may in some sense be. We had said the “Commendation of the Dying” from my prayer book the night before, when we had heard that the time was very short. One hopes, I suppose, not to cushion the blow as much as to give it some context, some perspective of divine significance and hope that is lost in the burrowing action of illness and grief.
Kid 1 fell hard on his hands at church and was favoring his throwing arm by the time we got to the field. Pitching and catching were out. There was some doubt that he would play at all. But it is always hard to keep my oldest from playing baseball, and that day would be no exception.
I discovered with a bit of a shock that, despite my academic and professional engagement with death, I don’t know how to mourn. How much to say, and to whom, and in what context; what activities should be decorously refrained from, and which gestures taken on–I really have no idea. So like everyone does, I default to just doing whatever I was supposed to do. I tried to warm up my son’s creaky arm and talked with the other coaches through the lineup to keep him out of throwing-heavy positions.
He was struggling with his grandmother’s death. She was, among other things, an excellent grandmother. She showed up for the birth of each of our kids, she stayed and helped often and cheerfully, and took delight in them every day of their lives. She was patient, kind, indulgent to a responsible degree. An inveterate teacher, she was always eager to read a book to her grandchildren. It pained her to withdraw from some of that as her illness eroded her strength. No one would wish to depart having a clutch of grandchildren under ten, memories still unformed and potential still so tantalizing; to her considerable credit, she shielded us from whatever bitterness she felt at having to do so.
Less consequentially, she was also a very good mother-in-law. It takes work to invite a new, fully-formed adult into your happy family, and she was always willing to do it. I doubtless imposed on her a great deal, in ways that she never let me see. These small generosities go a long way toward making life tolerable.
So it happened that we both dewed up a bit in the dugout. The emotions didn’t stop my son from lacing a ball into center field with the steady, careful precision he developed over the course of the season. He extended a hitting streak with that ball. They lost anyway–hitting streaks, like all streaks, are just that, devoid of any intrinsic significance beyond the personal. We run until we’re home, or out; we keep getting hits until we don’t; and everything vanishes in an instant. It’s all so insubstantial.
I was sitting once with a family while a hospice professional explained to them that their loved one would pass away in the space of a single breath in and out. I’ve seen this happen. It can be quite astonishing. All that effort to live, to do something consequential, and finally just to extend the streak issues in a mere sigh. Memory starts in that instant, not preserving but creating anew. I refrained from the kind of maudlin appeal I could scarcely have imagined making not long ago: “hit one for Grandma.” How did it become so plausible to say such a thing? As if channeling that grief could call the breath back somehow, or hold it close for a moment longer in its path toward diffusion and whatever mysterious recollection awaits on an invisible frontier. Strike three, swinging–you may as well swing–and a stiff trot back to the bench, eyes clouding. Tomorrow is another day.