Today was the first full day that I lived without my grandmother in the world. It’s a very strange thing. Even when someone you love is sick and you know that the last time you saw them could very well be the last time you ever see them, it’s a very strange realization to all of a sudden spend that first day without them alive. She passed away yesterday morning at home, my mom by her side, tending to her with the most awe inspiring care. My grandpa there, whispering to her over and over again “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Today may as well be the first full day that he has ever lived without her as well after almost 70 years together.
Theirs was a love that people write about in the movies and I mean that with no exaggeration. They could have given Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams a run for their money. They met when she was 15 and he, 20. They were married shortly thereafter and she followed him around the world while he served in the army. Two of my uncles were born in Panama, the other three children in Virginia including my mom. Then they flew off to Japan for 5 years. One of my greatest inspirations is the story of my grandmother traveling by herself, with all five children under 7 in tow to meet up with my grandpa in Japan. I have only one child and that thought absolutely terrifies me, and yet to hear her tell the story with such confidence and “matter of fact-ism” always made me look at her as if she had some kind of superhero powers. I’m pretty sure that all other mothers will agree that she did.
But perhaps the hardest part of this first day has been really facing the realities of death through the eyes, ears and ponderings of my 4.5 year old daughter. We have decided to be very honest with her about death and so yesterday when we got word of her passing, we didn’t hide our tears or make up some story. I actually found out while walking home with her hand in hand from our favorite Saturday morning theatre class. I felt her little hand in mine as we walked together, silently, down the street. It was almost vigil like as we walked past people going to temple for Shabbat, other kids and parents walking/running by. We simply walked all the way home, saying very few words, which for a 4.5 year old is quite rare. She has witnessed me grieve and cry a few times since and has even been able to express that she too feels sad. She has asked questions like “But G-Pop is still here?” as if trying to figure out the logistics of it all, knowing that they go together. Then today she asked me the hardest question yet...just before bed this evening she asked me “Mama, why do we die?”. It was one of those moments as a parent when you totally understand why stories of a baby carrying stork get made up because the discomfort of the truth feels so big.
Because the truth is that I don’t, in fact, know why we die. I know that everything has a cycle. I know that all things that live must eventually also die and that, to quote Elton John, this is the circle of life. I know that in nature, in order for things to become new again, they must go through a season of dying, much like this month we are in. But to have an answer to why we die, to me, is also to have an answer as to why we live. And I don’t have one for either. Even in all of my yogi, meditating, energy healing glory, at the end of the day I am humble enough to admit that I do not have an answer to this question and to fully entertain that there may never be an answer to this question. The only thing that I truly know is that I don’t know.
Perhaps this makes me the most spiritual agnostic on the planet. I believe so wholeheartedly in tending to our energy each day, in sitting with ourselves in meditation and using all kinds of tools to help ourselves through the daily challenges of being human. And yet, I am unable to commit to any belief that wraps itself in certainty. I would dare say that I am unwilling to accept that someone on this earth knows something more than the rest of us do about such an important question. I have things that I want to believe. I want to believe that we are all energetically connected. I want to believe that this concept God is an entity that lives inside each of us. I want to believe that there really is a light inside of me that is a reflection of the same light inside of you, and every person that I meet. And I want to believe that there is some purpose to all of us walking around on this earth for a period of time, making connections with each other and then one day, no longer waking up. But to know for sure about these things, I cannot and do not.
I want to be very clear, I do not have a bleak outlook on life. Quite the opposite. I am filled with joy and hope and intense love each day. I genuinely stand in awe and wonder what it means to be alive and have these incredible human experiences. And the way that I do that in the face of this immense void of not knowing is simple; I get supremely comfortable with the uncertainty of it all. I work so hard each day to accept the fact that I do not know when my last day on this earth will be, when the last time I get to kiss my daughter goodnight will be, or my husband, or when the last time I will get to speak to my mom on the phone will be. It is gut wrenching in a way and yet, I am committed to facing that uncertainty head on, not with fear but with the grace of trust. I refuse to allow the fear of what I cannot put an answer to, to carry me down a path of constant fret and worry and doubt. Instead, I dare myself to rise to the occasion in the face of uncertainty, to find ease and peace and comfort in all that I do not know. I dare myself each day to find freedom in this reality.
At the end of yoga, we practice savasana. Shava in sanskrit means corpse and asana means pose. The intention is to practice dying, lying there in stillness after so much living through the movement of our bodies and our breath and our sweat. And while you could certainly make an argument for how it is a practice on how to die well, for me, it is the practice in how to live well. Lying in stillness at the end of practice, is that reminder that one day we will be here for good, but for this day, while we are able to move and breath and sweat, we must do so with the greatest attention to the present moment. There is a quote from the song “Awake my Soul” by Mumford and Sons: “Where you invest your love, you invest your life”. That is what savasana reminds me each time I lie there, that I know who and what I love and that I am, in fact, alive now. Knowing that, is knowing enough.
I did not go into all of this with my daughter tonight. Instead I simply held her close, gave her a hug and said “I don’t know why we die my love. But I do know that our love for each other never will. Just like the love that Nene had for me and I have for her is still here and I can feel it, even though she isn’t. And one day you will pass our love on to other people in your life, possibly your own children and in that way, we continue on.” She seemed satisfied with that answer for now. We crawled into bed and I laid with her as she fell asleep thinking to myself how beautiful this life is, even in all the unknowing. Possibly even because of it. Perhaps the mystery of it all is what gives it such love. The kind of love that I feel for my daughter, that my mother feels for me and that my grandmother felt for us all. I believe that we are lucky to not know the answer to “why” we live and die. I don’t think we actually need to know. Instead, it gives us the opportunity to live now, to discover more each day and only increases the value of the love we all so fortunately get to give and receive from one another. And on this very first day, knowing that my grandma, my Nene, is no longer walking this earth, I am grateful for the investment that she dared to give to me, despite all that is unknown.
I loving memory of Yvonne Steverson 1935 - 2020
is a Mama, Wife, Yoga and Meditation Teacher, Coach, Writer and Activist. You can read more about her here.