I spent the past two days at my grandmother’s bedside, watching her die. We don’t know how long she has — minutes, hours, days, weeks? For anyone who’s been there, you know what I mean when I say it is both horrible and awe-inspiring to experience the dying process up close. When I said goodbye, I knew it was likely the last time I would see my grandmother alive since I don’t live close enough to pop in for regular visits. I whispered, “I love you,” as I hugged her, not expecting a response, but she whispered it right back to me. And so, as sad as it was, I will have that with me forever, that final exchange of love.
As I drove the two hours home, intermittently singing along with the radio and crying into my Dunkin Donuts coffee, I began thinking of what needed to happen in the days ahead, and I realized that as the rest of the world prepares to celebrate a birth at Christmas, my family is preparing to celebrate a death. And somehow it seemed fitting. Our Scripture readings this season focus not only on the coming of Christ in a manger but on his coming again. We are reminded to be ever watchful, to understand that our hour could come when we least expect it. I briefly thought about the very real possibility that I could die in a car crash on the way home before my almost-101-year-old grandmother takes her last breath. And isn’t that exactly what Advent is meant to stir up in us?
It’s not — despite what the world would like us to think — simply a time to hang decorations and fill stockings. It is a time to take stock. Where have we been, where are we going, what do we need to do to prepare the way of the Lord in the manger at Christmas and in our hearts each day?
Driving up the highway, I found myself overcome with a sadness tinged with an odd joy every time some spectacular scene came into view. As I looked ahead at the beautiful snow-covered Adirondack Mountains, I marveled at the way their bluish-white color was the same as the sky, the same as the clouds, and yet every peak and every cloud was distinct and magnificent. And I cried because I think I was overtaken by the reality of God’s awesome hand in all of this, a force that could set this world and this life into motion and then pull pieces of it back, sometimes without warning and sometimes so slowly we beg for mercy.
When I was only a couple of miles from home, I rounded a bend to face a sky streaked with orange and pink and steely winter grays as the sun sank to the horizon line, leaving a bright glow in its wake, and I thought of my grandmother, about how she will never see another sunset, which made me sad, and about how she is facing the sunset of her life, which made me sadder. How do we prepare for that? We want only joy and blessings and possibility, but this life demands that we accept sorrow and sacrifice and an eternity that never seems to arrive at a good time. Are we ready? Not yet, as least not here in this heart. But these days, these hours of watching and waiting give us the chance to prepare, to come to an understanding, however painful, of who we are and where we are headed and to look forward with hope anyway.