Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Eulogy for my Grandmother

It is a spring Sunday in southern Spain, where I have been teaching and living these past months, and we who are still alive wake to the sun breaking for us. It comes into the window of my flat, the shutters now thrown back, and I sit under it, my hair wet from the bath, a coffee, hot in my hands. The sun lights this whole splendid world for us, and for everything else too. Everything that is or ever was on earth was made by the sun. Trees and flowers were made by the sun, whales and elephants and giraffes, yogurt and beer and biscuits were all made by the sun. I was made by the sun. And you too are made by the sun.

My grandmother, Maxine Ophelia Buchholz Caswell, died in Idaho, on Friday, in the early morning hours. She is the mother of my father, and of two of my uncles, and she lived to see nearly 31,000 sunrises. That seems like a big number, and enough for anyone, but putting the number down at all connects me with my own end, and maybe connects you with yours. Our little lives are brief next to the great age of the sun, and what my grandmother has accomplished in her passage from this world to the next is to show all of us the way.

I was not with her when she died, but the story I am hearing from you who were there is that she refused to accept that her body’s life was soon to end. She held on to this world with a fierceness I did not know was in her. For years I thought of her as someone who lived mostly at the edges of the world, not in it, and that when her time came to die, she would willingly let go. She spoke often of not wanting to be a burden to anyone, and stated so in a sealed letter she included with her will. But what I mistook for detachment, I realize now was a quiet and uncontestable independence. She wanted to do it herself, or not at all. I must smile at this, for it is in me too, and in my father and my sisters.

I believe that the universe is not tuned for extinction, but for transformation—transformation that is in-line with the first law of thermodynamics: energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it must change form. Birth and death are bound together at their ends; they are as much the same thing as they are opposites.

We cannot know if we will see her again, but we do know that where she has gone, we will all one day follow. After this ceremony today, it is our great task to live on without her, to work hard, to love well, to open ourselves to the sun that is rising for us through the window.

Goodbye, my grandmother. Godspeed you on your way.

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