It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything personal here. For the past few weeks, I’ve been swamped and sad and a little overwhelmed. I lost one of my grandmothers a few weeks ago, and it hit me pretty hard. Because my parents were so young when I was born, I was raised by a trinity of households: my parents’ and those of my two sets of grandparents, who lived nearby. I’ve always thought of my Grands as more than relatives—they were GRAND parents—parents, only grander. My grandmother, Charlotte, was super grand. She was four feet and eleven inches tall, but she lived a big life—full of vim and vinegar—a spitfire. You didn’t cross her without being ready for a fight but if you were part of her brood, you had a loyal advocate, even when you were in trouble.
Charlotte was 79 years old when she died, but she’d been near death many times in her life. She struggled with gross obesity and ultimately managed it with surgery (one of the first intestinal bypasses), though she was heavy until the end of her life. She’d been in the hospital several times in the past decade, diagnosed with congestive heart failure and internal bleeding. I’d said my final goodbyes to her at least twice before. And then she bounced back. She was stubborn.
But on Saturday, June 4 she was taken to the hospital because of a bout of pneumonia. When my aunt told me the doctors said it was serious, I didn’t really believe it. Charlotte had beaten death back so many times that I assumed she’d do it again. I planned to go visit her in the hospital (a two-hour drive), but I didn’t feel hurried. I even got up on Sunday and ran a half marathon on San Juan Island.
The morning of the race was beautiful. As Bill and I took the ferry over to the island and picked up our packets, I felt peaceful, enjoying the sunshine on my bare arms and the promise of summer coming at long last. As we stood at the starting line and even through the first several miles of the (very hilly) scenic course, I thought several times about my Gram, but I wasn’t troubled. I focused on my breath and counting my steps up the long, winding inclines of the route. Then at about mile ten, a thought hit me: “This is it. She won’t make it through this one.”
She’d grown frail since she’d been widowed more than a decade ago when her beloved husband passed away from cancer. She wasn’t likely to live through pneumonia. I was in denial to think she would. As I walked through the final aid station on the race course, I developed a sense of urgency. I took my water from the volunteer, guzzled it, and picked up my pace—with a purpose. I had to get to her and say goodbye. I’d seen her just a few days earlier on her birthday, but I wanted her to have the peace of mind that she’d said goodbye to as many of her loved ones as could make it to her bedside.
I finished the race and quickly checked my phone messages. My father had called to say that the doctors were removing her oxygen. When I called him back, he held the phone up to her ear so I could talk to her. They didn’t think she’d wait for me to catch a ferry and drive the distance to the hospital.
But she did wait. I arrived at about 5:30pm and at 7:23 she took her final breath.
Sitting next to my Gram as she passed from this life, I felt a flood of emotions: grief, of course, and emptiness, curiosity about the next life, and worry about how the family would reorganize itself without her. I also felt determination to embrace my own life.
I suppose many of us structure our lives informed by those who come before us. We notice what our parents or grandparents did that we admire, appreciate or disapprove of, and we act or react accordingly, imitating or adjusting. I don’t know about you, but there are dozens of things I’m afraid of; there are tasks I face that I feel inadequate for and goals I have that I can’t imagine how I’ll reach. But in the presence of death I remembered that I want to live with audacity and determination, to be true to myself and my values.
It took me a few days after my Gram passed to get out for a run, not because I was sore from the San Juan Island race but because I’d watched her take her last breath, and every time I breathed deeply I cried. Then on Thursday of that week, I headed for the trails, meaning to run five miles. After a mile and a half, the grief was there. I turned around and ran home to attend to it. Each day I pushed a little farther until I could run again without the heaviness I felt at first. It’s been a few weeks now, as I said. I miss her, but I know she was ready; she’d told me that several times in the past couple of years. And I have her verve for life in my DNA.