My grandmother, Pauline Buttafuoco (no relation to Joey) died on Wednesday. In less than a week she went from being fine to well, dead. At this risk of appearing morbid or more soulful than I am, I have been thinking about death a lot lately. I have experienced a figurative death of my own–watching the life and plans that I had for myself and the illusion of life control dissipate. I have been thinking less about what I want to be when I grow up, rather than who. And especially in light of current events, how I hope to be remembered.
Believe me that when I say that I’m glad that my grandmother passed quickly, it’s not out of a lack of feeling or love. She was 94. Getting the chance to spend time with her was a primary factor in my decision to move to Washington, where she lived only a short metro ride away from me. She lived three times my lifetime, and if I am remembered in death the way that she was cherished in life, I will have considered myself a success.
I am grateful to have enjoyed an especially close relationship with her, as she lived with my immediate family for most of my life and helped raise my siblings and me. It is hard for me to imagine this strong, independent, sweet-yet-sometimes-scary woman (as most Italian women tend to be) disappearing from this earth. As the prophet Isaiah once wrote:
“All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.”
But my grandmother was 94. And led a full life–of joy and love, and of suffering and grief. She will leave behind a legacy of faith, a lot of great genetic material (thanks for the youthful skin, Grandma!), and a truly delicious recipe for meatballs and sauce. Really. Her sauce is the best.
My grandmother will be missed and mourned by many. She was a selfless person who, at age 13, left school to work during the Great Depression to help support her family. A talented seamstress, she made sure that her children were dressed well, even if their clothes were homemade.
But she’s not going to be remembered for having been a seamstress. She’ll be remembered for the exceptional way that she loved people. She suffered through some traumatic abuse, poverty, a miscarriage, the slow death of my grandfather from cancer and then her own bout with cancer. Even though this life handed her disappointment after disappointment, she never became bitter or angry. That’s how she lived and that’s how she’ll be remembered.
Which of course, brings up a host of existential questions on which only people with a lot of time on their hands or philosophy majors likely dwell. Like what happens when we die? Do we have souls? What is a soul? Is there a God? If so, why did NBC cancel BFF’s?
As it might be apparent from some of my posts, I am a Christian. I don’t usually like to get into the what and the why and the how on here, mainly because it’s just not the forum for these questions. However, for the purposes of this essay, we might need to drill down a bit. And by “drill down” I mean I’m going to quote C.S. Lewis a lot.
According to the Bible, and probably several other religions, yet articulated brilliantly by Lewis, “you don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Which means that when our bodies die, we are essentially left naked. Awkward! Probably about a thousand times worse than literary nudity. All the more reason why it’s important not to neglect your soul. No one wants to see a metaphorically saggy, veiny, and fat soul wandering around.
But we don’t look at life that way do we? We’re so focused on career success, money, achievement, image, comfort. All of those things are wonderful to have, but we fool ourselves into thinking that we need them in order to adorn ourselves. We gild the lily by covering our true beauty with endless clutter. And all that clutter can be gone in a moment. The investment we make in terms of our character and relationships with others is what remains, even when the external props of this world fall away. I believe that life here on earth is meant to shape us either into “heavenly” or “hellish” beings.
I see that in my grandmother. Her life reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said in “The Weight of Glory”:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. … There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
Having the chance to spend a lot of personal time with my grandmother since moving to DC led me to reconsider even more what kind of legacy I want to leave. I can’t say that I have always invested in treasures that will last. I’ve spent much of this past year watching so many of my earthly prizes, obtained through hard-fought and anxiety-ridden battles, disintegrate. I’ve watched my carefully edited image, crafted around bitch-heels and edgy fashion fall to the floor like an old dress. Last week I put it on for an event with some New York friends and I felt as though I was wearing someone else’s skin. I hadn’t realized that so much of my “self” was so disposable.
My grandmother’s passing reminds me that though she lived a very simple life, she was neither dull nor uninteresting. Her persistent faith through time, tragedy, and trials made her a beautiful person. Yet I believe that there will be a day when I will see her exactly as God sees her, someone we would be strongly tempted to worship here. It scares me to think about what refining processes I have yet to experience while I am here.
Personally, my extended period of “funemployment” and the hopes that have been deferred as a result have shown me that I’ve lived too long under the assumption that I am in control over my life. I’ve taken myself too seriously. If I have another sixty years ahead of me, how do I want to live them? Will hoarding life’s blessings to preserve my comfort here, “under the sun,” make me a brave or peaceful or gracious person? If I believe, as I claim to, that I have been granted a new life through my faith in Jesus, I think the most responsible way to live it is joyfully and fearlessly, knowing that this world is a mere rental until we settle into eternity.
Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years a man may live,
let him enjoy them all.
But let him remember the days of darkness,
for they will be many.
Everything to come is meaningless.
Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
*Title from Ecclesiastes 12:6-7