Fathom Mag
Article

The Breath Between

Published on:
March 11, 2020
Read time:
17 min.
Share this article:

Mosaic

February 2007

I don’t want children.
I tell him.

Why?
He asks.

Can’t you see?
I say.

Look at these shards!
why bring a child
to lie amongst bits of
  bro-
       -ken
            glass?
 

But—he says
     —what if?

What if your child
is meant to take
shattered pieces
and make
     a mosaic

of grace
     by grace
          for grace?

could you rob the world
of such beauty?

She Prayed

October 23, 2013

I was beginning to despair. It was the middle of the night on the eve of my daughters birth. For hours I had rocked and swayed, and progress was slow. I was bursting at the seams—but all of it was harder than I thought it would be. I felt as if the pain in double swells might pull me under when my Daddy poked his head around the corner of the hospital drape to tell me Gamamma was praying for me.

 From the sharp inhale of my first contraction, to the long anticipated cry of the daughter given to me, my grandmother kept vigil. She who had been sick for so long, who slept most of the day every day and could hardly get out of bed prayed without ceasing.

We labored and she labored with us. We rejoiced and she rejoiced with us.

 And when we feared—she prayed.

First Breath

October 24, 2013 8:14 am

“We have a baby!” She sang to my Father on the other side of the hospital drape. Standing by my side, my mother, who brought me into the world when she was 22, watched me do the same.

“She doesn’t look too big,” the doctor said.

“She’s perfect,” I said. All 5lbs 4 oz of her wailing in my arms. “My baby… I love her!” I said through tears.

And I knew for the first time that my Daddy was right—the mosaic of my life would not be compete without this piece, no matter the pain it took to bring her here, or the pain that would become mine as I watched and loved someone grow in a broken world. 

Birds in Flight

 January 18, 2014 

“Such a perty little heeaad.” She said, over and over again.

When Ellie was three months old we brought her to North Carolina to meet Gamamma—and all of us felt the holiness of this—a precious new meeting in the twilight of my Gamamma’s life. It was a wild new love that could not be tamed by time, space, or dimension of heaven or earth.

“Do you want to hold her?” My aunt asked.

At a nod, we leaned my infant’s fresh bald head against her great-Gamamma’s wrinkled chin, her back leaning against my Gamamma’s chest where she lay on her rented hospital bed in what used to be her formal living room.

Gamamma’s thin skinned hand clutched my daughter’s fresh tiny one, like a baby bird to her chest. Their hearts were beating close now, their lungs breathing the same air, their lives sliding past each other, like birds in flight.

I'll see you there

January 20, 2014 

It was time to say goodbye, but I had promised myself I would only say, “see you later.” I wasn’t ready to face what this really was; the last time I would ever see my Gamamma on this earth.

“I’ll be praying that this year goes by fast for y’all,” she spoke slowly in her North Carolina drawl. “A year goes by pretty quickly in the arms of God…,” she said. Her dear wrinkled face collapsed as she began to cry.

I leaned over her in the bed, the red blanket pulled up to her chin, her short wavy white hair spilling over the pillow. I laid my head on her chest like I did when I was a child. Like I hadn’t in ages. She breathed in shaky breaths and I could hear her heart slowly ticking away the seconds that remained before we needed to catch our flight home.

“I wish I could see you more oft’n, “ she drawled, “I wish I could go home with you.”

“We’ll be together again someday,” I told her, my voice tight in my throat.

“And if I don’t see you again here…,” she spoke through the cracks in her tears, “I’ll see you there.”

“I’ll miss you in between,” I said, my own tears standing in my eyes.

“That’d be nice,” she said. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too.”

“You have been so blessed; and I know that your family has had a rough year this year, but God has not forsaken you; not even for a moment.” She began to weep again. And I knew she was counting the cost; counting the losses piling high all around us, because I was counting them too.

“I know Gamamma. He is good,“ I spoke with a faith I wasn’t sure I had.

“Yes, He is.”

The clock read 1:45pm.

“We’ve got to go now Gamamma…I love you.”

“I love you shuugar.”

“I’ll see you later,” I stood.

