What does it mean to surrender?
My grandmother has tears in her eyes, although I don’t know if they’re from sadness or rheumatism. She tells me a few things: her girlhood friend still living in Chenango Bridge who is also 86, who she doesn’t speak to much, anymore; how blonde my son’s hair is; how they wouldn’t fill her prescriptions when my dad brought them to the pharmacy; how Cousin Sandy is mad at her.
“Why is she mad at you?” I nearly yell. I scold myself for speaking too quickly, which I have done again, judging by the veiled frustration on her face.
“She doesn’t think this is the right thing to do. I should fight it.” She goes on to tell me about Sandy’s conviction that she should go through another round of chemo; that she can’t give up. I am absent though, instead thinking of what I will say next. I nearly blurted out, Who cares what she thinks? This is what you want!
But it’s not: she doesn’t want to die—who wants to die?
The chemotherapy destroyed my grandmother’s dexterity, so she can no longer quilt or cross-stitch. She can not drive anywhere. She can not cook anything. She can not use the stairs. She can not bathe herself, and she can not breathe without an oxygen concentration machine. She can no longer live her life.
I am a yoga teacher, and in my classes, I encourage students to use their breath to surrender. I use the word surrender because, to me, it is exotic. It is like the words esoteric, or superfluous, or quixotic, which I used surreptitiously in conversation for years. I was never sure of their meaning, and hoped that maybe, someone would hear me misuse the word and correct me.
Certainly, I am intellectually aware of the definition of surrender. Physically, I know the sensation of a gluteal muscle surrendering to pigeon pose.
But maybe I use this cue so much because I am hoping someone will correct me—someone in class will call me out, shouting, just what, exactly, am I surrendering to in this backbend? Hopefully, they will answer their own question, too, because I do not know what it is to surrender.
Yoga is filled with saccharine examples of surrender; the whole purpose of the practice is to drop oneself into that which is greater, to give up control and unite our individual selves with what surrounds us.
But it is challenging for me to think of my grandmother and how she painfully, deliberately signs her name on the hospice paperwork as an act of surrender, or that this is the same type of surrender that my students and I chase for 60 minutes on Tuesday nights.
In yoga, we talk about ease and relaxation. We talk about clinging, muscle to bone and ego to identity. We try to let go, using poses, both simple and complex, to soothe tension in the body, and using meditation and pranayama for what will not leave our head. But we are still there: we are spinal twisting and heart-opening, pinching our nostrils, and wondering when, exactly, five minutes will have passed, and we are the ones reprimanding and being reprimanded for being so impatient.
We surrender to something: silence, stillness, discomfort.
My grandmother will not surrender. She will become surrender; she will become the verb itself. She will no longer be my mother’s mother; she will no longer be Nanni; she will no longer be G.G. to my son.
There is nothing easy to this, for us or for her; there is nothing relaxing about dying.
I only notice the tears because she is looking out the window and the sunlight sparkles around the rims of her eyes.
The oxygen tube is only in one nostril and the one that is not in a nostril makes a low, soothing hiss to demonstrate its freedom.
When she says something doesn’t feel right, my mom fixes the tube and my grandmother giggles, laughing at herself for missing her own nose.
She looks to my son, who is amusing himself with the cat’s toys.
He is 15 months old.
None of us know what it means to surrender, but we all will.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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