Cold weather makes for lonelier walking paths and on our latest foray into the woods, on the first weekend of Advent, I let the boys get ahead of me on the trail. Autumn is now almost gone. The bare branches of the trees and the quiet trails work together to calm my soul.
Simple beauty opens my heart and I am glad to be alone to indulge my mournful thoughts.
I told my sister this week that if I were back at home, I would be complaining about having to unpack the Christmas boxes, but here far away in Scotland, I can nourish the longing to unwrap the familiar ornaments from tissue, resurrecting Christmas memories with every object. I can hold even the mundane traditions as holy and sacred when I am only imagining them.
And then I am remembering how a year ago I was holding my grandmother’s hand and singing softly into her ears on her last days, words to her favorite hymns as I watched Jesus call her home. I sing a verse or two of one of those hymns while I walk in the woods and I wring my hands a bit for how they still miss the feel of hers.
My children have become obsessed this fall with a television show about Merlin and King Arthur, and these woods remind me of the scenes where the knights head off into the hills surrounding Camelot. In fact, they were probably filmed somewhere in Scotland. A particular scene from this show comes back to me over and over, and I have not been sure why. Whenever Merlin’s mind is troubled, he seeks out his dragon, who gives him advice and helps him process events.
On one night in the woods, Merlin’s heart is heavy because he is on a quest where he intends to give his life for King Arthur as a ransom to some kind of evil sorcery. He sneaks off from the camp to find his dragon and tell him his plans. They both agree that saving the king is worth any sacrifice. Then, in parting, the dragon leans down to Merlin and says with solemnity,
It will be an empty world without you, young warlock.
In all honesty, I find the show to be rather silly, and somewhat repetitive. The plot line is the same in every episode. An evil sorcerer or sorceress creates some kind of trouble for the king and Merlin helps the king to defeat it. But for some reason, when the dragon said these words to Merlin, something caught in my heart and I think I audibly moaned. Since then I have remembered them again and again, these words that a dragon said to his friend when he knew he was headed to his death. Of course Merlin did not end up having to die, and of course we knew that he would not since the name of the show is Merlin. But, at that moment both Merlin and the dragon believed that death was near.
In the woods, the picture of the dragon bent low to the young magician came back to me and I realized why I connected so deeply with their conversation. I spoke many similar words to my grandmother last year when she was reaching the end of her life. In October, she knew her time was near and she was so very brave. Though she was never physically a strong woman, she was facing death with all the dignity and courage of a great warrior. And on the days when she would tell me that she was ready, I would say to her that I was not. “I cannot imagine the world without you, Grandmother. I do not want to live in a world where you are not.” She would smile and remind me that there was still so much for me to do in this world.
It is funny to me that a show my Grandmother would never have enjoyed, with its silly fantasy worlds and strange magic, has brought back to me some of the moments I shared with her last year. But then, I am not surprised, because though she feels much further away to me now than she did on this day of her death a year ago, her fully lived life still has so much bearing on my world. And these words, which C.S. Lewis wrote about his beloved, still ring true for me about Grandmother,
Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.
Even a sweet moment between a boy and his dragon.
I do not want you to think I say this without hope or joy in this life. I am still living and being and doing and trusting with all of the energy a forty year old woman who still wants to be like Jesus can muster. I long to live fully and honor the legacy of faith that my grandmother left for me.
But when I am quiet but for the crunch of the leaves under my feet or inside an old empty church. When it is Christmas and I will not hear her voice singing Silent Night, slightly off key. This is just true:
It is an empty world without you Grandmother.