Yesterday, to this day of my writing, two of my friends died. Both endured years of struggle against cancers, and both finally yielded to death at nearly the same hour. I received notices of their passing within moments of one another. We sat vigil with the family of one of my friends until late in the evening, while the other friend was prepared for repatriation in the land of her ancestors.
In the home where we sat vigil, I entered the room where my friend had passed away. I wanted to feel the last fading traces of her physical presence. I don’t know whether any part of her was there or not, but I was grateful to be in the place where she had been. The room was very full. It held the medical equipment that had briefly sustained her life for the last few days, but it was mostly stuffed with the clutter and the souvenirs of a life. Porcelain trinkets, formal family portraits, travel photographs, colorful shot glasses collected from the cities she had visited, and everything covered with a fine layer of dust.
Both women were extraordinary, as indeed all ordinary lives are. We become, each of us, marvelous sagas as we navigate the mountain highway’s twists and turns on our way from the cradle to the grave. Here was a black and white wedding picture, in which two young people stood together by a river in Europe. The woman was slender and girlish, her hair full and her smile shy. The man who was proud and straight and handsome, now sits grieving wordlessly at the empty kitchen table. In this room there was also a photograph of an elegant woman with silver hair pinned up, surrounded by her grandchildren – my friend’s mother. Beneath the photograph were my friend’s mother’s ashes. Now, both women, mother and daughter, had lived their full trajectories. Their mingled ashes would be returned to the planet’s womb.
What all had they seen? What dreams did they dream? Which ones were transformed into little victories against the boundaries of imagination, skill, and time? Which hopes remained unfulfilled yearnings? Were they satisfied in love, or did they long for another, as did my own grandmother who once told me about the man who courted her whom she did not marry? What actions did they regret, and what disappointments did they carry in their unspoken depths?
I loved these women. They were poised and smart and beautiful. They were transfigured by the wisdom that accrues with age and the compassion that is born from hardship. In my mind, they have become brilliant beacons, and it is their light that compels their survivors to push on in their absence. As I think about the world of human making, I feel that it only keeps going, moment to moment, because every individual keeps hoping fiercely for it to do so. We sit by the bodies of our beloved dead and tell stories. We laugh and plan for new things to come. We continue to envision the possible tomorrow, and driven by what we have imagined, we partially bring it into being. We bear on purposefully, even in full knowledge of our powerlessness against the inevitable transitoriness of our condition. That is what makes us so precious and so noble.
Hours after the wake, I had to board a plane to attend a conference. It was the middle of the night when I had to leave my home because the conference was on the opposite coast, and I had an afternoon session to attend. Tired and sad, I sat down by a woman who appeared to be agitated and uncomfortable. She shifted anxiously in her seat for most of the four-hour flight. I tried to mind my space but felt a little awkward about this woman’s obvious discomfort. When we landed, she spoke for the first time, asking me, “Is Portland your home?” “No,” I replied. “Business trip. And you?” She told me that she had been visiting her son, whose wife had just delivered a baby girl. She had planned a longer visit but was now rushing home to get to the hospital for her daughter who had also just gone into labor. She asked, “Can we make a phone call yet.” “Yes, I think so. We’ve landed now,” I said. After a hushed call, she turned to me smiling and told me the baby had not been born. She would make it to the hospital in time. While I congratulated her and we said goodbye, I was quietly happy at the harmony. For, here was the notice of two new lives, two brilliant new epics on the cusp of the telling – and the monumental hope and energy that will surround them – born nearly at the same hour.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.