Anxiety, Death and Faith

I got emails from my mom and uncle about Nana, my last living grandparent. The news isn’t great. She’s struggled with dementia for some years now and hasn’t recognized me the last several times I’ve seen her. But while her mind has been betraying her for a while, it’s her health now that seems to hang in the balance.

Not that it’s a surprise at ninety years old. And it’s also not like we’re particularly close anymore. Aside from living 700 milers away, it’s hard to have much of a relationship with someone who has no idea who you are. But there’s something about knowing she’s close to the end of her life that really freaked me out last night.

When I was a little guy, I had three great grandparents that I remember visiting. They all smelled funny and talked constantly about stuff I didn’t understand, but I got that they were family. I’d visit Pappy and Sweetie, who lived in a trailer home on the Mississippi River; Granny Hagen had her own house for a few years, and then she got moved into one of those silos where people wait to die. Yes, there are some retirement facilities that actually have signs of life in them, but this wasn’t one of them. My mom’s family was pretty poor, and things like retirement and end-of-life planning weren’t a particularly high priority.

Their deaths didn’t bother me too much. I didn’t like seeing my parents sad, but that was about it. I’d miss the candy corns and balloons Pappy always gave me (he called candy corns “duck butters” because when he’d feed them to the ducks, their butts would stick up in the air when they reached down to eat them). But my grandparents were the ones I actually knew as people.

Pop Pi, my dad’s father, died of cancer when I was a teenager. It wasn’t surprising, given his lifestyle habits, and he was pretty emotionally closed off. I never heard him tell me he loved me until he was more cancer than human, eighty-five or so pounds of breath and flesh, clinging to some distant memory of life. When I hugged him goodbye, I was afraid he would break in my arms. This wasn’t the Pop Pi I knew. He was already gone.

Grandma Pi died when I was in my twenties. It was one of the first funerals I remember actually going to. I chose not to go to Pop Pi’s because the idea of dead bodies terrified me. Pi was cremated, though, and we spread her ashes under a tree in the garden of her Episcopal church. The strongest memory I have from that day was the thought that it was too bad she really only started living her life after Pop Pi died.

Grandaddy died last year, and I was asked to sing at his service in Texas. He looked like some Howdy Doody doll, with the weird, waxy makeup and slicked hair. Definitely not Grandaddy. I expected to cry that day, but the tears didn’t come. I still don’t know why.

Nana could hang on for years yet, though I’m not sure why. That sounds kind of harsh, but one of my greatest fears is having my body live beyond my mind’s ability to keep up. I guess it’s a selfish imposition of my own values, but I’d rather check out that not recognize the people I love, and who love me.

So what was the anxiety about on the couch last night? I knew she wasn’t well. We’ve been down this road before, both with her, and with Grandaddy last year. I started thinking about Peter Rollins and his thoughts on what lies at the root of anxiety. He says that the thing that distinguishes anxiety from everyday stress or other emotions is that all anxiety is rooted in the fear of loss. Therefore, even though there may be occasional environmental triggers (like a sick grandparent), we can experience anxiety independent of present circumstances. In fact, there’s a tendency to succumb to twinges of anxiety even in the greatest moments of plenty.

In our best moments, there’s a part of us that knows it can’t last forever.

Even as a kid on Christmas morning, I had to fight back a sense of preemptive regret that the day had actually come, which meant that by tomorrow, it would be gone.

And every time I’ve ever allowed myself to love, it comes with the footnote in the emotional contract rider that you will lose this person.

Well, that sucks.

My mom was diagnosed with Leukemia a couple of years ago. It’s stable and doesn’t affect her daily routine, but it’s there. We all know it’s there.

My dad walked out of our lives going on five years ago, and so in some ways, I’ve mourned that relationship before any actual death happens. But not a week goes by when I don’t think, in the back of my mind, about the day when I’ll get that call to come clean up the mess, to sign the paperwork, to bury the man that has since become a stranger, but to whom I still owe my life.

So again, why the anxiety? It happened to be, for me in that moment, a clearly audible reminder of time’s march. She’ll be gone, sooner or a little bit later. Then it’s my folks. Then me. Then my kids. And their kids.

In some ways, the only difference between nature and genocide is the timing.

I worry more about losing others than I do losing my own body, mind or life. And though that could be portrayed as altruistic, it’s actually really selfish. I’d rather die than live with the hurt. In some ways, we all would. But in so much as death is woven into every single life event to some degree, it’s one of the most profound reminders that we are, indeed, alive.

To what end? To love? Do we own that Love or simply participate in it? Or does it own us? Will we embrace it once again upon our final parting, woven together with the others who have passed before, only to become that same Love? How is it different from the love, here and now, today? Is it finally unencumbered of that weight death brings to it, hanging quietly on our consciousness even in the most beautiful moments of life?

Who knows?

I’m sad that I probably won’t be there by her side when Nan finally dies. But I also can’t put my own life on hold to be there, waiting for the inevitable to happen. She will die, and we’ll come together. Some will cry, and I will or I won’t. There will be all the requisite comfort foods: casseroles, Jell-o and that green bean stuff with the crunchy things on top. I probably won’t eat any of it, but it doesn’t mean I love her any less.

And I wouldn’t stop loving her, just because I know she’ll die. I can’t help but love her. Or my dad. Or the rest of these damned-to-death people in my life. There may be something else. It could be like it’s described in scripture, with towers of alabaster and crowns of gold. Or it could be more like it is in my own imagination, a merging of souls to the point that there’s no distinction between one and another any more.

Or there could be nothing. And that’s where the anxiety comes from.

Faith is audacious. It makes no sense. We believe without proof. We pray, though sometimes not know to whom or what we are praying. But in those moments when I can et aside the anxiety long enough to string together a sigh or two, far too deep for words, the words come. They seem to come from the same darkness that is at the heart of my anxiety, which is perplexing. Can everything and nothingness be so closely intertwined? But that’s where the words come from. They’re nearly silent, maybe even just an idea rather than actual words, yet the message is still perfectly clear:

Be still.


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