On Wednesday morning, I woke up and started making coffee. I checked our website, and saw Rod’s beautiful blogpost about the passing of his father. You can see in his writing the love and joy, coupled with heart-melting grief, that makes the death of a Christian so beautifully painful. We hate their absence, yet are joyful for them. We know they are tasting better things than anything this world has given them.
As I smelled the coffee, took in the morning light, I remembered that it was this exact time last year when my grandmother was dying—when we were gathered around her bedside, spending our last days with her.
As I reflected on the year that has past, I could see that her death has in many ways changed me—encouraged me to make hard decisions, ones that are life-altering and even frightening. I’ve been trying to live in a way that would delight her and give her joy, if she were still here. It’s easier for me to live in a mode of independence—shirking all unnecessary commitments and relationships, sinking into work, spending my free hours in solitude—than it is for me to embrace family with open arms, make myself vulnerable, reach out to those I don’t know or understand as I ought, open my life to new loves, obligations.
It’s been a year of trying to emulate her virtues, and it’s been difficult. To be a hostess on an Elaine level is no easy task. I think it will take me a lifetime to learn her art, the effortless way in which she blessed through food and drink, beauty and rest. As of now, I often feel that I’m following the forms, without quite capturing the spirit. But this is, I’m reminded, how spiritual discipline often works, as well: we say the prayers, even when we don’t feel them or understand them with all the crispness and beauty and devotion that we ought. We start with form, and grow in grace. The virtues of comfort, grace, sweetness, and service threaded through her life. It seemed effortless, but I am sure it was not. After all, was she not also a quiet and independent person, oftentimes? Private and thoughtful, slow to share her feelings? I think she must have grown in it, too.
Earlier this week, I read David Brooks’s column about how we make big decisions—life-altering ones. How do we know whether something so transformative and challenging will give us joy? How do we decide to pursue it? At the end, he suggests a method:
We’re historical creatures. We have inherited certain life scripts from evolution and culture, and there’s often a lot of wisdom in following those life scripts. We’re social creatures. Often we undertake big transformational challenges not because it fulfills our desires, but because it is good for our kind.
… Most important, we’re moral creatures. When faced with a transformational choice the weakest question may be, What do I desire? Our desires change all the time. The strongest questions may be: Which path will make me a better person? Will joining the military give me more courage? Will becoming a parent make me more capable of selfless love?
… Which brings us to the core social point. These days we think of a lot of decisions as if they were shopping choices. When we’re shopping for something, we act as autonomous creatures who are looking for the product that will produce the most pleasure or utility. But choosing to have a child or selecting a spouse, faith or life course is not like that. It’s probably safer to ask “What do I admire?” than “What do I want?”
What do I admire? Or rather, who do I admire? When making tough life choices, I find myself reckoning by the history I know. I call to mind the lives that have guided and loved me. And when I begin to shake in my shoes with the enormity of commitments, potential failures, unknowable transformations, I think of those saints who’ve shaped and blessed me in the past. Motherhood, for instance, is a frightening thought: a whole new world of commitment, challenge, potential failure. But I think of my mother—the professional ballerina who hung up her pointe shoes and settled into family life without a regret. I think of my grandmother, resting back in her armchair, watching her living room swarm with children and children-in-law, myriads of grandchildren young and old, all the voices warm with laughter and conversation. And I remember the sweet, joyous smile on her face.
Life scripts. They guide us. Rod found himself beckoned home through the life script of his sister, Ruthie. Despite all the challenges, he has found opportunities to bless and grow in that community. In this year, I’ve found myself increasingly guided by the life script of my grandmother. Her absence has left a gaping hole in my heart, in many ways—a yearning for her, and a yearning for what lies beyond. But there’s also a new resolve in my heart, to follow in the footsteps of the giants who’ve come before me, to grow in grace, and to always ask that question: who do I admire, and how can I emulate them?