“DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.” — John Donne
My grandmother’s name was Hope. I remember learning this when I was little. At the time, I thought it was ridiculous. Who names their child Hope? Hope isn’t a name. Hope is a thing. Hope is something that sits deep down in a person’s heart – that persistent, sometimes annoying voice that tells us to persevere, to carry on, to strive for something beyond our own brokenness. Hope is the notion that all is not quite right with this world, even when things are quite good. Yet hope is also the notion that a world can ever become right at all. It must be both things – a tacit acknowledgement that something is wrong triggering the desire and will to make it right.
As a name, “Hope” offered a platform for easy clichés. Hope is doing well. Hope is happy to see you. Hope loves you. Hope is the backbone of her family. All of these and more could satisfy those who collect hokey phrases on coffee mugs and oven mitts, and the truth is that whether my cynicism wants to acknowledge it or not, these most often really did describe my grandmother. Ironically enough, she embodied hope, acknowledging life’s imperfections without accepting them as inevitable. And because she was hope to me and so many people, it was jarring, perhaps even a bit confusing, when earlier this month news came that Hope had died.
It wasn’t an entirely unexpected death. My grandmother had been ailing in body for years, regularly contracting pneumonia, suffering from congestive heart failure, and unable to walk. In my lifetime alone, she suffered multiple strokes and a broken neck. In recent years, she needed an oxygen machine. She could no longer sleep lying down. Her voice became garbled and strained.
There was a period of about six years where I didn’t see my grandmother. A lot about her changed during that time. In 2010, we finally made it back to West Virginia to visit. Even after all of that time away, her house was something familiar, recognizable. It smelled distinctly of “Gram’s” house. The wall-to-wall carpet ensured that eerie silence we’d grown so accustomed to. The antique crystal and smoked glass ice cream bowls were still in the cabinet. The porcelain Easter eggs were still in a basket on the table between the living room chairs. Everything was exactly the way we remembered it, with one exception – my grandmother.
She came to us slowly behind mechanics of a rolling walker. Her head had sunken down below her shoulders. Her skin had become thin, bunched up and loose like used plastic wrap. Her hair was snowy white, cropped short to her ears where always before it had been far past her shoulders. She couldn’t really hug us because she couldn’t stand that long without assistance. Hope, who meant more to me than any of those things in her house, was the only thing about that visit that was unfamiliar.
I came to understand that if the woman I saw that day seemed to be the shell of my grandmother, it’s because she was. But inside that shell, crooked, cracked, and falling apart, was the very same Gram – the same Hope – I had always known. She wasn’t dying. Her body was dying.
That, I think, is the most difficult thing for us to remember or even believe about death. Just as it is devastating to a child when he breaks his favorite toy and must go on to live without it, so also do we mourn the loss of loved ones when the apparent finality of death takes its hold. But what the child doesn’t understand is that loss of the toy does not mean loss of playtime – it doesn’t mean that the thing the toy was created for has also disappeared, never to be seen again. The same is true of death of the body. It is the vessel through which the soul seeks out and serves its purpose. Just because it ceases to exist does not mean that the person inhabiting that vessel is also gone forever.
This is a hard concept to grasp no matter which faith, if any, a person does or does not subscribe to. Again, like the child, we see the brokenness of the material thing and we can see only loss. That’s because human life was never really meant to be broken or ended in the first place. Death is a consequence of rebellion, but it is also a trick. Death made it appear that my grandmother was unfamiliar when in fact she only looked unfamiliar – she was quite the same woman as always before. This is only one of many tricks death plays on mankind: It speaks to those who are weak in spirit, pretending to be a way out; it speaks to the angry, convincing them that life is unjust and by so doing, suggesting that death is somehow better, stronger; it speaks to all of us, laughing its pompous laugh, because it would have us believe that those who submit to its claim are also eternally under its power.
This is why we fear death, why it saddens us to see loss of life. The very phrase, “loss of life,” implies finality, so that even those of us who believe there is life after death can quite easily get hung up on death itself and nothing more. That is not because death is so powerful, but because life is so meaningful, so beautiful and right. Life is goodness, and the loss of goodness is something wholly worthy of mourning.
The trouble is that we get caught up in the mourning and we forget that death is not final – it does not have the last word. Death’s power over life has been taken away, restored to the one who established it in the first place. We have been given a second chance, if you will, an opportunity to make things right with the world, and not even on our own strength, but on the strength of one who is capable, who conquered death not only for himself, but for all of us. In short, we have been given hope.
Hope, you see, cannot die. Hope lives on when the shell of the body decays, because hope is beyond death’s power; they are natural adversaries. When my grandmother breathed her last, the woman she was in life went on to begin the process of becoming a better woman, closer to life than she ever was before death. Death did not have the last word – it only wants us to think that it has.
I’m writing these words from my couch in my Brooklyn apartment. I’ve been sitting here for five days now in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Across the river and to the east, there are damaged homes and damaged lives. There is loss, brokenness, and suffering. There is death. Yet amidst all of that, there is also a spark of hope, a sentiment rarely admitted to in this tough and superficial city. Volunteers are banding together with donations and work teams, helping those who have lost something to get it back. The destruction you may have seen in pictures strewn across the media this week is already beginning to look like restoration. There is, of course, a lot of work ahead – hope must be action as well as philosophy. But in the midst of the work, what hope promises, what my grandmother always believed, is that as long as we cling to the hope set before us, as long as we ascribe power to hope instead of death, we will be faithfully seen through to a very different end from the lonely emptiness we’ve come to expect from a cold, forgotten tomb.