A little over a week ago, a great lady slipped quietly and effortlessly into death; Lillian Dordan Gray, my mother-in-law for 9 years, died surrounded by children and grandchildren.
Her passing brings to a close a rich, complex life lived with great intelligence, tenacity, faith and purpose, and to say that I admired (and feared) her is simply an understatement.
I don't truly know how she managed sometimes through some terrific struggles and intense suffering.
But manage she did, always a little tough, always a little fiercesome, always with an eye toward beauty and practicality.
In Lillian's world, it wasn't a paradox to be both hopelessly old fashioned and thoroughly modern. There was no contradiction between seeing existence through deeply compassionate eyes, and playing the role of the knife-sharp dowager, often ready and waiting to draw blood.
She cut through a lot of duality, while creating even more.
She acted compassionately out of her deep faith, while sometimes leaving a faint trail of blood. As is often the case, she was toughest with those she expected the most from.
Over the last several months that we have known she was approaching death, many memories have come to mind, unbidden.
Her son and I started a family practically as soon as we were married, and her grandchildren supplied her with endless pleasure. Like most young married couples, we struggled to make ends meet, since I was a stay-at-home mom. Lillian visited frequently, always satisfied with yet another tuna salad sandwich, and no matter how I doctored that tuna with apples and pecans, to me it was always just tuna ...to Lillian, it was "my favorite!"
She never arrived empty-handed--a giant red balloon for her grandson, which we tied to his wrist while he walked the balloon around the backyard, showing off his flower garden. An adorable dress or pair of shoes for her granddaughters which became instant favorites. A box of fresh, expensive pastries from the local Swiss Bakery. A crisp 50 dollar bill tucked into my hand at our parting, "just a little walking around money," she would say.
Or, "Get a baby sitter and you two go out and have a nice dinner...."
As the years went by and I was no longer married to her son, we kept up a friendship, and later a correspondence through cards and photographs, occasionally lunch when I was passing through. As difficult as it was to formally leave her family, there was never any blame or recriminations, and that fact always left me feeling tremendous gratitude for Lillian's understanding. She had learned long before we ever met that piling suffering on top of suffering was senseless and foolish.
So she kept her heart open in this regard, in a manner that allowed me to remain decently and simply connected.
As a faithful practicing Catholic, she had many expressions of faith that I had never heard before, and being the general heathen that I am, had little appreciation for. One of those expressions was, "There go I but for the grace of God," which she uttered quietly when we came face to face with deep suffering. Frankly, I was too ego driven and immature to even try to understand these words, and being prideful, I never asked.
Looking back, I realized I missed a golden opportunity to really delve into her own beliefs and vision, and I regret that now.
But over the past few years, her words have come back to me so many times, unbidden and complete, and my heart understands what my head just kept pushing away.
Lately though, Lillian's words have become shortened, and I hear simply, "There go I."
To Lillian, in gratitude.
Namu Amida Butsu!