Life is ironic. I taught a lecture on death to my UCLA students. Death in the Renaissance: how people prepared for it with special manuals called The Art of Dying that addressed fear, loss of faith, reluctance to part with one’s possessions and beloved. These manuals also had sections for priests, to help them administer last spiritual comforts and rites, and for family members – to guide them through the ordeal of watching the dear one die and ponder their own eventual death. I showed my class artworks from that period that depicted deathbed scenes and their aftermath.
I wanted to convey to my students the human aspect of facing death in the Renaissance, because at that time it was far more ubiquitous, visible, and knowable that it is to us in the 21st-century America. We are removed from it much of the time and try to avoid it if at all possible. In 15th and 16th-century Europe death was everywhere. Wars were constant and immediate – on your doorstep, in your town. Babies died at heartbreaking rate. Young women perished in childbirth so frequently that they made up wills before the beginning of labor, in case they would not survive it. Public executions were regular and much attended occurrences. And living in small communities – even in large cities like Florence or London – people witnessed friends, neighbors, and family members die more commonly than we do today.
So I tried to think about it all, with an open heart, though, really, mostly with my analytical mind. Right after the class ended, I got a call from my mother: my grandmother, who’s been declining for some time, stopped eating – not consciously, but because her body began to shut down. It would just be the matter of days.
What I discovered as that day, and then next ones progressed, was that while intellectually I could think about death from many – and sympathetic – angles, emotionally it hit me in a way I never anticipated or could be prepare for it.
I don’t know, perhaps reading The Art of Dying at the bedside of a person who was fading away really helped Renaissance men and women come to terms with this mysterious event. Maybe the fear, and thus preparations for the afterlife – the Last Judgment, the Purgatory, the Hell with all its terrifying devils – transformed their grief and pain into purposefulness. Or maybe the sorrow of loss in universal, at any time, and when it comes down to it, no preparation is adequate. I have been long anticipating my grandmother’s passing. She was 96, fading away, not communicating much for the last few months, her world shrinking to the very basic needs and her body and mind no longer available for much else. She has been depressed and confused about moving to a nursing home, but unable to articulate her anxiety and frustration to herself or others. Once a strong, feisty, opinionated woman, she had stopped being herself a long while ago, and though it saddened me to see this cruel change to near non-being, I had gotten used to it and made some manner of peace with it. Except that I have been ardently hoping that I would die at a far younger age so as not to reach this state.
And yet when the news of her imminent end came, the emotional storm that engulfed me took me by absolute surprise. I felt guilty about my reaction. What saddened and hurt me most was that in her passing a part of me was exposed – the raw sadness of a little girl I had been under her care – and the sorrow that with her death that vulnerable, sweet child was being orphaned. I remembered Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about her grief following the sudden death of her husband. One observation in particular in that book stuck with me: that when people who have known us since our youth die, with them goes that young part of us (for they always remember us as we were when they first met us, or fell in love with us, be they our lovers or besotted grandparents). Now the innocent girl in me, craving love and comfort in the big scary world, was going to be left unprotected – or had to become her own parent or grandparent.
I tried to focus on my recollections of my grandmother: her waiting for me when I returned from school, to feed me and sit with me over my homework; her teaching me to love, memorize, and recite Pushkin; her taking care of herself by doing her calisthenics and putting what we described as tablespoons full of Pond’s cream on her face well into her 90s to preserve her looks (she had beautiful, soft, smooth cheeks). I’ve inherited that vanity and hold on to it fondly. And yet, all these memories aside, I would, now and then, be engulfed by a powerful and baffling wave of sorrow that my usually analytical mind could not categorize and that utterly unmoored me. A raw feeling like I have never experienced before. I was in a completely foreign territory.
Grief over the death of those close to us is not a single event, but an entire journey. I am embarking on it now. I can see how comforting were the mechanisms relied upon by Renaissance men and women in these circumstances – religion, priests, manuals, visions of the afterworld, support of family and neighbors at their doorstep. It was, I am imagining, a more communal experience. Mine is going to be more solitary. But I am, strangely, looking forward to it. I can sense how much I will discover in the process. How thinking about my grandmother and what she has meant and taught me will uncover parts of myself I have never realized. It will be a gift from her. That in itself – this unexpected offering – astonishes me. Her dying, if not well, at least, thankfully, comfortably, is teaching me something new about life. I think it must have been similar for people in the Renaissance.