(Fair warning: This might as well have been a novella. So get comfy before you start)
Easter has always been my favorite holiday. I love the anticipation and preparation of Lent, the sweep and thrall of the story of Passion Week, and the exultation of Easter morning. And it's perhaps the one time a year I still feel okay getting little-girl giddy over picking out a new dress.
Since I came to Kansas City to go to college, I've spent every Easter but one out on my grandparents' farm. Aside from the absolute magic that place has always held for me, there was something so deep-down wholesome and wonderful about having a big Easter dinner with cousins and in-laws around Grandma's table. It was one of the things that solidified Easter as my favorite holiday - doing my best to help and not hinder while Grandma pulled together a veritable banquet for 12 or more, scrubbing down the house so it shone, and Easter in that creaky-floored, white clapboard country church with a congregation who can't hold a tune to save their lives.
But this year is different. I won't be doing any cooking or scrubbing. I won't be going to "Grandma's house" at all. I'm headed to farm, but I'll be staying up the hill at my aunt and uncle's house, as my oldest cousins now live where Grandma and Grandpa did. I'll still get the big family meal, and I'm sure it will be delicious, but I'll be missing Grandma's special touch. All this may sound a bit maudlin, and perhaps it is, but I can't help it. This is the last first.
See, Grandma's cancer came back aggressively and unexpectedly last year. I was one of the last in the family to find out (occupational hazard of being one of the youngest - I still get "protected" a little too much sometimes), but by early February we all knew the truth.That the tumor on her neck was growing far too fast to be combated. That this was going to be a season of "lasts." The last time I could just call on a Thursday to say I was coming after work on Friday, the last wondrous meal she'd be strong enough to cook, the last quiet, comfortable afternoon staring out the window together, the last Easter dinner.
I was busy, but I tried to get out there every few weekends or so for a Saturday. On one of those occasions, she'd baked a pie and had it on the counter, just in case I was staying for dinner. I can't even remember the reason now, but I decided I just couldn't wait around for a meal and had to get back into the city. So I gave her a hug, thanked her for the thought, and left without a piece of pie. As far as I know, it was the last she ever made.
And then came Easter. When I arrived Good Friday evening, the house was full of cousins. Grandma was in her rocker, but obviously fidgeting as three young adults, two teenagers and my aunt attempted to prepare for an Easter Saturday brunch without Grandma's assistance. It was the first time I had it confirmed that Wanda Fuhrman truly could do the work of 8 normal women. It took us hours to get everything done and the kitchen clean - tasks accomplished with laughter and camaraderie, and more than a few moments of wrinkled brows and swallowed tears. We were showing Grandma how well we could manage without her so she wouldn't bolt up out of that chair and exhaust what little strength she had left. But for me, the truth was that I was learning how little prepared I was to manage without her, and realizing how quickly I would have to get prepared. The lump, which had been merely knot-sized on my last visit, had spread further up her neck and swollen the whole right side of her face. My aunt informed me that we were looking at a matter of weeks, rather than months. I cried most of Good Friday night away.
I knew the inactivity was driving her batty, but that didn't keep me from protesting all the way. “Let me do that, Grandma, just tell me what I need to do.”
So she did, and while I was loading the washing machine, she headed down the hall to get a broom and sweep off the porch. When I asked to take it from her, she moved on to the rugs to shake out. When I put the broom down to reach for the rugs, she said, “I think I'll go see to the dishwasher, then.”
I stepped in front of the door and did my best impression of her. “Now, Grandma, am I supposed to be letting you walk around without your walker?”
She looked at me with raised eyebrows and declared, “I reckon I can do as I please.”
It's a moment I cherish. A moment that makes me wince a bit, but one I would never trade. Much like Easter morning. I didn't go to church. Aunt Debbie couldn't leave Grandma that long, and I knew she needed the help. Grandma attempted to stay out of the kitchen, but it was rather a relief when she came over to inspect the deviled eggs Aunt Debbie was making. They were proving particularly difficult to peel, and most had fingernail gouges in the sides.
"Not my best work, is it?" Aunt Debbie joked. "Not as good as you could do."
Grandma gave a carefully calculated shrug. "Doesn't matter. These'll be fine." Then she walked back toward her rocker.
Aunt Debbie leaned toward me. "That's code for, 'I would never, ever put these on my table.' You'd better make an egg run."
I don't know if Grandma overheard that particular exchange or not, but I remember the expression of relief on her face when I came back carrying more cartons of eggs for us to boil.
I spent the next two weekends out on the farm, but by then she was on so many painkillers she was barely aware I was around. On the third Friday, two days before Mother's Day, I had my bag and pillow in my car, when I got the call leaving work. Grandma had passed away, with my uncle, aunt and cousins by her side, in the sunroom of her house. The way she wanted to go. At home, surrounded by family, at peace.
For me, though, peace has been an elusive thing. I've certainly felt it at times, leaned on Christ to get me through the worst days, but the abiding peace that isn't shaken by the sudden waves of grief - I still haven't gotten that figured out. Which is why I burst into tears the last time I made a pie crust, and again tonight when I made a perfect batch of deviled eggs for the first time ever.
This year of "firsts" hasn't been easy. First Mother's Day, first birthday, first Thanksgiving, first Christmas. But now we come to the last "first." And I find that, while for the most part, I feel more healed than wounded, I dread the finality of this Easter. Because once it passes, it will feel as if life really has moved on. I'll have to get used to the idea that, while the hole is still there, it isn't a gaping, fresh hurt any more. Because there are moments when it feels that healing could mean forgetting, and Wanda Fuhrman was far too influential in my life and heart for me to forget.
Eastertide is a season that draws on the whole gamut of human emotion. From the breathless wonder of Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper, to the horror of Jesus' torturous death on Good Friday, to the restless anticipation of Saturday, to the glory of Resurrection Sunday - it's all there. I've been pondering that over the last couple of days as I prepare for the weekend family get-together. You can't appreciate Easter Sunday without the three preceding days, can you? If it weren't for the pain associated with the day, the joy is incomplete. That's where I've been finding my strength lately.
So in conclusion: Love well and generously. Celebrate the pain and victory of Easter. And next time, eat the pie when it is offered. It might be your last chance.