My Grandma is Dying
On Tuesday night, my grandmother Jeane suffered a major stroke that she will not recover from. She is resting comfortably with my parents in their home in Redlands, CA. She is surrounded by family, her church community and friends. She is 94 and lived a good life.
The title of this post is intentionally direct, meant to grab your attention. That said, it is not the death part of her story I'm wishing to share, rather, in her impending death, are born lessons paramount to those of us blessed enough to walk and live on this earth beyond her passing. Just in the past week since her stroke, I've witnessed the power of many elements of our lives as humans on this planet, and if for no other reason than catharsis for me, I'd like to share these elements.
We speak of gifts, the naming of gifts and the contribution of gifts as being necessary in the feeling of belonging to those around us. Grandma Jeane is an artist and has been her entire life. Several of her paintings adorn the walls of my parent's home and bring us great joy. Perhaps one of Jeane's greatest gifts, was never shared beyond the confines of her family unit. She was her own worst critic, as many artists are, and subsequently, many people don't understand the brilliance of her work and her gift was given far less to those around her than should have been. That is of her doing, being of sound mind and body her whole life, it was a gift she offered sparingly and something I wish would have been spread much further.
I've been dabbling with sketching and art for about 10 years now, and through this self-exploration of art I've grown more and more connected to my Grandma in a way only family can be connected. While we don't live close to each other, we are close through these gifts that pass through family lines and now my children are growing more and more interested in art.
Art is a gift which permeates our communities, neighborhoods and families. It can unify us and thusly, I believe, should be shared anywhere and everywhere. Through the realization of GG Jeane not sharing her gift as wide as possible, I've learned the importance of not snuffing out gifts.
My soon to be 11-year old daughter, Rhiannon, has an emerging gift in art. It's something I'm trying to nurture as best as I can, without placing pressure on her...there exists a balance with this. She was able to share a piece with her GG Jeane (Great Grandma) upon our visit this past weekend. The image of a tree she drew, titled "Tree", represents the passing of a gift from GG Jeane, through 4 generations, to her. In her death, her gift will live on eternally through her family...and I think the tree image is a perfect representation of sustaining life and gifts growing over generations.
Alone, But Not Lonely
Another element of our humanity we discuss at length, is the notion of being In community vs. being With community. It's a fascinating and important element to pay attention to, as it has potential for being a hidden danger to humans in general. Many people live 'in' the community, but don't experience being 'with' the community. People who are only 'in' community, surrounded by people, but not connected, run the risk of being Lonely. What we understand of Loneliness, which some people in my life refer to as the only 'real disability', is it's potential of killing our human spirit and dousing our fire for life.
In GG Jeane's case, she lived alone. A fiercely independent woman, GG Jeane was indeed the Matriarch of our small family. Beyond her gift as an artist, perhaps GG Jeane's most admirable trait was her Faith. She was born and raised in the Lutheran Church and held her Faith in God close to her...it was her compass in life. It also provided an avenue to being "with" community. A member of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Redlands for over 30 years, GG Jeane found her tribe in those who shared her walk with Faith in God.
This community of people wrapped their arms around GG Jeane this past week, something so profound, yet so simple. While her church community provided GG Jeane with the ability to be 'with' community, her local family (my parents, uncle, aunt, brother and his family) also made sure she felt belonging to those around her. GG Jeane was not lonely, and was truly With community...her community. Just as an aside, GG Jeane's Faith, to me, is much more than a belief in God. It is the manifestation of a commitment to walk a path of service and to feel whole-heartedly a part of something bigger than oneself. It reminds me of a passage from a book telling the story of Waddie Welcome, titled "Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community." In this book, a woman by the name of Addie Reeves is integral in the lives of many, and her Faith in her life, was her compass. She would tell people: "Want to be beautiful? Serve God." And in the book, the author's share a line from Addie's obituary, "Addie Reeves was a beautiful woman." My grandmother is a beautiful woman.
About 6 years ago, I had a conversation with a friend/mentor of mine about the quick-paced lives we live and how we've lost the art of slowing down. A simple practice he shared with me was letter writing. It struck a chord with me and I set an intention to write to people. The first person I wrote to was my grandmother. We've been writing back and forth ever since, affectionately referring to one another as pen pals.
My grandmother was not of the computer generation, thus, writing letters resonated with her greatly. She would often include newspaper clippings with her letters, typically about topics we had conversations about or wrote about. In this, her last letter to me, she included a clipping about Edinburgh, Scotland. My grandmother has an incredible memory, and she remembered my trip to Edinburgh back in 2013 and how I loved the architecture. This clipping was largely centered around the unique architecture of Edinburgh. She wrote poetically about the idea of her walking through the streets of this place and the magical power she would feel from the history encompassing her walk.
For me, fully immersed in the age of technology, writing letters with pen-to-paper, affords me the opportunity to slow down in an increasingly busy life. It allows me to connect to other humans with thoughtful intention. I've got a handful of people I write back and forth with. It has helped me stay grounded, stay connected to those far from us and be present with those around us in our places in our neighborhoods and communities. I invite you to think about this practice, think about those people in your life whom you care deeply about, but may live a bit of a distance, and write to them.
The most profound moment of my time over the weekend with my family and GG Jeane, started with a phone call. I don't typically answer my parent's phone, but given the circumstances, I answered on Sunday around 2pm.
"Hello?" I answered.
A gentle voice replied "Hello...this is Bobbie from Christ The King. Is Lorrie there?" Lorrie is my mom, GG Jeane's daughter.
"No, I'm sorry she is out on an errand. Can I take a message for you?"
"Oh I was just wanting to know if I can come over to visit Jeane?"
"Of course," I said, "Our doors are open to anyone and you are most welcome to come visit. You're welcome to come now if you'd like..."
"Well, it's 2pm now, how does 3:30pm sound? It will take me a while to get going and get to you..." Bobbie replied.
"3:30pm is perfect...see you in a while." I later found out she lives about 10 minutes from my parent's home and found joy in understanding her process as someone who has her own mobility challenges associated with her age. At 3:27pm, a knock on the door and Bobbie was 3 minutes early.
What I witnessed for the next 15 minutes was nothing short of beautiful. Bobbie made her way around to GG Jeane and gently told her, "Jeane, it's Bobbie. I'm here and wanted you to know something. You are my friend and I'm proud to call you my friend. It's been an honor to be your friend and I wanted to let you know that." Tears streaming down my face, and that of Bobbie's face, I was reminded of the most important element to a full, connected life: friendship. GG Jeane has friends. Friends in her family. Friends in her faith community. Friends throughout her life. Bobbie held her hand for another 10 minutes in silent solidarity, before making her way out of our home. I asked her, "What was the nature of your relationship with my grandmother?" She replied, "We ate lunch together." Simple. Profound. Human.
Humans are wired to be connected to other humans. Of course, outliers exist, people who would prefer to live in relative isolation. Beyond these outliers, are the rest of us. People who can easily slip into isolation without the necessary human capital to keep us from ending up lonely. GG Jeane lived alone, but was not alone. She had her faith. She had her family. She had her friends.
So hold those close to you. Draw those not as close, closer. Take time to slow down, breathe and perhaps write to someone. Look for the beauty in the lives and community that surround you. Share your gifts and make space for the contribution of gifts from those around you. Appreciate art...art that abounds all around you and seek to find your inner artist...always appreciating the power and beauty of the Heart of an Artist.
I love you GG Jeane...you are a beautiful woman and you will be missed.
~Your Pen Pal, kirk