“See you later,” she said.

I gave her soft hand a final squeeze. I backed towards the door, studying her face: the lines of pain and care and worry and love etched clearly for all to see. I tried to memorize the love that was there for me, given so freely from the day of my birth. 

“I love you shuug,” she said again.

“I love you too.” 

“Buh-bye.”

“Bye.”

The Voicemail

February 20, 2014 9:00 am

“Night night sweet heart. Have a nice rest.”

Slowing my rocking motion, I lay my four-month-old daughter down in her tiny crib and tip-toed backward out of the room. As I gently released the door knob, I breathed a sigh of relief. But it only lasted for a moment. 

I had a missed call. 

My mother had said she would’t leave that kind of information to a voicemail, but we all knew what we were waiting for. The past few days had been the hardest of all for my Gamamma. My Aunt Beth and all the hospice team were doing their best to make her last days comfortable, but the pain meds made her fearful, had to be administered round the clock, and still in the end weren’t enough to soothe her.

“Let’s just get this over with,” she had said to my Aunt only a few days before. And I couldn’t blame her. I had prayed for her death myself.

Please take Gamamma home to be with you LORD. Please end her suffering…it’s too much.

For over a month I had been praying this. Most of the family thought that after she meet her first great-grandchild she would go. The day we flew to introduce our daughter to her she said to my aunt,

 “Ellie is coming. Maybe Jesus will come too.”

But a month after that precious introduction she was still hanging on; and even she didn’t want to be.

I picked up my cell and pushed one for voicemail.

“Hey Grace… “ she began, “I know I said I wouldn’t leave this kind of information in a voicemail, but I know it doesn’t come as a surprise. Gamamma did pass away at about 6 o’clock this morning. Just wanted to let you know. I love you. Call me if you need anything.”

I covered my eyes with my hand. I felt my lungs expand, and when I could no longer hold it in, I let the breath go.

Last Breath 

February 20, 2014

6:00 am—
silence descends
but don’t be fooled
this is not the end
of anything—No.


This is
the pause
the rest
the breath
drawn deep into the lungs— 

First breath a gasp
a cry unsure

                          Where am I and
                          what am I and
                          what in the world?

Last breath—a new birth
into a strange new country
without tears, or fears, or years—

                         Here I am
                         with the I AM
                         and oh it really is
                         True.

She smiles full and with a gleam
in her brown eyes that we have only
hazy seen—through clouds of grief.
Woes of worlds weighty on her
drooping shoulders.

Now—

Now she sees.
And it’s not at all like
newborn sight;
blurry & unsure
of arms in which we are held

But close & clear
& the pleasure is so sharp
perhaps it almost burns
like the light of the lamp
in my newborn’s eyes
only—this new birth
doesn’t start with a cry 

(that is the old way of things)

Here, the last breath
is the pause
for the inhale 

before the laugh.

First Laugh

February 22, 2014

Her soft brown hair
is a flurry flying
from her forehead
in waves. Her sharp
brown eyes full
of twinkling mischief—

She leans back at the table
like John in the famous
Last Supper painting
But less serious, see?
(There is no traitor
at the table here.)
She’s laughing—
& she asks:

“Lord? Would you send
them a little laughter
today?”

He smiles &
Two days after
Gamamma arrived
heaven-side I looked
up from grief to the tinkling
chime of Ellie’s
first laugh.

Her blue eyes full
of twinkling mischief—
catapulting me
to reluctant joy. 

Lake Michigan

May 29th, 2014

February picked us up and dropped us in an unfamiliar place. “Grief” they call it.

Three months later my husband’s job picked us up and dropped us in an unfamiliar city in Wisconsin. “Milwaukee” they call it.

Leaving behind everything we had known; from the one bedroom condo of our early married days, from our college campus way of life, from our church, our friends, our nearby family.

Ellie and I took a plane alone. Our life had been packed up in a truck headed east and north to an apartment in the midwest that I had only seen in pictures. The first thing I noticed from our new surroundings were the trees: tall, tall, trees everywhere.

