The last week-and-a-half has been probably the most heart wrenching time I remember having in my life. You see, my grandmother passed from this life June 19th and the void in my heart is huge. I have to admit that I am lucky that my grandmother was a huge part of my life and the last family funeral I attended was in 1983. Certainly one expects grandparents to pass away, even when they live a healthy long life. Nothing prepares you for the time that you must say good-bye. You yearn for one more conversation, one more hug, one more kiss – the thoughts churn and churn robbing you of sleep or peace. At some point, a level of acceptance or at least the ability to cope will occur – when is a mystery, but for now I just try to be strong – for my mom, my sister, and my children.
Driving home from vacation, I received the news from my sister, Lisa:
Lisa: Nanny has lymphoma, which they found in her stomach and invaded her spine, paralyzing her from the hips down. It is fast moving.
Me: How long?
Lisa: 2-4 weeks. Hospice was called and is making her comfortable.
The news was jolting, but I did not realize that the initial expectation 3 days earlier was 6-8 weeks. She had tests for a bleeding ulcer, so this diagnosis was jolting. Over the last year, we dealt with dementia and health issues. These either were false alarms or cured thanks to the love of her family, care from the people at the nursing home, and her nurse practitioner and physician. I wished that this was also a false alarm – but it was not, this time it was real and the end was eminent.
Seeing my mother at Father’s Day celebration, the news was even more grim – Nanny is no longer alert, can no longer open her eyes – they are making her comfortable. The last time her eyes opened was after her priest gave her last rites. He turned to leave, she opened her eyes, said “Hi Father,” and went back to sleep. This was the last time her eyes would open. My mother tells me that she is not expected to live through the week.
I took my children over to say good-bye. I know I should be grateful that my girls have a close relationship with their great-grandmother, one that spanned 19 years. I know I should be grateful that I had her in every facet of my life. It is no secret that family was important to my grandmother, and she adored all of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This is a trait handed to my mother, my sister, and me. Something I strive to instill in my children.
The good-byes were difficult as she was essentially unconscious and her breathing was noisy.
My sister called, how is she?
Me: Breathing is labored and gaps between breaths are getting longer.
Lisa: Will she be o.k. tomorrow?
Me: I have no idea. You may want to visit tonight just in case.
My sister and her husband appeared about 10 minutes later. Wanting to give her time, I left with my family. Going home was hard. I was afraid she may not make it through the night. I hoped with all my heart that this was not the end.
The next morning I returned to work. She made it through the night. I was in my office for a few hours before when I received a call from my dad.
Me: I am on my way.
Depending on traffic, I had a 40 – 60 minute drive. I had to be with the woman that helped care for me and loved me. The person that I took trips with, would talk hours on the phone with, cook with. My grandmother was at every event, every family function, every holiday, and every birthday. She was a huge part of my life and very important to me. I needed to get there before she took her last breath – thankfully, I did.
The goodbyes continued. Staff and residents alike came down to say goodbye. She was loved my so many. Tears flowed for this petite woman with beautiful blue eyes, a contagious smile, and a heart of gold. Her three children, my father, my sister, a few friends, and I kept vigil by her bedside. I held her hand, sponged her neck and forehead to help with the fever, and kissed her forehead. This went on all day and all night.
It was now midnight. Everyone left the room to have a snack. It was a long day and we forgot to eat dinner. The staff was nice enough to provide us with muffins, water, pop, and coffee but this was no longer enough. Every time someone would leave to use the restroom, you did not know if she would still be there when you came back. Even running to a fast-food restaurant to grab a few sandwiches was done with angst and concern.
For the first time, about 12:30 a.m., everyone stayed just outside her room talking, except me. I went into her room, sat in the chair next to her bed, and took out my iPad. There was no way I could concentrate on reading, so I played games to pass the time. The love of word and puzzle games was something my grandmother and I had in common. I was playing Sudoku when all of a sudden her breathing seemed to level out. I thought – maybe she was going to make it through the night and surprise all of us!
Her mouth suddenly changed forms and the breathing turned quiet, as if air was slowly being let out of a balloon. I called for my mom who ran in immediately and then got the nurse. Everyone was still around her. Her pulse-ox was down to 50%, but her heart was still strong. Suddenly, no blood pressure, then no pulse. Just as quickly as the stethoscope came out to check her heart, she was gone. She passed peacefully and in her sleep, just the way she wanted. She did not suffer and did not have to endure the painful disease that recently paralyzed her, threatened to make her a quadriplegic, and ultimately would have suffocated her by invading her lungs. Thankfully, she never knew she had cancer but I was not ready for her to go, I needed her.
Trying to come to terms with everything, I cannot help the void that fills my heart today. You would think with all of my theological training and work in ministry, I would cope with her death better than I am. The numbness that plagues my body almost makes me feel like a zombie, drudging through day to day, robbing me of focus or ability to be inspired. Life is moving at a rapid pace and I seemed to be plopped somewhere in the midst of it, trying to grab my bearings, tread water, and function. I have obligations that I must focus on and I get through the day – one project at a time. My drive and my inspiration seems to have been sucked out of me with her last breath as I continue to grieve. I know that this is the reality that everyone has to face, yet despite every preparedness, I cannot help but yearn for one more moment.
During the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral mass, the priest gave a personable tribute that brought tears to our eyes. He did a nice job but one comparison he made bothered me. He likened my grandmother to that of Jesus as a suffering servant. This did not sit well with me. For me, in that moment, words of Jesus, my Father’s kingdom, more traditional words that emulate masculine images weigh on my mind– images that did not seem to fit or describe my grandmother. A tribute that provided comfort to many, but not to me. I need to write my own tribute.
For me, I think the association that should have been used to talk about my grandmother, is Mary, the mother of Jesus. The qualities of Mary that my grandmother portrayed, lived, and embraced are as follows:
- Mary was a widow and mourner of those who passed from this life.
- Mary was poor and displaced to a foreign town.
- Mary was called by God and even accepted challenges that she faced with grace and dignity.
- Mary was loving and prayerful – filled with grace.
- Mary was always willing to help.
- Mary inspires, brings comfort, and inspires strength – especially in hard times.
- Mary took charge of her life, even to the point of liberation.
- Mary loved her child unconditionally, and stood behind his decisions, even if she did not agree with them. Even when in pain of absence or even disappointment, her love was unconditional.
- Mary was a protective mother and loved her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren with an unconditional love.
- Mary had a mother’s heart and understood everything that comes from that.
- Mary instilled values in her children, raising them to be faithful and prayerful.
- Mary prepared meals not only for her family, but for also for friends.
- Mary was hospitable, welcomed all, and enjoyed the company of friends and family.
- Mary was a strong woman and a source of empowerment for others. Despite the fact she was widowed young, she moved forward in life with grace and courage.
- Mary was a companion, a sister, a daughter, and a friend.
- Mary emulated true love and was self-sacrificing.
- Mary modeled humility and did not have a big ego.
- Mary was self-sacrificing and blessed.
Chung Hyun Kyung describes Mary as “a self-defining woman, connected to her own inner self and free to serve God. She does not lead a derived life as merely daughter, wife, and mother of men. Rather, she lives from her own center with a power that only gets stronger as she ages” (See Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, 31). This was my grandmother – not a suffering servant but a strong woman and picture of strength. This is my tribute and the way I wish to honor her memory.
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of “the Americas” focusing on Religion, Gender, and Culture. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Instructor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf. Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.