May her beliefs defy reality
by Theresa Reichman
Four months ago, my grandmother was alive. If you could call it that.
It was the first time I saw her after she had the stroke. I rounded the corner in the ICU and passed a couple of empty rooms. I glanced in the first occupied room and saw an emaciated woman with hallowed cheeks and sunken eyes. As I passed the room, I noticed my dad sitting next to the woman’s bed.
Oh my God, I thought. That woman is my grandmother.
After hugging the family members gathered there, I approached the bed. I told Granny that it was me, Theresa.
My mind went back to my childhood when I would volunteer at the nursing home where my mother worked. All of those lonely souls, trapped behind glassy eyes in barely functioning bodies. My grandmother stared blankly at the ceiling, her mouth ajar.
“Say something to her,” my dad urged me.
But what? I thought of all the things I wanted to say. “I love you,” “It’s going to be okay,” “You can let go now,” — they all were deathbed clichés no matter how genuinely I meant them. I tried to imagine myself lying there, knowing it was the end. Being the spectacle in a room filled with my loved ones. Not able to speak.
What would I want to hear? What would she want to hear? Not this dying woman, but my grandmother. The woman who always had time for her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. The woman who prayed harder than anyone I knew. The woman who walked to mass every Sunday, despite her debilitating emphysema that forced her to pause to catch her breath every few yards. What would she want to hear?
I called my mom and asked her to jog my memory, and then went back to the bed.
“Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands hath made…”
I sang every hymn I could remember. My aunt and sister joined in and together we wracked our brains for every chorus, verse and lyric we could recall. We exhausted our repertoire while hovering over the body that held my grandmother captive.
As we serenaded her, I started thinking about the afterlife. I started thinking about what I believed would happen after death and how it sharply contrasted to what my grandmother believed.
I’m a skeptic. My best guess is that we die, and our energy is somehow transferred to the universe around us. But basically, we’re gone. Of course I fantasize about reincarnation and what that could mean, but at the end of the day, I have a hard time swallowing any theories about the afterlife that present themselves as definite. The fact remains: We simply don’t know what’s waiting for us on the other side of that flat line.
But my grandmother? She believes. She believes in heaven, hell and even purgatory. She believes in the Pearly Gates, with St. Peter ushering us into a kingdom of happiness, painlessness and the constant presence of her Lord, Jesus Christ.
After my grandmother died, I looked up the lyrics to “How Great Thou Art” – the first song I sang to her. I read the last verse – the one I couldn’t remember the words to.
“When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow, in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God how great Thou art!’”
And I wondered… Maybe miracles do happen. Maybe what I believe to be true about the afterlife isn’t true for my Granny. Maybe her beliefs defy reality.
I really hope so.