 Nearly as soon as we arrived atour second story apartment I told my husband, “I want to see the lake.” 

I have been spoiled living near beauty for most of my life. On the Front Range in Colorado, if you want know which way is which you just look for the mountains, and that is West. Here in Milwaukee, it’s the same thing, only the lake is East. That and you really can’t see the lake.

But by golly, if I was going to live in Milwaukee for the next year, I was determined to find some beauty. When I faced East in the morning, I wanted to know I was facing the lake.

So we buckled the baby in her car seat and drove East until we had run out of road. We were on a cloverleaf that was the edge of the concrete and asphalt highway and the lake was right there, my husband assured me; but I couldn’t see it.

Too much fog.

We took a different road that allowed us to park at the very edge of the lake and still—I couldn’t see it. All I saw was a thick cloud of white. Maybe the barest hint of water on the sand. I listened for waves, but could barely hear a sound.

I wept.

Walks in Wisconsin

June 27th, 2014

Walks in Wisconsin remind me of you;
North Carolina trees always seemed
much taller than the coniferous
counterparts in my Colorado backyard.

The air smells sweet with water
I’m told it’s called humidity,
but growing up? I just knew it as
that North Carolina smell.

In Tennessee, I thought I could smell my way
to your house—I could smell
us drawing closer as we stopped for gas &
drove through the dead of night.

Now as I push this stroller
full of warmth with the little one
you prayed all night for—
it’s now that I feel like you are here.

The day you died, I felt it. 

Listening to my mother’s voice, I felt you
no longer far away in North Carolina, but here—
watching me wipe the counters & cheering me on
as you have since the day of my birth. 

Even so, loss gets to me.

Two weeks ago I opened the mail to see
A check for my birthday
—But no card
(the card was always from you.)

Carefully pulled from the filing cabinet
where you kept all the pretty papers
for all the joyful future you prayed for & believed in,
even though you knew the darkness of the past.

Yesterday, I leaned down to smell the paper
of the wedding card you’d given us &
I wanted to smell your perfume—
to imagine the pen your soft & wrinkled hand
held as you scrolled the loving words.

It was the most beautiful card of all.
I should have known at once
Who it was from
—but it came as a surprise

To see your name in black on the white—
your name printed on the check
your words & your voice in my head
clear as the last day we spoke.

It’s funny how you don’t stop showing up

I almost see you more
—see you everywhere
even here on this walk
in Wisconsin.

The Lake of the Ozarks

August 6th, 2014

A few months into our time in Milwaukee, my parents offered to fly Ellie and me down to the Lake of the Ozarks. My Uncle owns a house on the lake, and every few years or so, my family makes the 15-hour drive from Colorado to spend a handful of days floating by the dock, playing games in our bathing suits, and spending long hours around the outdoor breakfast table with coffee and cream cheese smothered bagels. We had even held a family reunion there once. My Gamamma was delighted by all the humming birds.

 My husband Willy wouldn’t be able to get the week off work, but he encouraged me to take Ellie and go. The familiar face of my father picking me up at from the airport curb where I had been struggling with the carseat pieces, the baggage, and the tired baby nearly brought tears to my eyes. As did the shores of the much more familiar lake.

The next day, while Mimi played with Ellie up at the house, I joined my Dad in the warm water. Holding onto the edge of a floating lounge chair, I bobbed next to him in silence. 

“Look Gracie, it’s a Japanese beetle—see how pretty the emerald green and the purple are on it’s back?”

“Oh wow…it’s so beautiful,” I said.

“Yes they are,” he continued, “but they love to eat rose petals. Gamamma would want me to do this.” His strong hand came out of the water in a flash to flick the offensive insect off the lounge chair. I heard the plop from where it landed somewhere in a watery grave.

The quiet surrounded us again. The water buffeted us as the wake from a passing speed boat jostled and bumped the floating dock making the wood rub on the metal with a groan. The water lapped over my father’s lips, pressed in a tight line that would look like a smile to some—but not me. I saw the tears welling up behind his blue eyes as the waves made it harder and harder for him to stay afloat. And I wondered if he was thinking about drowning. I wondered if he was thinking about Gamamma’s fear of water even as he was thinking about her love for the rose bushes that Grandaddy planted and pruned for her year after year. I wondered if he was thinking about how living without the one who gave you life feels like going under.

