When I was younger and felt, as I often did, that I had been the victim of some injustice, my father used to tell me a parable.
He would start telling it, and I would roll my eyes. Because I'd heard it before, and teenagers often roll their eyes when they think they know something already. But I also liked the story, and I always enjoyed my father telling it. So I listened.
Once upon a time, a holy man was wandering across China. He came to a farmer's humble home, and knocked on the door to ask if he might sleep in the barn. The farmer wouldn't hear of it. Instead, he ushered the holy man into his home. He sat the holy man at the head of the table, and fed him dinner with his family. He put the holy man to sleep in his own bed. And in the morning, he gave the holy man some food to carry with him.
As the holy man was leaving the house, the farmer stopped him.
"Please, would you do me the honor of blessing my family before you go?"
The holy man stood and stared for a minute. Then he nodded, and spoke. "Father dies, son dies, grandson dies." He turned and began to walk away.
The farmer was furious. "What kind of blessing is THAT?!"
The holy man shrugged. "Would you rather it happened another way?"
The farmer, dumbstruck, shook his head, and bowed in thanks as the holy man wandered off again.
My father would explain every time, that no, you would never want it another way. That one of the worst things that could happen to a human being was to deviate from that order. Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.
You never want to outlive your children.
This weekend, M and I learned that M's grandmother has cancer. She had surgery last week, to remove to massive tumors, one the size of a football. This comes right on the heels of the word that M's grandfather has moved into hospice care, his Alzheimer's has become so advanced.
When we heard the news, I felt a wave of grief immediately. I know how rarely we get to see M's grandparents, and I may already have seen his grandfather for the last time. But I have always loved them. From the first time I met them, when M's grandpa made a joke, I don't even remember what it was, but it was friendly and kind and welcoming, and I was grateful to him for his thoughtfulness, welcoming me into his family, well before M and I were engaged.
And M's grandmother. Mother of six, grandmother of nearly 30, great-grandmother of six, in her eighth decade of life she has discovered she has a true talent for storytelling, and has been writing a history of sorts of the family. Each time we've all gathered together, she's read us all a new story, and they are beautiful and warm. I love sharing the bond of storytelling with her. I don't want to lose her from my life, let alone M's.
But M's grief took a different form.
"They've had a hard life," he said, "but it's been such a good one. They've never had to bury a child, or a grandchild ... and I'm glad I could help give them that."
Since the first day of M's terminal brain cancer diagnosis, his biggest concern has been how his death would effect other people. How much it would hurt his sister, his parents, me, and now, our children.
"Father dies, son dies, grandson dies," M said to me, and he managed a smile. "This is how it's supposed to happen. When you're very old, surrounded by people you love."
I think he might have even found it romantic, a little. I take that back. He definitely did.
Here's the thing -- to M, I don't think there's any kind of romance greater than one that lasts a lifetime. That lasts until you're so old your body simply gives out, only you're together, you and the person you love.
Last summer we went to a wedding where the couple chose "The Luckiest," by Ben Folds as their processional.
They carefully planned not to include the last verse in their ceremony. I understand that. Any song that explicitly references death might not be appropriate for a wedding. But M hummed that last verse under his breath, squeezing my hand. Because he's that kind of romantic.
In the last verse of "The Luckiest," a couple gets married, lives into their 90s, and dies within a few days of each other. And that is the definition of true love to which Ben Folds and my husband ascribe.
I know M is comforted by the idea that he may lose both his grandparents instead of one, because it is important to him to know that they won't have to dedicate any more of their remaining days on this earth to grief than that.
For him, that is a tremendous comfort.
I often forget about other people. I often forget that M and I aren't our own little universe. I forget that there are other people who care about us. It's easier to forget, a lot of the time. It's easier to put little limits around your grief and your hope and pretend that nobody outside feels any of it.
But they do.
M is right. His death would have hurt people, will inevitably hurt people. And that he is alive isn't just a gift to me and his children and his parents. It is a gift to his grandparents. It is a gift to his friends. My friends. To everyone he hasn't yet met but whose life will be brightened by his presence. It is a gift. And he knows it.
How rare, to know that your life is truly a gift to others. And not in an egotistical way, no, in the profound language of grief and love and an understanding of the stark reality of life and death, M knows that his life has meaning for the people that love him.
M's little universe is much bigger than mine. Because he's fundamentally a better person than me. I've always known so. He only finds ways to remind me time and time again.
Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.
When somebody is ill, their family members should be scared, and sad. Because that is one of the greatest expressions of love we have, wanting to keep somebody with us. The way M and I, and M's aunts and uncles and cousins do. You can ask no more in life than to have the opportunity to cause somebody grief. You can ask no more in life than to be so well loved.
If you're the praying sort, or the sending-good-energy sort, or any of that, please keep M's grandparents in your thoughts. And please keep the rest of the family in your thoughts, too.
It's not so little a universe at all. It's all of ours.
With love and grief and hope enough for all of us to share.
Read the original post, and more about M's ongoing battle with cancer, at Becoming SuperMommy.