It starts in a flurry, this sudden plan to go see my 90-year-old ailing grandmother. Some friends had asked if they could take our kids with them on their family vacation. Since that meant being without children for ten days we thought about our response for exactly .0083 seconds. A resounding 'yes' was given.
I had just taken time off for our beach trip so I resigned myself to only taking the Fourth of July off because fireworks set off something inside of me. The wild splash of light stirs up something in my soul. But then my dear husband makes a simple suggestion, to go see her since the grueling drive to Tennessee would be remarkably easier without children.
Before I know it we are there, albeit slightly addled from the overnight drive. We settle into my very hospitable Uncle and Aunt's house and as I set my bag down in their familiar guest room it hits me: just what exactly am I expecting out of this trip? For I had been able to tag along with my sister back in the fall and essentially said my goodbyes. Thankfully the cancer my grandmother was diagnosed with seems to be very slow and I had told my husband that I wanted to go see her again. My grandfather was declining at a time when we had just bought a new house and were doing our best to stay afloat, but I regretted not getting to go see him one last time. So when he asked me, do you want to go see her? I said yes on the exhale.
Upon arriving at her farm the sweet lady immediately launched into stories. She pert near talked the entire time, mainly recounting a story of a woman who had helped her mother with daily household stuff. To hear my Gramman tell it though the lady was actually an angel sent from God to aid them when they needed it most.
The next main topic was how hard they had to work, and the constant stream of chores that went in to their daily life. It is not lost on me that she tells stories of hard work on a farm and I come home to play FarmVille. That, granted, while I have a harder job than most, it still hardly compares to what life was like then. When so much of our day is spent looking at an electronic screen, how can we comprehend being dirt tired and dirt covered?
One topic that comes up is the Oregon Trail. My grandmother mentions how when she volunteered at the local library she stumbled across an ad imploring people from Memphis to come to Oregon. She went on to explain that the ad explained there was free land if they could just 'get there.' It finished with a long list of things they would need to survive the trip. With no small amount of shame I must admit that my primary reference point to understand what she was saying came from an awful Tom Cruise movie. I kept seeing him triumphantly waving a flag.
When she spoke of 'covered wagons' a mysticism entered her voice. What she focused on though was all of the work it took to prepare for the Oregon trail. The long list, and how exact it was, and how likely it had taken someone who had made the journey to write such a detailed list. For they had it down to the exact moment you were supposed to cross the Rocky Mountains.
"Guess what that date was based on?" She asked, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, and we stare at each other across her kitchen table, "Grass! For the cattle..." We nod like of course that made perfect sense.
On and on she talked about all the work that went into such a journey. Don't we get that it is so like life? That it is work, hard work, and it's a journey to get somewhere. In between these stories come out random bits about her plans, how she's arranging her finances and so forth. It's like for all the world she's packing up the flour, the salt, and cramming into her covered wagon.
I think she's timed it just right. That she's managed to cross the Rockies when there is still grass for the cattle. And while most of me is grieved and wants to cling to her wagon wheel and scream 'not yet,' there's a delicate balance to this timing. To making the journey successfully. And my dear, pioneering, grandmother has made it just right. All that is left now is the homestretch. The downhill sprint from the Rockies into to the promised, free, land. Well, free for us, someone had a to pay- there always is a price. I hope Jesus will be waiting for her with outstretched arms. For clinging to his robes would be far better than waving a silly flag.
I don't know what I was expecting from that trip but what I got was this: how to die well. You die well when you do so with an attitude of gratefulness and thankfulness. When you reflect on your life and recount the stories honestly. When you say your goodbyes and prepare to say a very important hello. You die well when you see your wagon full of stuff for what it was, a means to an end and certainly not the end itself. When you see your body as a vessel, a covered wagon, that gets you to a new place. This life is just a journey, it's the next one where we truly live.