And Hear Their Death-Knell Ringing

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During Chloe’s senior year of high school, her grandmother began to die. The day the letter arrived with news of Chloe’s acceptance at Swarthmore College, her mother got the call that Grandma’s cancer had gone to her bone.

Grandma had been Chloe’s inspiration, sometimes. Grandma had been, sometimes, the reason Chloe stuck to her Quaker faith and the reason she was Swarthmore-bound. Grandma had served in the Peace Corps. Grandma had been arrested, more than once. Grandma volunteered in soup kitchens, and Grandma helped refugees find jobs.

Grandma had been, other times, the reason Chloe wanted to turn her back on Quakers and be anything else, once she was on her own. Grandma was the prickliest Quaker Chloe knew, as contentious as a woman could be who wouldn’t strike anyone to save her life. Whether marching in the streets with her sign “I can’t believe I still have to protest this crap,” arguing over Thanksgiving dinner with the sister who agreed with her about nothing, or dragging out a long meeting for business with arguments about the budget or wordsmithing of the State of the Meeting report, Grandma rarely let an argument lie. Once, after Chloe attended meeting for business with Grandma, she saw Madeline, the treasurer, in tears over sharp words from Grandma. Chloe never attended meeting for business again.

After that day, Chloe asked Aunt Tina (the aunt who agreed with Grandma about nothing), “Why is Grandma even a Quaker? She’s the least peaceful person I know.”

Aunt Tina shrugged. “I guess she feels she needs Quakerism.”

Perhaps she did, for it was only in meeting for worship that Grandma sat still and silent. Chloe liked the silence. Sometimes her mother or her father would be moved to speak: her mother’s messages filled with images of their garden and her father’s with bits of history. Chloe, like Grandma, sat in silence. She focused on her breath and let her thoughts float by.

Now Chloe stood, holding her acceptance letter from Swarthmore in hand and listening to her mother speaking on the phone; she heard the break in her mother’s voice as she spoke the word “metastasized.” She dropped the letter on the mantel, went to her room, and closed the door. She knew she should feel sympathy in this moment when she learned Grandma might soon die. She should remember all the things she loved about Grandma, and why she would miss her. Instead, another feeling came to the surface: anger.

Still, on Saturday she joined her mother in visiting Grandma. As always, clutter filled Grandma’s room in the retirement home. Photo albums covered junk mail pleas for good causes, and calacas—Mexican skeleton figures playing musical instruments—competed with books on her shelves. Grandma, wan but cheerful in her brightly colored dress and sandals, stood by one of her bookshelves, instructing her daughter on which books should go to whom.

“These John McPhee’s books,” she said, “would be perfect for Phil. Jenny will like Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet.” Then she turned to Chloe. “For you, Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion.”

Why does she think I’m any good at devotion? Chloe wondered. But she said, “Thank you, Grandma.”

Chloe asked Aunt Tina, “Why is Grandma even a Quaker? She’s the least peaceful person I know.” Aunt Tina shrugged. “I guess she feels she needs Quakerism.”

Two weeks later, Chloe joined Grandma at the meetinghouse for the meeting’s craft group. “Quakers for Socially Responsible Knitting,” Grandma called the craft group, but the name was a joke. The group was simply anyone who wanted to do any sort of craft.

Chloe brought as her craft yarn and knitting needles to make a scarf for her younger sister Jolene’s Barbie. It was, she figured, the one thing that would be small enough for a bad knitter like herself to finish. She wondered what craft Grandma could possibly bring, for Grandma had never done crafts.

Madeline, the treasurer, set up the coffee and laid out mini muffins for the group. As Chloe and Grandma entered the kitchen, Madeline hugged Grandma. Evidently, they had made up. They ate muffins—chocolate for Chloe and blueberry for Grandma—and then joined the rest of the group in the meetingroom. Three other women and one man plied their crafts in knitting, crocheting, and sewing a quilt.

Grandma pulled out her sketchbook and deftly sketched Madeline’s face. Of course. Grandma could do no craft, but sketching and drawing had always been her special talent. Chloe remembered the signs that one year Grandma had painted for Pride, actual paintings in rainbow colors. Grandma had almost danced down the street with her sign, as Chloe walked by her side with another Grandma-painted sign.

At the end of the craft group, Grandma spoke with Ellen, the keeper of the Hold in the Light list. Yes, she told Ellen, she was going into hospice. But who else had been added to the list recently? And Ellen told her.

That’s Ellen’s gift to Grandma, thought Chloe: not just holding her in the Light but letting her hold others in the Light, giving her something she can still do until the end. Would the midweek Holding in the Light Zoom meeting last when Grandma was no longer around to need it? Maybe it would, for someone else. But maybe it would die and be revived again only years later. No one had played piano since George had died. Before she and Chloe left the craft group, Grandma handed Madeline the gift of the sketch she had finished.

The usual senior year activities marked Chloe’s life at school: last AP exams, senior prom, and senior prank. At home, she lived by a different calendar, one marked by Grandma’s decline: the first Sunday Grandma could not ride with them to meeting for worship, so tired that she only joined on Zoom; the day when her parents, too stressed to cook, let Jolene make milkshakes for dinner; and the day Grandma grew too tired even for Zoom.

A month after the day Grandma went missing on Zoom, Chloe came to the meetinghouse for Grandma’s celebration of life. As Chloe’s parents assembled a few carefully chosen sketches by Grandma in the library and Aunt Tina placed a painting by Grandma in the kitchen, Chloe and Jolene greeted their cousins.

“Remember that time when she made pancakes?” said Chloe’s cousin Dan.

“Worst pancakes ever!” Chloe and Jolene said in unison.

The meeting assembled in silence. Chloe focused on her breath, in and out, but her thoughts did not float. Memories of Grandma rushed in, both angry memories of Grandma’s arguments and happy memories of Grandma’s painting, of her little dog, and of hiking with Grandma.

People rose to speak and shared their own memories of Grandma. Ellen had been arrested with her. Dan told the story of the pancakes.

Chloe again tried, in silence, to listen, and again found her thoughts too restless to still.

Madeline rose. “I am going to sing a song that was one of Bea’s favorites,” she said and began: “My life flows on in endless song . . .”

Chloe smiled. Grandma, she knew, especially loved the verse in that song where tyrants tremble. It was like Grandma, the most contentious Quaker Chloe knew, to love that verse. Chloe joined Madeline in the song. She sang with all her might about the trembling tyrants, as if Grandma could still hear.

Lynn Gazis

Lynn Gazis first began attending Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting in 1980 and has been a member of Orange County Meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., since 1999. She works in IT, and in her free time, she loves to sing.

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