Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Simplicity of Faith

Decades ago, my grandmother and I invented our own language. Part English (my first language), part Portuguese (hers), all of it spoken directly from the heart. If we stumbled on words or intended meanings along the way, we made due with hand gestures and facial expressions. Sometimes, words were extraneous, so we substituted them for big hugs and loud kisses (one on either cheek). Over the years, we’d often sit for hours, gabbing away like this—the chatter interspersed with cooking demonstrations, two-person knitting parties, and frequent cups of tea or bowls of steaming homemade soup. I’d smile with pride when she’d finally realize that I’d kept her up way past her usual bedtime.

My grandmother was more than a role model for me growing up; she was the cornerstone of my faith. You might guess that, given my early exploration of yoga and the study of Eastern religions as a teenager, I had a few questions, err, concerns about the religion in which I was raised—Catholicism. In many ways, I set out to find a new faith. I studied, read, reflected, and inquired a lot, and I discovered religions, philosophies, and ways of thinking that engaged my interest and excited my soul. Still, none of them contradicted what I already knew simply by observing my deeply spiritual grandmother.

Thomas Merton once put it this way, “Life is this simple: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”

That’s how it is around my grandmother. God, the essence of creation, spirit, divine love-whatever you want to call it- it’s in everything she does and everywhere she goes. Her embraces hold special warmth. Her soups bubble over with love. She knits tenderness into life and mends split seams with her joy. I've never seen her treat anyone unkindly or judge anyone, for that matter. She laughs more often than not.

Once, while we were sitting on my parents’ deck, in the sun, on a perfect summer day, she turned to me, as if answering an unasked question, and said, “Rebecca (pronounced with her thick accent: Ha-becca) . . . God don’t sleep.” I had to laugh at the simplicity of this statement of faith—and her feigned solemnity (she's rarely serious). Yet, this is how we speak. Part English. Part Portuguese. All heart.

At a certain point, I had to take more of the lead in our conversations, and she would accidentally slip into long detours in her native tongue without realizing it. When these linguistic detours began, I would nod and smile and cling to as many familiar words as possible. On some level, I knew what was happening. Mostly, I just couldn't bear the thought of a conversation with her that didn’t make complete sense to me.

My suspicions were confirmed when one day, while, again, sitting in the sun on my family’s deck, she asked me if I wanted her to cook me a hamburger. While thoughtful, this was odd for a couple reasons. First, I hadn’t eaten red meat since I was nine (and was 26 at the time). Second, it was 9 o’clock in the morning.

Soon, doctors confirmed her Alzheimer’s. For the next year or so, she was mostly herself with only a slight jumbling of information and identities. For example, during a conversation not too long ago, this deeply religious, apolitical woman somehow forgot who Mother Theresa was (one of her life’s great inspirations) but saw that I was reading Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and offered without hesitation, “He’s a senator.”

Lately, it’s become apparent that more information is escaping her, so the time came, this week, to move her into an assisted living facility, where there’s no chance that she’ll leave an oven on or wander in a direction that fast becomes unfamiliar.

To orchestrate the move, my family convened, like a beehive. We buzzed back and forth, from one place to the next, hauling belongings, moving furniture, sifting through clothes and kitchenware, and, finally, recreating a newer, safer, more comfortable place for her to live. My dad bought a new mattress. My mom displayed her saints just so. Countless friends and relatives lugged and lifted, ordered and organized throughout the day. Perhaps because my grandmother admired her or because I was so grateful for everyone's help, I kept remembering the following wisdom from Mother Theresa, "There are no great things, only small things done with great love."

I was spared most of the manual labor in favor of keeping my grandmother company and shielding her from the confusion of seeing all her things scattered about, boxed up, and displaced temporarily. We walked. She napped. I showed her photos on my computer of us at a wedding just last week (she'd forgotten she was there). Mostly, we talked.

As the long day of moving wound down, my grandmother grew tired, so she prepared for bed, slow but steadfast, until she tucked herself in and said her rosary. I hugged her multiple times and then let her drift off.

Sitting by the threshold in her new home, hunched over a book, with a small lamp lighting the words before me, I smiled at my post. I must have looked part studious college roommate burning the midnight oil (despite the fact that it was only 8:00 p.m.) and part watchdog. My family would return soon from ferrying the last items from across town, but for a time, the beehive was still.

“God don’t sleep,” I thought, before returning to my book. The only detectable sound was the soft, level breathing of my grandmother, asleep on her new mattress.


deep roots said...


This is a beautiful post. It certainly puts things in perspective. You remind us once again that faith is both humbling and empowering. Thank you.

Ana said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paula said...

Your words are pure and utterly beautiful. Grandmothers are a precious gift and I am so grateful for the time that I had with both of mine. Thank you for sharing your experiences with your vavo (grandmother) with me and the world.

Your Prima (cousin)

Anonymous said...

“Deus não dorme”…

I’ve grown up all my life hearing this expression. Separately, 3 very small words but put them together and they symbolize something so powerful and fundamental to even those of minimal faith. It’s omnipresent in our culture. Just like the fado’s emotion-filled rhythms run through the veins of every Portuguese, so too does the unwavering conviction that the end result of this life is a summation of the good you’ve done and the love you’ve given (or not!) to all who’ve been interwoven into the fabric of our lives…

And perhaps this is what gives us the confidence to smile and laugh wholeheartedly even through the most challenging times.

Thanks for sharing this story. It has enriched what was already pivotal in my all-encompassing Portuguese faith. Along with my Mom and my own Vavó, I will always associate your Vavó every time I hear this phrase.

~Ali F.~

AbbyThompson said...

Thank you for sharing your Vavo with us. Your story illuminates what a special and loving woman she is.

I went through the similar struggles and emotions of helping to care for a grandparents with Alzheimer's. If you ever want someone to talk to, please know that I'm here for you. It's a tough and strange road.

Much love to you, your family and your grandmother.

annie hart cool said...

So fortunate to have known her and to celebrate who you have become as a result of her influences... See you over the weekend!

smalls said...

I really love your writing style, Rebecca. It's especially nice to read something so deliberately described that definitely came from within... it has a gracefulness.

Your grandmother reminds me of Jordan's grandmother, who passed away a couple of summers ago. It's nice to be able to appreciate them and feel fortunate to have been in their presence and learn from such special and dynamic ladies.

Namaste, OmGal:)
- Alexis