In her posthumously published book, “What We Wish Were True: Reflections on Nurturing Life and Facing Death,” Tallu Schuyler Quinn ventures into questions about life that we all face but are afraid to ask.
Quinn, the founder of the Nashville Food Project which Faith & Leadership wrote about in 2014, died in February at the age of 42 after battling glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
I am standing in tall grass. It is not soft. The day is overcast, but there is light, and it is slanted and bright in an almost sinister way, like rainbow weather. This meadow is where I have stood many days of my waking life. I know its soil, its roots, its curves, its weeds, its humus, its smell. And since my cancer diagnosis, I have spent nearly every day imagining myself standing here.
So many early mornings, I circled the lower acres, forging a worn path with my worries, my questions, and my footsteps. Slipping out of bed quietly so my children didn’t wake, dressing in the dark and getting the buttons wrong, desperate for as many minutes to myself as I could steal. I want them back. This meadow is the place of many of my fondest memories, and now it’s a place that is helping me surrender to the great beyond — that boundless dark.
One winter here my family tapped eleven sugar maples, yielding fourteen gallons of sweet sap that boiled down to only a single quart of syrup and tasted like the smoky fire upon which we cooked it. I remember our children, Lulah and Thomas, diving into the leaf piles while wearing wire butterfly wings. Lulah’s wonky, early cartwheels, and Thomas’s watercolor picnics. My husband, Robbie, with Lulah on his lap, waiting at the end of the driveway for me to return home from work, their faces bearing the widest smiles. The soccer ball lodged high up in the tree and how hard we laughed when our enthusiastic friends Heather and Kelsey finally kicked it out. The black walnuts we collected for dye. The hundreds of eggs the chickens gifted us in those years, and the hot breakfasts that followed. Sharing countless meals on the front porch overlooking the meadow.
And there has also been suffering here. The sixty pullets who died tragically in a coop fire while we were in Maine — the young birds charred and their wooden coop too. Our farmer friend Cari’s three baby pigs she was raising attacked by coyotes in the open daylight, and countless hens picked off by predators over the years. The deep rivers of rainwater that cleaved our rocky driveway after every storm, and the literal tons of river rock we’d have hauled in to repair it. The massive pile of cleared brush and stumps, and the burns up and down our friend Sally’s legs and arms when she lit it.
What is time in this meadow? Will it be my final resting place? My forever?
I keep visiting this scene in my mind — this humble place so alive with the memories of my full and happy life. Reflecting on it is helping me learn how to die. My children are there — young, bright, chubby-cheeked and glossy-chinned, smiling, taking in each other and this world we love. Does it love us back?
The grass is long. Robbie is making us laugh. No thought of my own death in the background, just the pulsing slow time of family life. With the chickens and their muck and their spilled-out food. With the tall weeds overgrown and the cardinals preening and showing themselves.
I meditate on my own death in these visits to the meadow. What will it feel like to die? Grounding myself in the memories of this place connects me to all the physical love I have encountered in this embodied life. With my eyes closed, I visualize strong tendrils shooting downward from my feet, penetrating the soil, pushing through layers of rock, and becoming roots. The roots stretch themselves through the earth’s crust and arrive at the deep and strong core of all I am and have ever been and ever will be.
I come back to my breath, looping through my body as a beautiful figure eight. My mind carries me through this journey, and the present moment is full of curiosity about the unknowable past — a lineage of ancestors I never met and yet whose presence I deeply feel as I face my own death. I am carried by them, they in me, their love in me, their love is me.
Over and over again I go back to the smiling faces of my children — their grunts as they nursed at my chest, their first steps, their delight in the world around them. Our joy so big that nothing — not even death — could rob us of what we’d found and somehow formed together. I go back and I go back, and meanwhile my illness marches on, moving me forward, closer to my final days. I tell myself over and over what I have been telling my children —
Love never ends.
Excerpted from “What We Wish Were True,” copyright © 2022, by Tallu Schuyler Quinn. Used by permission of Convergent Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.