Holding and Letting Go


More often than not, it seems, death epitomizes life. This was the case with the passing of my grandmother. Our matriarch, she had held the family together with a balance of judgment and acceptance; eventually she supported my interest in meditation, but not at first.

Still in my teens, I had been living at a meditation center for about a year when I paid a visit to my grandparents in Philadelphia. “Have you ever wondered if they’re putting something in the food?” Grammy asked. No doubt, she and granddaddy had discussed this likelihood in private, but it was her job to raise the question.

“What would ‘they’ put in the food?” I asked. “And why?” Some discussion followed. Salt Peter, I think, was mentioned, its use suggesting challenges sometimes associated with religious training. The question “Why?” was different.

“To keep the people there,” she replied matter-of-factly, as if in training each day on our meditation cushion to let thoughts go, the inmates would, once we came to our senses, leave at the first opportunity. “I work in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure there is nothing added to the food,” I said, trying to reassure her.

When they were younger, as was common in that era, my handsome and modest grandparents sought community and salvation as members of a church. I once found a strongly worded pledge of fidelity to their Christian faith. The pastor’s counter signature was at the bottom of the card. The wording of this commitment, signed before their son and daughters were born, was evangelical.

Later in life, church going was no longer at the center of my grandparents’ existence. Was it a change of heart or simply a relocation that compelled them to let go of this association? Also, how would a conservative church square with the social success and worldly sophistication demonstrated by their successful son and elegant adult daughters? In any case, a growing family was their new community.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother changed. After a year of near reclusively and grief, she emerged open and light-hearted, engaging her world with a new clear-eyed acceptance. “Make friends with yourself and your world,” my meditation teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, encouraged his students at the time. Our world, he pointed out, began with our home, our family.

Grammy and I came to appreciate each other more. She even visited the once suspect meditation center. The solitary retreat cabins on the property meant something to her. “It shows who is in charge,” she said once, after I had let go of my schedule and spent a few weeks alone in one of these cabins.

Near the end of her life, a bible was never far from my grandmother’s bedside. Even so, with me, she was happy to read and discuss Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I had given her a copy of this slim volume, and it too was always nearby, complete with underscores, asterisks and question marks. Her remarks on the book reflected an inquisitive, questioning mind. As a mother and wife she was serious, some said severe. As a grandmother, she laughed more, often at herself.

Around the holidays, Grammy cherished (and compelled) family gatherings, especially if we were all there. On this, the last evening of a long life, most of us were there, gathered on chairs around the hospital bed. In a coma from a brain hemorrhage, Grammy’s final moments had lasted much longer than the doctors predicted. Her two weeks in the hospital had helped prepare us for her departure. We were also tired.

Earlier in the day, a nurse had said “soon.” Would my mom, on her way from the suburbs, make it in time? Suddenly, in a raincoat and stylish scarf, my mother appeared in the hospital room. As if on cue, within minutes, surrounded by her two daughters, son, son-in law, me, my wife, and my two younger cousins—Grammy breathed her last breath.

The room was quiet. Oddly, Grammy’s warm presence was felt even more strongly. It was as if now she was fully free to share the space with the family she loved so well. One of us let the hospital staff know that she had died and asked for time with the body. We all took our turn kissing her, stroking her forehead, saying our goodbyes.

Slim and stylish in a tweed sport coat, colorful shirt and matching tie, the last to pay respects was her son, my Uncle Ralph. As we all had done, he leaned over to give his mother’s body a final kiss and embrace. From that effort, involuntarily, my Uncle passed gas. Given the silence in the room, there was no mistaking the emission. It was a clear, soft, sustained utterance, with a distinct range of notes bridging musically together.

At that very moment, a thought possessed me. A thought that just stayed there, refusing to go, waiting for its import to be fully appreciated.  It was a pronouncement, a banner pulled by an airplane through the clear blue sky of my mind. The banner read:

“I know they talk about death as a letting go, but I think they had something else in mind.”

Transfixed, I didn’t dare examine how others were coping with the interruption. Perhaps everyone appreciated the gravity of the scene, remaining unaffected by this musical coda marking the end of Grammy’s life. I lowered my head, attempting to conceal a wild grin now playing uncontrollably on my face. From the corner of my eye, I saw my Uncle straighten, recover from the embrace and hesitate as he assessed the impropriety. “Sorry,” he said awkwardly, making his way back to his chair.

On my left, my cousin was shaking his head, which I now noticed was also lowered. “No, no,” he demurred solemnly, “It was a gift.”

Here my memory falters. The next thing I knew we were, all of us, laughing loudly, tears in our eyes, bent over, holding our sides. We couldn’t seem to stop. In the small room with a single bed, the sounds of hilarity echoed off the walls, no doubt audible at the nurses’ station just outside the open door. What must the nurses be thinking? How could this situation ever be explained? Questions that only provoked more convulsions.

These were the last moments shared with my grandmother. Nothing more was said. What was there to say? Eventually, each of us recovered our composure and the laughter subsided. Quietly, even meekly, we filed out of the hospital and into a mild fall evening. A soft rain gave the streetlights a wet intensity. It was a sad day and a happy one too. We had joined the one who held us together for final celebration, and in that moment, we had let her go.

Editor’s Note: What more is there to say?

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2 Responses to “Holding and Letting Go”

  1. Katherine Horst Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. You had me weeping and laughing.

  2. Lisa Greenleaf Says:

    Your story leaves me with that wonderful space between the grief and mirth that you describe. It’s such a embodied polarity. The suffering/joy of this world of ours: inner and outer, so to speak. Thanks for giving me this early morning heart-opener!

    Love you, Lisa

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