“Was it unexpected?”
Funny how that seems to be the first thing people say when they hear someone has died.
I heard it after each grandparent, and found myself very seriously responding, especially after my grandmother’s death, “Of course it was expected– no one lives forever. But that doesn’t mean we were ready for it.”
With my grandfather it was the day after his 91st birthday, he had had a lovely day. My 17-month-old had finally smiled at him, and accepted his friendliness. At dinner that night he prayed, thanking God for His great faithfulness and provision in a long and challenging and lovely life.
When I first learned he had died I was rather shell-shocked. But when I was able to think again I remembered two poems. My mother loved the first, and we used it in the folder at his memorial service.
To Be of Use
The people I love best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is as common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museum
but you know they were meant to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
My grandfather was generous and a worker his whole life. This poem encapsulated beautifully the meaning of good work, and what it meant to him, defining, it seemed, his whole view of himself.
This next poem is harder to peg down, but it expresses so well the emotions of my loss, even when it doesn’t match intellectually or spiritually what I really believe.
A Dirge Without Music
Edna St. Vincent Millay
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.
The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Poetry has been so useful to me in recent years, providing my tired but hungry mind with satisfying bites of thought already put in order.
I hope these bites might also offer some encouragement to other readers.