You've been gone since last December, and Grandpa went in September - just a few months ago. But in October I realized it must be true. You must not be coming back. I don't know why it took such a long time.
About this time last year you said a few words to me. They were the last words I heard from you. You said, "Be careful. Have a good time." I was some other child from some other time and place. You must have seen me going off to a party or out with friends. I hugged you and told you that I would be careful. I told you that I loved you and I kissed your head. The next time I saw you after that was about a month later. You were tired of talking and looking and being. We sat next to you one day and read to you, sang to you, prayed over you.
This October I was supposed to go on a big adventure. I think it would have made you proud. I had been thinking about your words, "Be careful. Have a good time." and had just about decided to take them as a challenge: "Live your life absolutely. Go and find adventures. Be careful. Have a good time." My adventure was canceled, though, and I found myself with useless plane tickets and an empty week. For the first time in over a year I picked up a paint brush and took out a set of water colors. I sat on the back porch all day long and tried to remember the things you'd taught me to do with the paper - how to lay out a good wash, how to use the paper for the light instead of adding white paint, how to blend everything quick enough to preserve the fluid edges.
I have just one of your brushes. I don't paint with it. It sits in a jar on your mother's writing desk, next to your friend's little oil painting - the one of the pink flowers. You gave me this brush when you and Grandpa were moving out of your old house. You didn't understand what was going on most of the time by then. The others had been searching for the last of your art supplies and hadn't found them just yet. You were downstairs, where your work space had been set up. I'm not sure how much you painted in that house. You signaled for me to come close. You had a mischievous look on your face. You produced a thin brown paper bag. There were just a few old brushes in it - not the fine ones, but bigger ones. You put the bag in my hand and told me to take it.
After the missed adventure in October I asked Robbie if he would take me to Cades Cove for a day. I wanted to go and stand in the churchyard and see what you'd seen when you painted the church hanging in our hall outside the baby's room. I just wanted to be where you'd been. Like a test, you know - to see if maybe going there would give you to me somehow.
There wasn't anybody parked at the church when we arrived. We walked up through the graveyard and I found the right angle. I stood and looked at the building - the stone piers just a little uneven, the windows rippled, the edges rough. It was the wrong season. You'd been there in the spring - the dogwoods in your painting are blooming. I could see them from that little rise in the yard - their leaves were just beginning to turn.
We went inside the church. I've been in it dozens of times. I stepped behind the pulpit and put my hand to the bay window - you probably chose to paint it because of that bay window. It's unusual compared to the other two churches in the cove. Less plain. I looked out through the wavy glass, seeing the place we'd just been. I could almost see you there, maybe with your blue windbreaker on and your white tennis shoes. You would have been taking a photograph to take home to your studio.
Even as the loss is keen, I have you in these paintings. Even as the unanswered questions go on unanswered, I have a sense of your artistic persistence. What made you paint all those years in the home studio? What, in a world full of loud art, made you believe in the discipline of seeing the world and rendering it on paper? Whatever it was for you, I have it, too. I see it in other members of our family. We see some of the things you saw and we agree with you - they're beautiful. We see green growing things. We see birds. We want to know their names. We want to know where they live and why. We're writers, singers, artists.
A few weeks ago I went to the store and bought my son his first set of real water color paints. They came with a child sized brush. I sat him down beside me and taught him how to hold the brush and how to add water to the pigment. We talked about which colors could make other colors. He loves to mix colors.
Then, just last week, I was home visiting and Mom opened the big steamer trunk full of your family treasures so that Mary and I could see them up close. We hadn't seen its contents since we were children, at which point we'd been told to stand back and not touch. This time we were allowed to touch everything. I touched your wedding dress. I held your sister's pocket Shakespeare volumes. I saw lace from three generations and fancy dress clothes of your mother's. I saw your red bandana and instantly pictured you with your friends at camp, in your uniforms with your lipstick on, looking like you belonged on the silver screen.
I missed you.
I miss you right now.
You didn't tell me stories about yourself. You played cards and talked about fossils, birds, and plants. You sang silly songs. A few weeks ago I ran across "Bicycle Built for Two" in an old song book and heard your voice in my head.
There's no way around it, Grandma. I remember this from Mimi's passing. A hole opened up someplace between one star and another - a little bit of my heart escaped through it, and I never have gotten it back. Now that you're gone and he's gone I can almost see that rift in the sky again and I can feel my spirit running off after the missing pieces - "Come back to me, where are you going? Why are you gone?"
You liked to grow things in your yard. I remember Gertrude - the tree that lived in the big pot near your glass doors. This past spring I grew a garden for the first time, just grasping for a sense of connectedness to the ground that grew all of us - our first mother. All summer and through the early fall my garden overflowed with flowers and herbs. We had our first frost about three weeks ago and everything went dark.
Thomas Merton said, "Love winter when the plant says nothing." but I'm having trouble with that. It's hard to allow the decay. Even as I understand the necessity of the silent season I feel like raging against the early setting sun and the skeleton branches. My sunflowers, with their gentle nodding heads, have all gone away to ashes, to sleep - like you.
Meister Eckhart said, "God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction." but how do I explain this to my soul? Isn't it the one chasing that hole between the stars?
Matthew Fox says there's a beauty in the letting go process. He goes so far as to suggest a sort of goodness in the experience of loss - in the existence and acceptance of pain as a reality in the human experience. I'm willing to entertain this idea, but I'm awfully tired. And I still wonder: Does a new wholeness come? Or do we walk around, perforated, missing pieces, forever?
Because you didn't talk to me about yourself much I've been tempted to think I didn't know you well enough. What would that be, anyway? I knew you as I knew you, and it was a unique knowledge. All of us have unique knowledge of others. Because there's only one of each of us it will always go on like that - holy in its complete originality. Maybe this is the place I can start. From this spot I see one little light shining in the big darkness of your absence. It's shining on the place where our paths crossed. I have a sense that even though you can't be here where I am now, our two paths, touching, will always be there . . . and I will always be able to see them because there will always be a light on, even though it most certainly is dark out here in the land of the living.
Grandma, you were beautiful. My Mother looks like you. I look like her . . . I look like you. You're written all over my face and my sister's face. Did it feel familiar to be painting Mary's face? You must have known the curve of her jaw very well, and the smile, and the brow line. They're yours.
So my soul says, "Come back, come back, come back." but you said, "Be careful. Have a good time." You did the really brave thing - you let me go . . . you let all of us go, and the perfectly holy tent your spirit had pitched here in the world became a blank canvas, empty of its Artist.
The first time I heard 2nd Corinthians 5:1 was when Great Grandma died. Do you remember that? I was so little. I had questions for my Mother about how a person could not be anymore. She explained to me about the beautiful tent for the spirit to live in and how the tent gets so tired when it's done its best for a long time. How long those words have been ringing in my ears - "This body is a tent. This body is a tent. This body is a tent." This body is a tabernacle - a wandering sanctuary for a wandering creature made by the One Whole and Holy God, who also has also been a Wanderer.
Someday I'll wander on, too.
Until then I'll do my best to "love winter when the plant says nothing." and I will be careful. And, yes, I promise - I will have a good time. I will find adventures. And in a world full of noisy art, much flashier than my own, I'll still go to my piano. I'll still sit down with my pen and will lay the beauty of the day down on the staff paper. I promise.
I love you.