Into the West

Men cannot truly say–hall-counselors, heroes under heaven–who received that cargo.
–Beowulf

I am crawling around on the floor, picking crumbs off the carpet.  Another family will have Thanksgiving dinner here tonight, and the room must be cleaned before their arrival.  Just outside the door, an old woman sits on a sofa, her hands busy.  I think she is knitting.  The ghost of Madame Defarge flashes across my mind’s vision, knitting, knitting, as heads fall in baskets, knitting, knitting as she watches the slow steady stream of lives passing her by.

The elves are leaving Middle Earth.

I have managed to get through this meal.  Thanksgiving wasn’t always like this.  It was always my favorite holiday, the one when the loud, crazy Sullivans crammed around tables to eat too much and bring up all the subjects you’re not supposed to talk about at dinner–religion, politics, population control.  Thanksgiving was the sacred holiday, the one that escaped Hallmark and Wal-Mart and thumbed its nose at capitalism.  After all, being thankful for what you have tends not to motivate people to rush out for yet more plastic junk.

We’ve dispersed now–my sister west to Denver, my brother northwest to Winnipeg.  Aunts and uncles are a little too far away, a little too busy to come.  Still, we are four generations:  my grandparents, my parents, my husband and me, our two boys.  But Thanksgiving is smaller, and my grandfather is in a wheelchair.

I pick the crumbs from the floor afterwards.  I am okay.  I will be okay.  But it’s the little things–straws on camels’ backs, grains of sand in oysters, mosquitoes–it’s the little things that strike with quiet devastation.  I mark where the crumbs lie concentrated–beneath my boys’ chairs, and beneath my grandfather’s, as they sat at the feet and head of the table.  Because I am a writer, the symbolism doesn’t just hit me, it hunts me down and beats me over the head, leaving me aching and speechless.

My husband comes in, asks how I’m doing.  All I can tell him is that my mind is full.  But it is my heart that is overflowing.

I gather the last of the crumbs.  I collect the threads of my life in my hand.  My little dog, my first baby, has been sick for a week.  The tumors on her lungs have doubled since summer, and on Tuesday the vet gently suggested that it might soon be time to “discuss our options.”  A dear friend far away is battling cancer, beyond the reach of my arms.  Parkinson’s is rising over my grandfather like the inexorable tides of the Chesapeake, where he taught me to plot a course, to navigate by buoys, to curl a rope into a neat spiral on deck.  I am grasping at fraying rope ends now, trying to twist them together in a pattern that will make sense, but the tears start to prick at the backs of my eyes, blinding me.

Outside, the old woman sits.  When I look at her more closely, I realize she’s not knitting.  I’m not sure what she’s making, but she has a pair of scissors, and she is cutting, the blades slicing through the threads.  She is not Madame Defarge after all.  I was mistaken.  She is one of the Fates–Atropos, cutting the threads of life.

I steer the car homeward in a haze of sorrow and self-reproach.  Why don’t I visit my grandfather more often?  As early as I can remember, he was my favorite person in the world, and I loved him with all the fierce child-love in my wild little heart.  I don’t know what makes a shy pacifist bookworm adore her gregarious veteran grandfather above every other living creature, but I didn’t just love him–I wanted to be him.  He was, and is, my hero.  I realize, driving away from the retirement home where he has dozed off in his wheelchair, that I haven’t been spending time with him because I don’t want to remember him this way.  Jane Eyre whispers in my ear, “Duty.  Cowgirl up, chica.”  I know she’s right, but I want to remember my handsome grandfather standing straight and tall, dancing like Fred Astaire in the living room, mixing bloody Marys, spinning me stories that made me almost sick with regret that I hadn’t gotten to fight in World War II.  I want to remember him plunking down an armful of charts on the dining room table after breakfast and announcing, “You’re going to learn to navigate a course at sea.”

But I don’t know how to chart a course through these waters, and my captain has pointed his prow toward the Grey Havens, where I can’t follow.

“Fear death by water,” T. S. Eliot murmurs, and I do, but it is not the ocean that frightens me.  It is this salt water of grief brimming up from within.   The Spear-Danes mourn the loss of a good king.  Sam stands weeping at the Havens.  The wave of our sorrow threatens to obliterate us.

I don’t care if you’re an hour old or a hundred years, if you’re a saint or a psychopath, if you go on two legs or four–there should be tears when you slip the moorings of this life, drops of salt water to buoy up your vessel just a little more for the final voyage.  Tears are the last sacrifice we can offer, falling into a vast sea of loss.  But I have to believe that every ocean has a shore, and that each vessel that sets sail will find safe harbor at last, in a place beyond tears.

I arrive home.  Lifetimes away, the keel of a ring-necked ship scrapes the shingle of a distant horizon.

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8 thoughts on “Into the West

  1. We always want to remember our heroes as they were rather than how they are at the end. When the brightest part of their life has passed them by it is hard to see how they’ve changed. You have to view them as you never thought they were…as mere mortal. It is so hard to do that because they were so much larger than life. This really hits me as I spent time at the nursing facility. On the surface you saw happy smiling faces, but just under that surface….you could see that tension…that roiling just below the skin feeling like you. It was interesting to watch being an outsider and not knowing anyone there, but trying to make quick/temporary friends on a day that is made for family.

    I just get how you feel right now..i feel it too often these days. I’m sorry that your furry child isn’t doing so well. As always..i’m thinking of you guys!

  2. Thank you for your blog posts, Brenna. To me, they are a sort of lectionary that guide me through the year.

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