Lifting Off

Twice, in the last two weeks, I heard of a sudden death. 

One was my cousin Lana, who fell asleep in Uganda while visiting her sister, and never woke up.

A few days after Lana’s death, I called a cardiologist at the hospital for help with the pre-op testing for an emergency surgery. He kindly assisted me from his corner in the hospital where he was sitting in front of a computer reading echocardiograms, and I went on my way relieved and grateful for his help. The next day, I got an email saying he had died in the night. 

As I stood at Lana’s grave yesterday as her brothers shoveled dirt over her physical shell, I couldn’t help but be jealous of the way that both of them died. What a dream, to be active, intelligent and useful one day, and be gone the next, as if walking through a door into another room! 

Despite knowing that Lana wouldn’t wish herself back, I couldn’t stop crying as one of her pastors described the little game he and Lana played each year on the birthday they shared (October 12), giving each other birthday wishes, and how her last birthday card to him arrived in his mailbox the same day her body arrived in Minneapolis. 

“He makes everything beautiful in his time,” Lana had written in the card. 

I left Lana’s funeral with a renewed appreciation for our Mennonite funeral traditions, a fresh ache for my mother (knowing her presence would have comforted my aunt), but mostly, the conviction that Lana is the one NOT sad. 

Some of the paintings my artistic cousin had done were posted at her viewing, including an unfinished but striking portrait of her beautiful niece. Beside that was a painting of two geese flying up out of a wooded area. 

I looked at the painting, struck as I remembered the story of geese I had written after my mom’s death. In the short story, a young girl named Meredith is comforted after the death of her artistic single aunt. Her Aunt Mary specialized in painting geese, and drew inspiration from the ones heading South when she became terminally ill. 

“Meredith,” Aunt Mary said, “these geese migrate to the south every fall. Many of them have never been there before. But they take off out of their pond just like this–” Aunt Mary pointed to the artwork, “as if they have complete confidence their Creator will show them where to go.” —Worshipful Families, page 80, Christian Light Publications 

I let the thought pass, thinking I was the only one who would think of the story, since it was one of my favorites, when my sister, silently weeping behind me, motioned to the painting. 

“That’s just like the story you wrote,” she said. 

Like Lana, like Dr. Mishkin, I would love to transition from life to death as smoothly as a goose lifting off from a wooded pond, confident in God’s direction. 

But as Meredith observes at the end of the short story:

If Aunt Mary could face death by looking to God like the goose did, then Merrdith could face life the same way. 

So can we all! 

My cousin Lana’s painting:

 
Some friends and I with our neighborhood ducks.  

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