dying words

Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, USA

In two different parts of the country, both of my parents are flirting with death. I’ve been here in Waynesville watching my mother rapidly fade into the frailty of a baby bird, all angles and featherless wings. Meanwhile, my father, near Tulsa, pulls his oxygen tank around the house and wheezes into the phone when we talk.

As I reach out with both hands for something – anything – to give me solace and strength in this double whammy time, over and over again, words save me.

At the local superstore, I found a talking birthday card with a photograph of Mister Rogers on the cover. He’s sitting on his bench in his red cardigan, smiling in such a nice way. Here alone in my mother’s apartment, which she’ll never come back to, I frequently press one of the buttons at the bottom of the card and listen to his kind voice and wise words:

  • “You’re just the way you’re supposed to be. You’re growing just right.”
  • “In some way, just by being a human being, each one of us is very, very fancy.”
  • “You’re unique. You’re the only person who is you. There has never been another person exactly like you, and there never ever will be again.”

Not long ago, on January first, my friend Samantha Reynolds quietly launched her poetry blog, bentlily. She writes one poem a day and I cling to them like life preservers. She’s become my favourite poet, for the consistently vulnerable, exploratory, punch-packing way her poems light me up and reconnect all the pieces of me that had been trying to escape. They remind me that being open-hearted is an asset. See for yourself – dip into “The Death I Want” or “The Short Story” or “Dolly Parton’s Mouth.”

My clients and the uplifting work they do – like the essays on life by me and the animal totems work in development with Sarah Seidelman of Joy Junket – help me not only because I get to make a living steeped in words as I edit and ghostwrite, but because they and their words and ideas teach and comfort me.

All of those words, and others, are helping me through. But the ones that consistently crank the dial all the way up are the words “I love you.” At the care home where my mother is, we frequently hear the staff tell the patients, “I love you.” And they mean it. I know because I watch their faces and eyes closely for signs of falseness, but I only see genuine feeling, and even, sometimes, the wet gloss of tears. My mother is really that special to them, I think, and it helps immensely.

Once, when my mother was still able to tiptoe herself along the hallways in her wheelchair, she passed another white-haired woman in a wheelchair and they stopped and chatted for a moment. My mother had never seen this woman before, but they exchanged a few short phrases about getting their teeth cleaned and heading off to bed. As they parted, the woman said to my mother, a perfect stranger, “I love you.” I have no doubt that she meant it.

But the power of “I love you” on its own paled within the context of what my mother and I called The Onslaught of Love, the three days we were graced by our family, who came to say their goodbyes to Mom about a week ago. They dropped everything and caravanned over from Arkansas and Tennessee and Georgia, bringing their slow-rolling accents and their highly developed skills at sitting around and telling stories that reveal and teach.

Everyone – my aunts and my cousins, the frail and the manly – looked deeply into my eyes and said “I love you” dozens of times a day, with full facial and eye involvement. They cried without hesitation. They told me they’re proud of me. And they bear-hugged me to the point where I started leaning into strangers, expecting to be hugged just because I was near enough.

I told them about Dad, in Tulsa, and discovered that they all regretted losing touch with him, decades ago, in the wake of my parents’ divorce. So, sitting around the activity room at the care home one afternoon, I got Dad on the line and they passed the phone from hand to hand as everyone told him, “Hello, I’ve missed you so much” and “I love you.”

At the ends of those days, I’d go back to Mom’s apartment and cry with joy, because it was the only way I could figure out how to process all the love.

Yes, my parents are dying, but I find a sweet, drunken softness in the words at the center of this experience, like cognac drips from a half-bitten chocolate drop. It’s more than enough to sustain me.


UPDATE: Mom died the day after I posted this article. The day after that, my friend Samantha (the poet I mention above) wrote a poem which continues to comfort me: “Somebody tuck her in tonight.”

19 comments to dying words

  • Only today I found out that Nancy died in 2011. I was devastated. I took a marbling class with her and SHE changed my life. She invited me to come back again to the Folk School and do a class as her aide. We got to room together in Farm House, and I was in heaven. I actually persuaded her to come to my home in Marietta, GA for a weekend before she came to live near you in British Columbia. I got a laptop for her to bring along. Nancy was so funny and creative and magnetic. The last thing I said to her when we tearfully parted was that I wish the stork had dropped me into her basket.

