“There’s been a lot of storms lately,” Aunt Ida said at her ninetieth birthday party on the day after high winds ripped across the Iowa landscape. Oak trees stood splintered and torn asunder—witness that even the sturdiest eventually come down. “The best place to be in a storm,” Ida said, “is in the center of God’s love.” Lately, I’ve felt as if I’m in the eye of one of life’s storms. I’ve been dealing with death, one of life’s most brutal storms to face, one that pelts your heart with heavy rains and assaults your mind with ferocious winds.
“My mother’s dead,” Robert, a ten-year-old neighbor sobs into the phone at 5:45 a.m., awakening me to an emotional eclipse.
“What?” I ask incredulous that, Pam, an otherwise healthy thirty-year-old mother, should drop dead in the night. Just yesterday we were shipping kids back and forth between our yards, our children as inseparable as siblings.
I hear commotion in the background. His father grabs the phone.
“They found her on the living room floor . . . We have to go to the hospital . . . I don’t know what to do with the kids,” he says.
We? They? He’s not making sense.
“Send them over. I’ll watch them.” I can at least provide stable ground for the children.
“What happened?” my husband asks. “Who found her?”
I don’t know the answers and I’m sobbing. My father died suddenly in a car crash when I was eighteen months old, and although I have no memory of the event, my sister said Mother cried on the bed when she got the news. Daddy died, Daddy died, she wept holding us, her four children, tight around her.
I waited for my neighbor’s children to come weeping across our yards. For an hour I waited and cried. At 6:45, as my own children were ready for breakfast, Pam walks up on my porch with her children dressed for school. Her eyes are red and swollen as if she has been sobbing.
“I thought it was you,” I said, and Pam looked confused. She had no idea that her oldest son, while witnessing his own mother’s grief over the loss of his grandmother, could only think to call me and mimic Pam’s cry, My mother’s dead.
Later that week while on our way to pick out a birthday present for my son’s friend, my son says, “You must have been very sad to lose your dad.” It has been a while since I told him the story of my father’s death. It doesn’t surprise me that he is thinking about it now because the neighbor kids are dealing with the loss of their grandmother.
“I have been very sad,” I tell him.
Memories of a Mennonite funeral I attended with my grandmother when I was six float to the surface unassisted. There were no tears at this service; sometimes an old woman’s passing is a relief. Twenty years later, I felt that strange relief at my own grandmother’s funeral, knowing that her three-year battle with stroke recovery was over.
“It’s okay to die,” I whispered in my grandmother’s ear when I saw her in the nursing home. The stroke had left her comatose and palsied. “You don’t have to stay here for us.” I cried into her thin gray strands of hair splayed out on the pillow. People had been praying for her recovery, and it would have been just like her to try her hardest to help them. Because my grandmother was eighty-eight and had lived a long life, I did not see a need for her to continue, better to go meet the Jesus of her prayers and faith.
Years before, she’d told me that she feared a long, slow death like her mother who’d “had a strong heart.” Everyday at noon, I accompanied my grandmother to the nursing home to feed great-grandma, the two of them speaking German as great-grandma had forgotten the English she learned as an immigrant bride.
“Not that,” I prayed over my own grandmother. “Don’t let her linger. Take her soon.” I prayed to a Jesus who does not hear from me often.
She did rally for a while, eventually able to sit in her chair and visit with friends and family. Her thoughts often drifted to gentle memories of childhood.
“Mary and I had a picnic,” she said in a strong voice, her eyes closed. “We sat under the oak tree where there’s such a nice breeze.”
Grandma’s brief rebound gave everyone the time they needed to say good-bye. Her funeral was the first in my life for which I had truly loved and lost. I was destitute to realize I could never talk with her again.
“She lost a father, husband, and son over just a few years and never lost her faith,” the minister said at the service. Surely the son, my father, being the last death and the most tragic must have been an almost impossible thing to bear. A father—in the prime of his life with four children, the youngest just a toddler—dead in a senseless car crash while out with a buddy on a holiday weekend. My family had been too consumed with pain and shame to talk about the accident because the crash had also killed a family in the on-coming traffic of Memorial Day.
At the moment of impact, my head crashes into the windshield and my knees slam into the under-dash of the steering column. The front end of my Toyota is buried in the turf of a drainage ditch.
“Are you all right?” I yell to my sister as she frantically tries to get to her year-old son still belted in his car seat.
“We’re okay,” she says. I exit the car that has been vaulted into an awkward angle and I sink to the ground. Thank God they are alive and unharmed.
Out of the darkness, Mennonites’ voices fill my mind with a song I have not heard in years . . .
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise Him all creatures here below
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
A harmonious chorus surrounds me. Grandma always said that Mennonite harmony is “the most beautiful music in the world.” Now, that beauty cradles and comforts me and a brilliant light sparks and begins to grow. I could stay here forever. My eyes close.
I awake in the hospital twelve hours later, having suffered no more than a deep cut on my forehead and a fifty-dollar fine for “loss of control of a vehicle.”
Not long ago, I received an email from a member of the family that hosted my year abroad in Denmark when I was eighteen. The message informed me that over an afternoon cup of tea, weak from heart surgery, Ellen had fallen into the arms of the man she loved for fifty-two years and died. Ellen had been like a mother to me that year and over the next three years while I dated her son, Hans. Though that time had been so long ago, still, I sat at my computer and cried.
“My mother had the best possible death,” Hans wrote. “It was sudden, painless, and in the company of the one she loved.”
I wondered if Ellen heard a song from her childhood.
The day of the accident, I don’t know if I’d heard angels or just a memory of the countless hours I listened to Mennonite songs with my grandmother. After all, we do translate in the language of our childhood. As I face the deaths around me, and the eventuality of my own death, I feel no fear. I imagine my grandmother passing over into death in the center of a chorus of songs from her German childhood, a ready and willing participant.
I hope Ellen did hear a song. I hope everyone does. I take solace in that.
Author Bio: CAROLINE WOLFE is a pen name under which author, Marcia Roth Tucci, writes about love, marriage, motherhood and self-discovery. The pen name represents her authentic voice, free from association of her married and paternal names, and links to her maternal heritage. Caroline Wolfe is the voice of a woman, any woman, and the essays explore moments of truth in the life of the author and women around her.
The author can be reached at email@example.com.