How to Die Well

Church mothers come in various shapes and sizes. But the greets are often universally known and welcomed; large hugs, wet and often broadly placed kisses to remind you that you are in fact, never too old to have cheeks covered in lipstick, and reminders about how much importance your existence holds.

Mrs. Jones was one such church mother. She stood a tall 5’1, with weathered hands and an unbroken spirit. Every time I came home from school, she would make sure to give me an incredible hug and grab both my hands, (one was never enough) squeezing them until their were almost void of circulation. I never minded, because it was her way of making sure from that I knew, from top of my head to my toes, that I was loved so completely, that no one could affect that. She would always say the same phrase:

Jonathan, I pray for you everyday. You are going to do incredible things with your life.

I came home for a two week health leave during high school, which doubled as probably the most difficult period of time my parents and I had ever spent together. I was in shambles. Anxious, frustrated, and feeling completely lost, I wanted nothing to do with anyone. I was failing classes, struggling to think clearly, and thought I’d lose all my friends, because I was only a shell of the person I had been. I felt worthless.

Mrs. Jones told my mother to not only leave me at Saint Paul’s, but that I needed to stay there, and I was going to be fine. I was failing everything but English and an elective course. Pulling me out of the environment would not only have been the logical thing, it was probably the most pragmatic and efficient for all parties involved. But Mrs. Jones had sight that others didn’t.Faith is all Mrs. Jones had and all she ever needed. She gave it away freely, and motivated people like my mother to take bigger risks, and live bigger lives. It anchored her, and served as a beacon for anyone she met.

To her, purpose trumped practicality in matters that seem impossible. It was her belief that I was not just meant to be at Saint Paul’s, but that there was a reason for it. My mother was just as nervous as I was about the future. She had let her son go into a new environment, and it had immediately cost both of us more than we imagined.

For anyone  familiar with death, it tends to linger. When you see it close, especially when you’re young, it leaves an indelible mark on your psyche.The idea of scarcity is centered around a lack of resources, and the feeling that there aren’t enough. I’ve always felt like I’ve had more than enough, even when I didn’t. My issue begins with people I believe were taken from me before it was time. I see in stories, but I feel in waves, so when people leave, it becomes an onslaught of emotion. Playing hurt is one thing. Living hurt is another. There are no crowds. No announcers. No press conference with journalists and talking heads inquiring as to how you managed to muster the courage to make it through Wednesday, when everything exploded on Tuesday.

I had a co-worker tell me that they “never want anyone to see them weak”. They must never wanted anyone to see them at all  I thought to myself.

We treat pain like it's a badge of honor, but then we pretend like no one can see us carrying it.

You can hide the load, but the effects of it will begin to seep into other parts of your life.When I don’t make space for my grief, it screams from other places. It demands air. When confined, it can kill you.

Mrs. Jones ’s health had begun to fail over the last year or so. She lost her husband, and despite my best attempts to deny it, she was in fact getting older, and she couldn’t always squeeze my hands with the same vigor I looked forward too.

Nola called and in her distinctly melodious yet direct tone, (possibly honed from her years as an ER nurse), and asked me the most difficult task of the year; a letter to a dying woman who brimmed with so much life.

Jonathan, Mrs. Jones doesn’t have much time left. Can you write her a letter before she passes away? It would bless her.

It took me a few minutes to comprehend what was being asked. I struggle to keep up with completely healthy family members, much less ailing ones.   I was way out of my depth in telling someone who is a few weeks from death, how I am doing in life. To cope, I procrastinated. I knew what was at stake, but I wasn’t ready.  Next week.  I’m exhausted. I’ll put time in to it this weekend. What will  I say!? Will she even remember me?  I’m not even close to the person she told me I could be. 

Pride and fear are incredible hallucinogens.

They can at once convince you that what you’re doing isn’t the right quality, and that you have more time than you actually do. Neither was true. it never will be. You will fail because of decision paralysis, even with the best intentions.I eventually banged on my keyboard, and ended up with a few paragraphs. The key was to stop thinking about myself, and be honest. Mrs. Jones deserved at least that much, for everything she gave me.

The Aftermath

She died on a Sunday. I was packing for a work trip when I got the text.Grief can be awkwardly overwhelming. For me, it turns normal habits into coping mechanisms. I overcompensated for my pain by doing other things more vigorously than usual.  I finished packed ahead of time. I organized my room. I seasoned some food. I mentioned the situation  offhandedly to my manager, and differed with the “I’ll be fine, thanks”, like a productive worker does.

I took a red eye back to New York on Friday, as I had a panel to speak on. My mom texted me that same morning, reminding me that no matter how far I ran, I was going to have to face facts:

“Excited for you and your brother today at the panel”, she said. “Make Mrs. Jones proud.”

I would have cried, but my eyes were too tired, and my contacts were sticking to them. The students at the conference were joyful, the speakers were incredible, and I left feeling more filled than when I entered. But I was hurting. In the silence, my mind was screaming, and my heart was weeping.

I had never thought about the people who had helped shape my mother into her current state. I know her as a 5’5 giant, seemingly unfazed by life’s many troubles. The truth is much more nuanced. She grew into herself, and her immovable faith. . I only remember my mother as a rock solid woman. Mrs. Jones was a part of her chiseling.

I finally finished the letter, and mailed it. Her eldest daughter said that even though she was too weak to speak, she found a way to force a smile when they read the letter out loud in her hospital bedroom. On her deathbed, she still found a way to exhibit gratefulness.

Mrs. Jones,

Your prayers have been some of the most important things in my life. I have all kinds of doubts; about my future, my present, what’s going to happen to me, and everything in between. I wonder if God hears me, or what I’m supposed to do. In those moments, I often remember that I am loved, and, I have people who intercede on my behalf. Your consistency in your prayer life is one of the best examples of loving God and people I know of. You earnest supplications are part of the reason I survived my time at Saint Paul’s and was able to bounce back from my concussion.

I have been discovering more of my gifts recently, as well. Since I was little, I’ve always loved two things; people, and stories. As I grew up, I started telling my own, and words became even more important. People have started to gravitate towards my ability to write, and it’s been incredibly humbling. People have opened up to me in a way I didn’t expect. I used to think it was random how I interacted with words; now I’m starting to realize there is probably a bigger purpose attached to it.

Now I find myself feeling scared and pretty apprehensive for the future. It’s not that I don’t think I won’t be ok, it’s really about how I plan on mastering my fear, in spite of knowing that it often isn’t real. It’s scary to start to recognize a small part of your purpose, and then be faced with how big it actually might be. I remember you telling me that God had big plans for me, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine them. I didn’t know how much wisdom you were imparting to me. I’m starting to get a clue.

I don’t pray as often or as much as I should, and I’m still searching for a church home. I should be more active about finding the latter and engaging in the former. One thing I do have though, is examples of people like you, who have lived lives in service to a purpose that transcends what’s possible, and directs people to the source of everything.

When you do get home, please say hello to Sarah, Mama Frances, and my grandfather for me.

With love,

Jonathan

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  • MissSuccess

    This was powerful and sweet. And it reminded me about the importance of writing letters and talking with our elders and other people we love. Figuring out how to capture their words/thoughts/voices so that we can have them forever.