My grandmother is dying.
I have this memory. I am four. I am singing “Skidamarink.” Perhaps you know the song. It’s lyrics are simple:
“Skidamarink a-dink, a-dink,
I love you.
I love you in the morning,
And in the afternoon;
I love you in the evening,
And underneath the moon.
Oh, skidamarink a-dink, a-dink,
I love you.”
She is beaming with pride and recording me on a cassette tape as I sit on the kitchen counter. I feel a swelling of pride. She hugs me. I hug her, gripping her tightly; my arms still chubby with baby fat. My head pressed to her breastbone.
If I had listened hard enough, I would have heard her heartbeat.
I’ve been watching people die since I was four. I’ve buried 22 people. Some were classmates, others teachers, but most have been family. Not extended family, but close family. It’s shaped my practice as a witch, my relationship with my spirits, and my family.
My grandmother knows I’m a witch, a devil worshiper. I don’t mind her categorization. The Gods of one religion are often the demons of another. It also hasn’t lessened her love of me in any way. She doesn’t consciously know that I work with the dead, or the living about to left behind. But she seems to understand this unconsciously.
“I need you to help me organize my jewelry for you girls after I die.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to have us all over and make us mud wrestle for them? It’d be funny. You’d laugh.”
She ignores my comment and gingerly pulls out her jewelry box, necklaces and earrings coiled haphazardly within. I pull out a clip-on earring and notice her inhale sharply. I look up and consider her face. It’s pinched with the realization that the things you hold precious maybe junk to someone else.
“You girls have pierced ears. I guess you won’t want that.”
With my free hand I pull up my shirt and tuck it under my bra while my other hand opens and closes the earring clasp on the base of my bra. I shimmy for her.
“I can use this, grandma. See?” I keep shimming. “It’ll be fantastic for belly dancing.”
She gives me a wry smile. We both know what I’m trying to do. Can’t out run death. Can’t avoid it. But we can laugh at it. Nothing to do but laugh until we cry and cry until we laugh again.
“I have something for you.”
I watch her shuffle to one of her drawers and I follow her. She pulls out a cherry red box and opens it.
“These are opals from Australia. They’re yours. I haven’t worn them since your grandfather passed. You can get them remounted if you don’t like how I had them done.”
“Good. They’re yours now.”
There are many things left unsaid between us. Understandings that I think we need to come to before she passes. But this is her death. It’s her process, not mine. She is living in the process of dying. My place is to help her. I’m struggling to help her where she’ll let me. I’m also trying as much as I can to remember.
Because what is remembered lives.
My grandfather is standing next to my sister. Their necks are craned with hands shielding eyes from the blistering desert sun. My grandmother exits the RV and walks to my grandfather and sister. She follows their eye-line to me. I am ten and am half way up a 150 foot sandstone cliff trying to get my sister’s kite where it’s wedged into the rock face. The rock, being sandstone, crumbles in my hands with too much pressure. Same with my precarious footholds. I can see her in my peripheral vision. Barely.
There are hushed expletives in her feathery voice. She asks my grandfather what the hell… and is cut off as my grandfather explains the situation. I can hear the fear spiked with anger in her voice. She questions my grandfather’s sanity and abandons her argument with him. Her voice rings out, echoing through Red Rock Canyon. I am now five feet from the kite. “Erin Morgan! Get down here NOW!” “I can’t!” I shout over my shoulder. “I’m almost to the kite!” I reach the kite. It’s only then I remember I don’t know how to go down. I look at my family over my shoulder. My grandfather’s and sister’s faces are unreadable. But not my grandmothers’. Her face is lined with worry and fear.
Even now I can hear her silent prayer: “please God, don’t let her fall; please God, don’t let her fall.”
I didn’t fall.
What is remembered, lives.
It’s a simple enough phrase, yet for me, it contains rich concepts that we only mine in the face of the enigma of Death. Even then the path to understanding was only opened when I chose to open the door and walk the path the words laid before me. Contained within those words are a type of grace, a spell, a binding, a life, a death, a reconnection, an undertaking, a renewal, an awareness. It’s this last word, awareness, that contains the spark of possibility in the face of Death. When I opened to it fully, this awareness was voluminous and multifaceted.
Death, like life, is a process. A series of moments, memories, and events; some planned, others unplanned, all are weathered. It’s through remembering that my beloved dead live again within me. It’s through the act of remembering that I bring the lessons of the past with me. It’s how I make sense of the senseless by reframing old memories with new eyes and understandings. But I had to do it with intention. Remembering in this way has helped me see my ancestors as the flawed humans they are and hold them with compassion. This in turn has helped me increase the compassion I hold for myself. And the love. It’s in doing this work that I’ve realized that when I heal myself, somehow the dead are also healed. Maybe it’s because when the cycle of unintentional and intentional wounds that are passed from generation to generation is stopped, they can let go of their guilt and forgive themselves. Maybe it’s because love can move back in time to heal a broken heart. If you have had the magical experience that says all space and time is here and now, then this is certainly possible. Maybe it’s because all the ballads are true: that love is the only thing that survives.
“Your parents never told me that.” My grandmother’s face is contorted with worry, concern, and pain. “Why didn’t they tell me?”
I had just told her of a harrowing experience that left its indelible mark on me. She’d wanted to know why I acted a certain way. So I told her.
“What could you have done, grandma?”
“I could have loved you more.”
“Oh grandma, you love me enough already.”
And I want to hold on to her love. It’s flawed and it’s human, but it’ll be the only thing I’ll have left when she passes. Because her love, and her flaws and grace, are apart of the fabric of me. Because I need that love to carry me through life and eventually my own death. I want to pass on that love too. I want that love to be remembered, to leave it’s indelible imprint on me and my descendants. Maybe it’s the only way we achieve true immortality.
Because what is remembered, lives.