I’m 32, soon to be 33. In this time, I’ve had a fairly storybook family life, with little loss. When my great grandmother Clarice died, I was 20, serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. The news came one afternoon when giant thunderheads gathered in a great white clump before the sun, sending rays downward to the humid highlands in dramatic, glorious streaks of gold and ochre. I watched those clouds move in the distance, remarking the ethereal view.
A few hours later, through a series of ridiculously complicated measures, a printed email was hand-delivered to a small tin roof bar, where I sat nursing a warm Coca Cola, playing cards with fellow volunteers after a long day of training. My dad wanted me to know two things: baby Bennett was born. Mini was doing fine. He was gorgeous. There were many celebrations and I was much missed. Also, he’d be here when I got home. Don’t cry too much.
And, sadly, my 93-year-old great-grandmother, “GG,” had passed away. She had lived a great life as a beloved matriarch, and don’t cry too much. She wouldn’t want me to spend my time being sad on her behalf.
The news was bittersweet. Folding my hand, I crept away from the group and took a long, soggy walk by myself. GG was my Scrabble buddy, and the reason I stopped biting my fingernails in elementary school. (Her very proper British roots found the habit “common.”) Maybe, if I do live long enough, like she did, I would too be remembered by my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. Or would my memory just become an inquisitive obituary search? It did not matter at the moment. All I knew was that GG was gone.
When I tried explaining to my African friends my great-grandmother passed and I would forever miss her, they shook their heads with disbelief. Who lived long enough to be a great-grandmother? And whilst it is true that they have lived long lives, they aren’t necessarily all living healthy ones. The fact is that after a certain age, your body starts to ache and joints don’t move as freely as they used to. I know many older people who have lived very long lives, but they’ve needed the help of assisted living in Lincoln and in other places they have lived. It’s been a very long time since my GG was fully independent, but she did have a long life.
Since, I’ve seen several of my father’s beloved aunts and uncles pass away. Somehow today, I still have 3 grandmothers and two grandfathers. The grandparent department in our family involves divorce and remarriage, and as such titles of respect that aren’t necessarily tied to genetics, but to warm laps. Birthdays cards. Recipes. Laughter. Albums of photographs with yellowed, curling edges showcasing the “firsts” for each family member. First cake. First swim. First car. First date.
I vividly remember a set of my grandparents collecting me from the playground in first grade; it was bring-a-family-member-to-school day and they’d driven 50-plus miles to provide a surprise I’ll always cherish.
It is a blessing and a curse to be this age with such an innocence for loss. I have close friends who have grieved parents and siblings, and yet, here I am bubbling with tears over the sickness of my elderly family. I am comforted knowing they have lived lives with a strong faith and their fears are muted knowing they are going to meet the Lord.
This week has been particularly difficult. A close family friend who long served as a stand-in grandfather passed away from a heart attack. My grandmother had a stroke and is likely living her last days. Another grandmother struggles to remember the names of those she loves most.
And I cry. I cry with sorrow because I will miss their friendships so much it hurts to breathe. And I cry with joy that they are on their walk to the Lord.
As I watch afternoon clouds shaped like pillows gather over the Rockies, I remember all they have taught us by example. Tenacity. Grace. Strength. Honor. Honesty. Forgiveness.
I am so lucky to call them family.