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Handbook for Mortals : Finding Meaning

Night Light

This essay describes how one woman, in learning to pray with her dying grandmother, supported her grandmother and learned to cope with her own loss.

"Night Light"

When I was a preschooler and afraid of the dark, my grandmother, in whose house my family lived, would leave an M&M trail from my bed to hers. I would set forth through the dark house for the night light of her room. Once I'd eaten one M&M, I could find the courage to search for all of them.

My presence in her room always woke her. She would say, "Hello, doll. Dark getting to you?" Then she'd turn back the blankets to make room for me. It was many years before I believed, as my grandmother often said, that there was nothing in the dark that did not exist in the light.

Thirty years later, when a doctor told my grandmother she had widespread kidney cancer, we found ourselves in a different dark. My mind played with the terrible anticipation of her absence, the way your tongue cannot avoid exploring the pain of a fever sore. I wanted to become some sort of light for Grandmom, to blaze a trail from the dark room of her illness, fear, and pain to the light of my love and the love of our family.

But as the days wore on and cancer took her life piecemeal, I clung to what little we could still share. I held her hand and stroked her head. In those last weeks, I sang for her: hymns, spirituals, Irish drinking songs, sea chanteys, "Amazing Grace," and "Lord of the Dance." When I tired of singing, I read aloud: trashy novels, magazine articles, newspaper stories, reports I was writing. The content was meaningless, but my voice calmed her.

During the last two weeks of her life, she taught me to pray the rosary, a ritual I had somehow missed, despite years of Sunday school and church. To her, the rosary was a daily obligation. To me, it was an odd and time-consuming task from an archaic world. She could no longer recite the entire litany aloud and could not keep count of the prayers she had said. She wanted someone to pray it for her. I volunteered. The rosary connected her to her faith and to the past, her parents, her brothers and sisters.

Praying with her as she lay dying became a way to connect and comfort us. I had to concentrate to say each of the prayers on each of the beads, moving them through my grandmother's sore fingers. I could think of nothing else. When we began to pray, it was usually in the midst of her pain and my fear. But by the time we had come full circle, she would be asleep and peaceful, and I would have forgotten, for a while at least, how awful things were.

On the last day of my grandmother's life, she lay in pain in a hospital bed. I could not see the world without her in it, yet I could not bear the world that kept her now. I wanted to say something to release her, and so began to whisper names. I named my sisters and brother, my cousins, my grandmother's siblings; I named streets we had lived on, countries where she had traveled. I whispered and prayed that her tight grip on this life could be loosened by memories of how much she had loved this life, and how well she was loved.

She began to grow calmer later that evening. A priest suggested we play a tape of Gregorian chants for her, and the music stilled her. I went home. My mother and sister were just falling to sleep in her room when she stirred for a moment, sighed, and was gone. As I drove back to the hospital that night, my loss was as overwhelming as the darkness had been 30 years earlier, on my M&M trail to safety. I made that late-night drive to the hospital because I so desperately needed to see my grandmother at peace; it was her turn, again, to guide me through the night, to teach me to walk without fear into the hard moments of this life. I held her rosary beads in my hand and let them rattle against the steering wheel.

-- Janice Lynch

Adapted from The Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness, by Joanne Lynn and Joan Harrold, copyright by Joanne Lynn, used by permission of Oxford University Press.