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Carol's Columns

The Dance of Life and Death

I just became a grandmother for the first time. Early Saturday morning our son called to say his wife was in the hospital with labor pains that were five minutes apart. After calling the airlines, my husband and I darted for the airport to catch the next flight to San Diego. While joyfully awaiting our flight we received a message that one of our dear friends was nearing death after a long battle with ovarian cancer. We were completely unprepared for the immediate flood of contrasting feelings: Devastation over hearing we would never see our friend again collided head on with the ecstasy we had felt only moments before.

The mysterious weaving of life and death...a tapestry none of us can fully understand. Our friend had battled cancer with a dignity and strength we all admired. She had also just become a new grandmother with a little grandson that made her world complete whenever she held him. She had set a goal to be at her daughter's wedding this summer. She was experiencing life's great joys when her life ended.

I thought about Isabel Allende's words in her beautiful book, "Paula", as she prepared her daughter's body after death, gently washing and anointing her while at the same time welcoming her new granddaughter into the world. When I first read her book, I was fascinated by her insight into these seemingly contrasting situations. She didn't see it that way. "We celebrated the gifts [Paula] had given us in life, and all of us said goodbye and prayed in our own way. As the hours went by, something solemn and sacred filled the room, just as on the occasion of Andrea's (the granddaughter's) birth. The two moments are much alike: birth and death are made of the same fabric. The air became more and more still; we moved slowly, in order not to disturb our hearts' response. We were filled with Paula's spirit, as if we were all one being and there was no separation among us: life and death were joined. For a few hours, we experienced that reality the soul knows, absent time or space."

Many of us were in a joyful time of life before our own child died. A new promotion, a son accepted into the college of his choice, a fun family vacation, new home or recent graduation - events like these were in full swing, and then our child was taken from us. I was in the midst of an exhilarating children's weekend that had been planned for two months with my friends and their children when my daughter Kristen was swept out to sea. The intensity of our joy only moments before was washed away by an intense sorrow. How could that happen?

As I look into my newborn grandson's eyes I can't help but wonder what life will ask of him. I know he will experience both pain and happiness, for that is what life is about. I know that at times, these emotions may also collide for him as they did for us. We can not always protect him. I only hope that with our love we can give him the courage and confidence not to fear but instead to grow from these holy mysteries of life.