I saw his face crumple for a second, then recover, then crumple again. I knew then and I know now that my sadness at the loss of my grandmother is only the tiniest drop in the lake of his grief. And all I could do was grab his arm—just to show him that I understood. I understood all rivers led to this lake now. I understood that flicking the beetle was more than mere symbolism. It was what she would have done; and for that brief moment, it was like she was there with us again, just as she had been.

She Still Prays

April 6th, 2015

“A year will pass by quickly
In the arms of God,” she said—

Her lip quaking
eyes blinking tears
even with her faith
showing her fears.

She knew we had to leave
to head north and east
the unfamiliar landscape
gave us both cause to fear—

She—to the Unknown Country
We—a year away
from all we knew, north
and east to a strange
midwestern land

But we didn’t go
without a blessing &
she prayed in advance.

At dawn’s first light
on a February day,
He came for her.
But she prayed us through
that year ahead—
ahead of time.

I remember her smile spreading to a grin,
her twinkling brown eyes full
of the mischief of loving
too much & never enough.

(we could eat her love
by the spoonful) &
she called me, “Sugar”—
she who made me know
my very existence was full
of coveted sweetness. 

By the wee morning hours,
by the midday moments—
she made her preparations.
There on her death bed
she prepared us for life—

She prayed in advance:
prayed we would be full of peace &
The Presence into which she herself
would soon be fully poured.

But as we end this year
in the land north and east
I wonder if she said any prayers
for the years after this one? 

Or is the end of this year
—the end of her prayers—
the end of her?
all over again?

But no—
She still prays

it looks different now;
less like an elderly woman
bent over her keyboard
as she hen-pecks
her prayer chain letters
& more like a woman leaning
on her friend, every bitter
sorrow wiped from her cheeks,
laughing & (heaven does not forbid)
drinking of the living water,
until this tee-totaler is drunk
on living & laughter & love.

The other day I was distressed
by grief (as often we are) &
I saw out the glass window
of our Wisconsin apartment,
a white pigeon—
like a prayer of peace.

It looked at me,
with compassion in its eye &
if you knew how she loved birds
then you’d knowhow I know
she still prays for me.

She’ll pray me
to my seat
besides hers
at the feast—

she’ll pray me
to the last
breathe & all breaths
in between. 

The Breath Between

February 2020

Yeah,
this place—
it hurts.

I’ve cut my feet
on broken glass
more than a time
or two.

(Gamamma knew
the weight of grief)

She bore three children
to the world
     in pain,
lost one along the way
     in pain,
left the world
     in pain
& we are pained
without her
     here.

But somehow
also, this is true:
the mosaic—
     of grace
          by grace
               for grace.

The glass pieces assembled
melded & fused
by the holy breath
Who gives us our breath
& What if?
the question comes again 

What if some beauty
so unimaginable now
will come from
these shards you cut
your fingers on?

Just
     hang
          on.

This is only
the breath
between— 

& newness is coming
& former things pass away
& ‘I will remove the shadow
that covers you now’ he says. 

Can I breathe deep
even here—
knowing from
where my breath comes
& where it is going?

Here is only this space
& this time. 

This is all only
the breath
between.

Grace Kelley
Grace Kelley is a follower of King Jesus, wife to an engineer, and stay-at-home-mama to Ellie (6), Boaz (4), and Isaiah (18 mos). She spends much of her time cooking and filling cups of water for little ones, but she also feels God’s pleasure when she writes. You can find her on her blog “There is a River” (gracekelley.blog), as well as on Instagram @gracekelleywrites, Facebook @gracekelleywrites, and Twitter @gracielizmk.

Cover image by Nine Kopfer.

Sign Up Today

You don’t have to miss anything. We send out weekly notifications when we publish a new issue. We like you—so we won’t sell your info to Google or the NSA or even advertisers, they probably already have it anyway.

Already a subscriber? Log in here

Next story