The Final Goodbye

Sidney, my 16 yo son, took the SAT several weeks ago.  In preparation, he looked up SAT essay prompts online and wrote timed essays.  It probably comes as no surprise that the essay prompts left him groaning.  One prompt, in particular, left him feeling that he had absolutely nothing to say on the matter . . .

Is it more courageous to show vulnerability than it is to show strength?

Honestly, when I first read that prompt, I cringed too, unsure how to coach him on that one.  SAT takers are advised to include examples from their studies and own experiences to support their essay thesis.  At the tender age of 16, Sidney had given little thought to showing vulnerability vs showing strength and his short life has given him little experience with either.

After a moment or two of thinking about vulnerability and strength, a clear image formed in my mind — 94-year-old Grandmother Louise, my husband’s grandmother and Sidney’s great-grandmother.  She, more than anyone else I could think of, is the epitome of a courageous vulnerability.

A younger Sidney and Grandma at the piano in her most recent home in North Carolina. She loved to play and sing, even more so when others played and sang too.

She buried her dear husband and 3 adult children. At the age of 80, this tiny fragile woman hopped on a plane to Tokyo to visit another son.  At 86, she moved from her flatland home in Kansas to the mountainous landscape and curving roads of North Carolina.  This move brought her to live with a daughter and son-in-law who could care for  her. She gave up the independence of driving and exchanged her church denomination for her daughter’s church.  Her willingness to give up her old life and habits, to bring herself under the care of another was an admission of vulnerability, her need for help in living.  Grandma Louise’s quiet acceptance was graceful, courageous and even joyful.  Perhaps her embracing of joy was the most courageous part of her life.

A younger Lincoln plays piano with Grandma in North Carolina. The kids often played for her when they visited. Grandma’s feet could only shuffle across the floor, but her crooked, stiff fingers still danced across the piano keys.

For the last 8 years, Grandma Louise lived next door.  It is an easy walk through the woods and donkey pen to my inlaws’ home, where she lived.  She never once walked the path through the woods to our house — the uneven ground a threat to her balance and breakable bones.  Eventually, she exchanged her cane for a walker.  Hers was a quiet, scheduled life of meals, medications, shopping on Fridays, church on Sundays.  She could have withdrawn from the world into depression or apathy.  She could have become bitter as the people she loved died before her, and little by little, she lost strength, ability, independence, hearing and memory.

Grandma plays piano at Sidney’s home recital in 2009.

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Instead, she actively participated in the lives of her family far and near, in the small ways that she could manage — sending birthday cards to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — all 78 of them.  Although her necessary schedule of meal, meds and multiple bathroom trips complicated life, she was always ready to shuffle to the car with her walker and travel 4 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours away to visit family.

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Grandma saves the day and the music recital! She abandons her walker in front of the baby grand piano to entertain the residents of a nursing home while we waited for some late-arriving music students.

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Year after year, she faithfully came to birthday parties and music recitals.  She patiently sat, observing her loved ones around her, trying to hear our words and understand our lives.

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Grandma sits beside Knocker at the Gaskins’ Thanksgiving 2009.

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She fully lived the limited life she had.  She laughed loudly and girlishly at our lame jokes, clapped her hands when we played the piano or cello.  She delighted in our baby goats.  She patiently listened to complicated explanations of technological “magic” — her amazement with digital cameras and the internet never waned.  She encouraged us, smiled at us.

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Grandma sits with her son-in-law, Louis and daughter, Sandy at a Gaskins’ Thanksgiving 2010.

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Quite simply, she did little more than take joy in our presence.

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Prairie plays the piano for Grandma in her last days.

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When Grandma Louise could no longer swallow food and water and the only alternative was a feeding tube, she came home to die.

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Rachel plays piano for Grandma in her last days. Grandma is clapping her hands.

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By this time, her short-term memory was so bad, that she often repeated the same question or story within 30 minutes.  So I am not sure she remembered that she was dying.  My mother-in-law had to remind Grandma Louise that she could not give her water to drink.  The water would only go to Grandma’s lungs, causing her to aspirate, making pneumonia and dying in the hospital likely.   My mother-in-law could only swab Grandma’s mouth with a wet sponge.  Grandma would look confused for a second, then ask, “Is that what the doctor said, Sandy?”  “Yes, Mama.”  She would then nod her head and let her daughter swab her mouth, trusting her daughter to care for her.

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Prairie and Rachel with Great-Grandmother Louise

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Interestingly, though she seemed to keep forgetting this dying business, Grandma remembered that one granddaughter was due to deliver her first child soon.  In her last days of life, she continued to ask for news of this most recent great-grandchild.  The loss of her short term memory could not make Grandma forget what was important.

The day after Grandma came home from the hospital, we all walked through the woods for a visit.  She welcomed us into her room with a smile and asked the children to play the piano for her.  Grandma loved her music and played almost to the end.  And she loved to hear others play for her.

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Lincoln and Sidney with Grandma

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Grandma accepted her vulnerability and her need for care, but she did it with a cheerful courage, content to do what little bit she could for the people she loved.

That little bit turned out to be a whole lot.

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Grandma with a puppy the kids carried over for her to see. She clapped her hand with delight.

Those last days that we spent with Grandma Louise were sad and joyful, painful and beautiful.  One of those days, she reminisced about the time Sid, I and the children drove to Kansas to visit her.  We smiled and nodded our heads.

She stopped abruptly, gave us a quick look and asked, “I’ve already talked about that today, haven’t I?”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Throwing up her hands, she says with vague surprise, “I just keep repeating myself, but all these people keep coming to see me anyway!”

Lots of people did come to see her.  They traveled from Tokyo, San Francisco, Minnesota, Kansas and Virginia.  They visited with Grandma and with each other.  Lincoln played cello for her and relatives reminisced, hugged, ate, laughed, cleaned, played and cried together.

She didn’t think much of herself, but a lot of people still think very much of her.

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4 thoughts on “The Final Goodbye

  1. Anne, thank you for the encouragment! I truly value your opinion and I am honored that you took the time to read through that very long post.

    Tina

  2. This is a great summation of my mother, Tina. I can’t thank you enough.

    I especially appreciate your observation “Quite simply, she did little more than take joy in our presence..”

    I hadn’t considered that, but it is true.

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