On August 6, 2017, I lost my favorite person on the planet.
She was ready in June. She graced us with her smile and laughter and love and beauty at my young cousin’s wedding, somehow radiating and vivacious even from her wheelchair in the scorching hot Illinois summer heat. Later that night, just the two of us were alone in her bedroom, putting on pajamas for what would be our last sleepover together at her farmhouse. She was quiet then looked at me and said, “I don’t know why God’s keeping me around so long.”
She’d said it before (it made her kids mad), but in this private moment, in this intimate space, I heard it differently, and it occurred to me to ask “Are you ready to go?” She knew what I meant (she always knew my heart) and barely hesitated before answering gently, “Yes. I’m tired.” This beautiful creature I was beyond grateful to have had in my world for all of my 36 years…she was ready to leave us. I felt warm tears stream down my cheeks as I looked at her with a great abundance of love. My heart clenched, and sadness welled up inside me like a great wave, but I heard her, and I understood. Time seemed to stand still as the next few minutes etched themselves on my heart.
While I write this, I can barely see through my tears, but in those moments, I didn’t break down. I hope I didn’t scrunch up my face at her. What I truly wanted was to hold space for her feelings, her truth. She was sharing with me what was on her heart after 94 years of life. And I’d wondered how she felt about aging, what it was like to be in the very late stages of a life well-lived. I’d gotten the sense her kids took offense at her working through the feelings aloud, but I felt secure in the knowledge of her love and so abundantly grateful for the life she’d shared with us and wanted only to honor her as she sensed her end was near. She’d have spent a million more nights in pajamas with me; this had nothing to do with her wishing to leave us. But these were her very real, very raw, very honest musings, and I’m so grateful she shared them with me.
I’d sensed for some time that she was winding herself down. She was sleeping more – a lot more – and I believe she hoped she might go quietly in bed without pain or struggle. She wanted to take one last big breath then settle into eternal rest like she’d seen my grandpa do. We wished that for her too. It wouldn’t be how she’d pass…but that’s what she hoped for that night when she opened her soul to me, and I’ll be forever grateful she trusted me enough to answer my question (Are you ready to go?) with the honesty she knew might break my heart.
In the moments and days and weeks that followed, I began preparing to let her go. I knew she’d pass soon, and her revelation had opened up in me the space to begin grieving what would be my greatest loss so far in life. I was very sad, but that sadness came from my own selfish desire to keep her here in physical form, and I longed to look past that to her greater good. After all, this wasn’t about me. It was her life (and would be her death), and I wanted to honor its timing. She gave me a gift in letting me begin grieving with her by my side. I told friends I was “ready” to let her go, though they knew – and I knew – this readiness would waver.
Maybe, so too did Grandma’s readiness waver. Once she was checked-into her final hospital stay, it took her 17 days to die. They were some of the most difficult days of her life – and heart-wrenching for our family. But in the weeks since we spoke our final farewells to this beautiful creature’s earthly presence in our lives, I’ve wondered if there was some purpose to that time (if everything, even timing, really does happen for a reason). I don’t believe it’s what she wanted for herself; she wasn’t selfish in her end. Maybe she stuck around for us, to give us something, and maybe we have to look past our grief to see the goodnesses she shared with us in that.
I wondered if I should travel home from Oregon to Illinois to tell her goodbye, and I wasn’t certain because we’d shared those beautiful moments in June, and I feared they somehow might lose their…comfort to me if I tried to recreate them in a different form. Part of me wanted to remember her just as she had been then – in her house, in her bed, instead of in the sterile, fluorescent environment of the hospital. Still, when I crawled into bed with her and took her sweet face in my hands, I knew I’d made the right choice in coming home. As she opened her eyes with my mom’s waking her, she looked right at me and lit up with all the joy she could muster, whispering what would be one of her final words, repeated a few times over the coming days – love. “Love, love, love,” she would say. That sparkle in her eye and those words were all the assurance I needed to let me know I was exactly where I should be.
