I have no idea how people who don’t believe in God manage to survive. How do they not drown under the weight of broken hearts, shattered dreams, crippling fear, and every other darkness that ails mankind? How do they find the hope necessary to push on and keep living when it feels like the world has been yanked out from underneath their feet? I’ve felt peace strong enough to hold me steady even in the fiercest storms; peace so gentle it drowns out the crash of the waves. I would have succumbed to despair a long time ago without God’s love. The fact that people choose to live without this is astounding and heartbreaking.
There is a funeral at my church today. Much as I hate funerals, I almost asked off so I could attend this one. Even though it’s the day before Good Friday, I know our church will be full.
The funeral is for a lady I did not know well. She was one of the matriarchs of our church, with a legacy of prayer warrior, soul winner, and friend. Even without being close to her personally, I can see how her life has impacted those around her.
Her granddaughter’s family has been close to my family for a long time. They moved south years ago for the husband’s job, but we’ve stayed in touch. When this lady’s health started to fail, she moved down with them to be taken care of by her granddaughter, Valerie, who has a history of hospice care.
The monster they were fighting is a familiar one: dementia. I’ve stood on the sidelines over the past few months, hearing snatches of the texts between my mom and Valerie, seeing the Facebook posts, and feeling the agony of a losing battle. And I hated it. The very word “dementia” terrifies me more than tornadoes. Sin may have been the curse in the Garden, but in turn it opened the door for bodies that fail and minds that slip. No amount of advice and experience can prepare you for when it’s a loved one that suffers.
When we got the message a few days ago that Valerie’s grandmother had died and that her family was on the way back for her funeral, I wanted to send a note. I wanted to be encouraging. I wanted to share in the heartache, because my family understands this particular sting a little better than some. But even though I thrive on words, I know that sometimes they aren’t sufficient.* I’d rather stay silent and offer a hug than throw out one of the canned phrases I really started to loathe back in November.
As usual, I turned to books to try to make sense of my conflicted emotions. There are bits of story that help me understand and find encouragement, but I wouldn’t know how to explain their significance in a simple note or a few words face-to-face.
I just finished re-reading A Hat Full of Sky, the second book in the Tiffany Aching mini-series within Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The main character, Tiffany, is a young girl with magic who is learning how to be a witch. I know, I read a lot of books with quirky young witches. This series is special because it isn’t about magic as most people think of it. It’s about the magic of common sense, of knowing how to deal with people and how to help them, of the power of using the right tone of voice, of learning to see the different sides of every issue.
Tiffany is training with a country witch who spends most of her days keeping the farmers, widows and widowers, and housewives around her healthy and happy, even though to Tiffany most of them seem too stupid to be worth the trouble. “Knowing things is magical, if other people don’t know them”, as her tutor explains when Tiffany gets frustrated by the lack of proper magic in their work.
Of course I recommend reading this book, and the others in the mini-series at least, so I won’t say too much for the sake of spoilers. But there were parts that stood out to me then and came back to me this week.
“Now that’s what I call magic – seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on.”
-Mistress Weatherwax, A Hat Full of Sky
Those parts remind me of my mother, who handles the messy bits everyone else tries to ignore and who has been through so much that she really does understand what other people are dealing with.
“You couldn’t say: It’s not my fault. You couldn’t say: It’s not my responsibility. You could say: I will deal with this. You didn’t have to want to. But you had to do it.”
They remind me of Valerie, who has always been steady and patient and full of grace under pressure, and who has weeks and months ahead of her that will be full of people saying it’ll get easier and God knows what He’s doing and that will be sadly lacking in people telling her they’re honestly available if she ever needs them and it’s okay to rest.
“Mrs. Earwig tells her girls it’s about cosmic balances and stars and circles and colours and wands and…and toys, nothing but toys!” [Mistress Weatherwax] sniffed. “Oh, I daresay they’re all very well as decoration, somethin’ for show, but the start and finish, the start and finish, is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.”
– Mistress Weatherwax explaining the true nature of being a witch.
It would sound funny trying to tell my mother, let alone Valerie, that they remind me of witches, and then expecting them to take that remark as a compliment. But it is a compliment. Tiffany is a hero of mine, and the lessons she learns are relevant even in a world without “real” magic. What she learns are the keys to being courageous and kind and clever and useful; those lessons are lived out in my mother’s life and in Valerie’s life. They work a bit of magic every day, just by doing what they know is right, even if it is difficult and messy and heartbreaking.
Bits of Miss Tick’s teachings floated through [Tiffany’s] head: Always face what you fear. Have enough money, never too much, and some string. Even if it’s not your fault it’s your responsibility. Witches deal with things. Never stand between two mirrors. Never cackle. Do what you must do. Never lie, but you don’t always have to be honest. Never wish. Especially don’t wish upon a star, which is astronomically stupid. Open your eyes, and then open your eyes again.
* There’s even a quote from the book for this, when Tiffany is describing her grandmother: “She collected silence like other people collected strings. But she had a way of saying nothing that said it all.”