I am the archivist at a small, private university, an institution that began in 1891 but that did not have an archives until 2013. In 2015, I was named its first archivist. Like all archives in small colleges, I operate with financial and staffing challenges, but I am thankful for the opportunity to preserve and share our institution’s history. It’s important work, and it’s an honor to do it.
Recently, I was asked to make a short video for Dr. C., a donor and history professor emeritus, who was in his last days of life. Never comfortable having my photo taken, somehow I was able to transcend my self-consciousness. As Lizzy, from our Advancement office, filmed me on her iPhone, I walked through the stacks showing Dr. C. archival boxes and film canisters. I pulled a records box of papers he’d donated and later sat at my desk and showed him various representations of our growing digital presence, just as though he were in the room with me.
The video had no production values, no title screen, no script, no lighting. It was done in one take, with no editing. I left work that day, with gratitude for being able to say thank you to Dr. C. for his 34-year career at our institution, for his financial gift, and for being instrumental in planting seeds, decades ago, for the idea of an archives. I’ve had a lot of great days at work, but this one would be hard to top.
Last weekend, I attended his memorial, and his family said that Dr. C. watched the video over and over in his final days. The circle of thankfulness, between his family and me, was palpable.
Back home that evening, after a long day on the road, the warmth extended as my husband teared up when I told him how grateful the family was for that seven-minute video. What an honor to create something that meant so much to a dying person.
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Six blocks away, on West Highway, two family members fight against the ignominies of declining health. They live at the edge of town, with their property abutting a farmer’s field. A specialist suggests that the debilitating illness befalling my mother-in-law can be traced to chemicals used on that field. There are hard and awful decisions awaiting, threaded through with deep fear, and there are no good outcomes. As a daughter-in-law, what help or solace can I give that will be meaningful? So far, it has meant mostly listening, but it is hard to stay silent when things turn precarious, even dangerous. As a tangential family member, it can be easier to say the hard truth sometimes.
Speaking the hard truth will burst some delusions and worse, may wipe away all hope, but if it’s not based in reality, is it really hope? My spouse’s father is paralyzed by fear of dying. What can he, as a good son, say? When my own grandfather was casting back over his life, he felt the need to confess some awful things he’d done, and one of my uncles, a devout man if ever there was one, denied him that chance. We can miss giving the necessary gifts of honesty or compassion in these fleeting moments. We can, and do, fail each other at crisis points.
In my youth, I understood Dylan Thomas’ raging “against the dying of the light” as a warrior’s cry. As though one might have the last volley in an unwinnable battle. Doesn’t youth love a victory? Doesn’t our culture, Christian or not, love the thrill of triumph? We turn away from “losers” and hard times, but life’s vicissitudes demand courage, and word was that Dr. C. fought hard until the end, but as his pastor noted, there came a time when he knew to yield. That seems a most courageous and triumphant act.
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At Dr. C.’s memorial, the milk-and-honeyed warmth of mutual admiration and congeniality was a triumphal coda to whatever rage and fear and denial he may have endured. I won’t deny that I very much enjoyed a few moments in that land. I didn’t witness the awful parts, the degradations, the humiliations. I only saw the denouement.
The pastor’s homily was from the last half of John 10:10, a verse that never ceases to draw me in. What does it mean to have life abundantly? All of this triumphalism—faith, family, health–in our culture seems to have co-opted abundance. Triumphalism seems to say, “Look at what I did,” “Look at how great we are.” Abundance, at least in the biblical sense, is less an achievement and more of a grand surprise of grace, a gift, “shaken down and pressed together.”
This Thanksgiving I stand witness before two frail adults and their very middle-aged children — often at political odds with each other — wondering how we can sing the Lord’s song in this dark and foreign land. On the cusp of Advent, we watch in uncertainty. To be blithely thankful, to deny what is before us, would be cheap grace. To share a meal, to appreciate even a waning appetite for the things of life, even as they ebb, for this we give thanks. And this year, that seems enough.