In the days that followed, I saw (and felt) waves of emotion flood through her kids and grandkids. I saw tenderness where I hadn’t seen it before, and for me that tenderness gave way to forgiveness of past hurts. I saw vulnerability make its way through and across the generations. Mustached farmers who rarely smile for pictures weeped at Grandma’s bedside, all the time touching her, caressing her, speaking the kindest of words to her. One took care to put Chapstick on her dry lips and Vick’s VapoRub (her favorite) under her nose whenever the old had worn off. (Another would sing “Amazing Grace” aloud by her bed after she passed.) There was still bickering, and there were conversations had in louder voices than I would have liked for Grandma’s sake, but there were fewer unkind words, and they seemed to be forgotten sooner than they had been before. There were more comforting touches, more hugs, more thoughtful moments and conversations. A more gentle spirit filled the room (perhaps it was Grandma’s, sneaking out of her body and into our hearts), and there was much beauty in it. If it hadn’t been for those 17 days she lingered, some of this may have been lost. There was goodness in the grief that filled the room and those weeks, and she had given us that.
Grandma had nine grandkids. Five of us were close growing up (one was older and too cool for our Cousins Who Care Club). We “middle kids” played games, ate pizza, and had sleepovers with Grandma and Grandpa then later just Grandma. We made lots of memories over the years, but we were heading off to college and life beyond by the time our youngest three cousins started coming of age. I was traveling back and forth to the hospital with one of them when he told me they’d had a very different experience than we’d had growing up. The extended family didn’t get together as much as the years passed, and there wasn’t as much cousins time spent at Grandma’s. He knew her well and adored her (he and his brothers lived nearby and visited often), but he didn’t share the group memories the others of us did. He was just out of college and job hunting during Grandma’s hospital stay, and I was without a car, 2000 miles from work and the rest of my life, so we were uniquely available night and day and spent a lot of our time together. We did crossword puzzles and played piano; joined another cousin for an outdoor concert; talked about our lives over donut holes and scrambled eggs and pizza and ice cream; and went on a memorable 18-mile bike ride which would have given Grandma quite a laugh. We got to know each other under unique circumstances only she could have gifted us. And we made memories we otherwise wouldn’t have shared.
One of my favorite memories of our time spent in the hospital is of painting Grandma’s fingernails. It was just me and this younger cousin in the room with her, and I’d brought her favorite shade of rose polish. When I whispered in her ear to ask if it was okay, she nodded, and I asked her to please hold her hands really still for me. I painted while he held the bottle of polish, and when I finished her first hand, he gently blew on her nails to dry them. She made a funny face and shook her hand around as if to shoo him away. Whether it startled her or felt uncomfortable to her frail skin, it gave us good laugh. She was spunky even in her restfulness, in the quiet of her winding down toward the end. Those simple, intimate moments will stay with me forever. And they are, for me, some of the goodnesses to be found in our time of grieving.
Our family is full of big personalities and has frequent disagreements, so when one of Grandma’s nurses said “I want to be part of this family,” I was shocked. I actually laughed out loud. And questioned her judgement. In retrospect, I’m grateful she saw the good in us. For all our faults and all our flaws, in that space, we must have represented Grandma well, and she’d have been so proud of us for that. There’s something to be said about the 17-day vigil loved ones kept in her room. She was never alone. She was surrounded by family and tremendous love. We doted on her and kissed her and cherished her every moment of every day. And the hospital staff saw this and, in doing so, reflected back at us the very best of us. I hope we can hold onto that and allow Grandma to live on in the love we show each other and the world. She would want that. And it seems like the least we can do for her after all the goodness she brought us.
I suppose we’ll never really know if the time it took Grandma to pass was just her body’s holding on longer than her spirit or if it really was by design, if we were indeed meant to have that time together – crying and laughing and, for some, bickering and…just being. In my heart, the time was significant; it mattered. It was very difficult – exhausting and at times disparaging – but it also felt purposeful. For me, there was much goodness to be found in our grieving. Grandma was full of goodness.…so it makes sense she would keep sharing goodness with us, even in her holding on longer than she may have wanted.
A couple of days after I first visited her in the hospital, she opened her eyes to look at me as I sat on the edge of her bed holding her hand. Quietly she whispered, “Pretty.” Yes you were, Grandma. So. Very. Pretty. The prettiest woman I’ve ever seen. You left us with a radiant full moon, and every time I see that moon, I’ll see you, shining down from the night sky with love and grace, dazzling there just like you always did on earth. I feel much grief at having lost you, but I feel so much more goodness for having known you.