    • I’m sorry you had to find out this way, Sylvia, and it’s nice to meet you. Let’s be in touch further by email. Thank you for reaching out. – Grace

  • Hilma

    I was catching up on reading tonight and stopped by your pages. I’m so sorry to hear that you have been through such a hard time. I can see that you have been surrounded by loved ones and you are all giving strength to one another. I am thankful that you were able to be with your Mother and had a special time with your Dad also. Those times are so hard, but yet so special as well. You will be in my thoughts and prayers.
    Much love, Hilma

  • wow, what a great piece of writing, and even more what an inspiration,
    you are such a beautiful woman. and a great teacher. I am so honored to share with you, so often.
    you have taught me so much, Much love…

  • joyce elaine sievers

    Thank you, Grace, for your beautiful words that touch the heart
    and Spirit. I met Nancy at John C. Campbell and have taken her
    marbling workshops a couple of times. We have mutual friends both here in TN (Chery lives not far from me) and in N.C. Nancy has stayed with me in my “tree house” in the past and I cherish her laughter and her aesthetic gifts. I celebrate all that of her Spirit which she shared with us. There aren’t adequate words for our deepest losses. I just hold your hand across the miles and send you much love!

  • that was a lovely gift.

    Thank you.

  • Beautiful Grace, Thank you for sharing your moments with us. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother and so touched and blown away by the powerful times you shared with her and your family. Thank you for sharing them.

    So much love,

  • To find the sweetness and joy in the endings of things is a real gift- and to discover them together in an onslaught of love….it’s the alchemical magic of an life lived wide awake. I am so grateful to have connected with you on the Animal Totem Project as you have given it a deeper treasured meaning for me- thank you. Sending you hugs and all the spirits of the Beasties who can lift you up and show you you are not alone. Funny about Mr. Rogers- always loved his affirmations. It’s what many of us adults need to be reminded of:). I had Snuff-a-lupagus show up yesterday in a journey of mine – shy and happy to help and be of service. Honored, sarah

  • Hi Grace, I taught school with your mom and knew her through the Folk School. I have known and loved her as a friend for over twenty years. We made art together and shared stories about all of the ironic things that teachers’ deal with. She was a great friend , very much loved by so many people here in Brasstown. I am so pleased to learn that you have inherited her gift for writing and her dry sense of humor(ex: She loved being called the “gifted teacher”). I will miss her so very much, my son Jesse will miss her also. I like to think about the “onslaught of love”….this is how my family is as well and I think that we are blessed to experience it. I hope that you will always hold close that” big love” . Sending hugs, Suzy

  • Dear and sweet Grace. I ache to hear of your physical separation from your Mama Bird; I rejoice that you were near when she took her last flight. Thank you for this uncommon gift — so keenly written — that urges us all to remember to pause, and breathe… to see and listen… to say I love you, and mean it. I cherish you deeply, fort sister. With a great big hug, Erika.

  • Ginny Evans


    Thanks for letting me be there with you a little. I will be thinking of you, and I love you.

  • Jan White

    Grace, this is Aunt Janie., It was bittersweet to be with you in Waynesville those few short days. I remember walking with you and David on the shore of Lake Chicot looking for turtle eggs. I don’t remember if we found any but we made plenty of turtle houses with our feet in the mud along the way. And I am sure I told you of having done the same thing with you Mother when she was young. I doubt you will ever trully comprehend the love I have for you. It may not seem like it at this moment but God has you wrapped in a blanket of His love as well as that of your Aunt Janie.

  • Andrea

    Grace, The Onslaught of Love sounds like such a beautiful thing. How wonderful that your family was able to get together and share such love and memories.

    I love you.

  • Marilyn

    Grace, thank you for sharing your writing with us. What a wonderful visit we had and we certaintly meant every “I love you” and the “We are so proud of you.” Always remember that even when it may seem that you are alone, you never are,the love of the Lord is always there with you and so is the love of all al us- all those crazy aunts and uncle and also those wonderful cousins!I understand about writing and how much that helps. May God wrap His loving arms around you and hold you very close .We do love you and your Mom and your Dad. Love,Marilyn

  • Jim Hicks

    So beautifuly said and yes we are all so proud of you. For the caring young lady you are and the caregiver you have become for your Mom and your Dad. I know from being a parent how proud they each must be of you. I am so sorry your Mom is unable to visit with you at this point but you must remember the good times and the talks that the two of you have had. The words that will play over and over in your mind. God gives us a good voice recorder for us to use ‘when we need it’. I am so sorry you are physically there alone but mentally and spiritually remember the crowds that are at your side, most of all remember our loving, caring Father that carries us when we need it. You are in my constant thoughts and prayers.

    Love You very much!!

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