Not long ago we had an extended season in our family of progressing illnesses and increasing helplessness of all the older generation. Our parents and some beloved aunts, uncles, and cousins who had never had children of their own looked to my sisters and me for many levels of support. One by one, over several years, they died. The last and dearest of those we accompanied on this part of their journey were Mom and Dad. They died just five months apart.
The final year was hard for both of them, the simplest things becoming a challenge: breathing, turning over, swallowing. I don't know which was worse, Dad, with Alzheimer's disease, being so confused, so unable to bring his own great mind to bear on his suffering; or Mom, still perfectly alert, knowing everything, her understanding exposing her to the terror of the collapse of her own body within her.
Mom died in the summer, and then, after a long and painful autumn, Dad died too. In his last weeks he was very confused and agitated, and what I remember the most are his hands. He had beautiful hands, strong and well shaped, with long, expressive fingers.
Mom, whose hands were small and square with short, unpoetic fingers, used to point out Dad's hands to the three of us when we were growing up. "Look at your father's hands, girls," she would say. "Doesn't he have beautiful hands?" In the end those hands were very restless, the fingers endlessly plucking at his blankets.
A few days later marked the new year. I returned to the University of Notre Dame, where I was working, feeling bewildered and disconnected. Orphaned, even at 50.
In May I drove back home to Florida where I spent the summers in the house where I had raised my children. The trip was painful for me, filled with a stark awareness that I would not be stopping to see Mom and Dad as I drove back. What had been the pattern for a long time, breaking the trip for a good visit with them, would not be the pattern from now on. In the sense that they had symbolized "home" all my life long, I could never go home again.
When I arrived at my house late the next day I discovered that my daughter Kadee was pregnant. She had waited for me to return to tell me the news in person. She and John had been married seven years. That very day of my return she had been to the doctor and had a sonogram, which she showed to me.
I was absolutely awestruck. Looking at a picture of your first grandchild within the womb of your own first-born is an extraordinary experience. I felt a huge shift inside me. A new pattern was forming. The sonogram revealed that the baby was a boy. He was due in the fall, nine months after my father's death.
When the baby was born, I flew down from Notre Dame to see him and pulled up in their yard just as they drove in from the hospital. Kadee was holding him in her arms in a soft white blanket, and the first thing I saw were his hands. Long hands for a baby. Beautifully shaped. Fine, long fingers that were plucking at his blanket...tears streamed down my face.
Life and death and now--here--life again. For everything there is a season. Chaos and then...creation.