Our dear departed LucyPosted: January 23, 2018
Last week,I lost my grandmother. It doesn’t feel like I “lost” her, though, which implies some panic or confusion about her whereabouts. I guess it’s better described as we let her go. Or she let us go. Or she let go of us. In any case, she’s gone. And I miss her.
She was a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Many have asked, “Was she ill for a long time?” Not really, she was just old for a long time. It’s clear to me now that old will eventually get all of us.
“Were you two close?” others have asked. Yes, I think we were, but she was close to a lot of people. I’m certainly not the only one missing her today. One of my friends texted me, “She was such a big part of your life!” Indeed she was, especially in my adult years. Over the last twenty years we’d hit a rhythm of my visiting her throughout the year as often as I could – a meal here, an overnight there – but for sure, come mid-July, I’d bring my children and we’d stay overnight for a few days in her home. Until her late 80s, she’d visit me in California during the winter as well.
I was with her the day before she passed away. I wish I’d known it would be our last time together, though I don’t know if I’d have done anything differently. I’d visited her many times in the nursing home where she lived out her last eight months – sometimes she was alert and knew exactly who I was and we laughed about old times and caught up about new times. During other visits, she was in her own world and I did my best to enter into it. On that last visit, she appeared to be lost in her own thoughts, though she’d politely respond to me. “Lucy, this is Joy, your granddaughter. I am in town from Singapore and I came here to tell you I love you.” “Oh, well, thank you very much,” she answered, as if a staff member had given her the time – and then she would drift off to sleep again. Just before I departed, though, she piped up and said, “Well, I have one surprise for you. The weather changed; that’s my surprise for you.” Somehow this makes me think she pieced together who I was, after all. We’d spent hours last summer comparing her weather to the weather in Singapore.
Of course, I knew she was going to die. In fact, during the last year of her life, she’d told me many times she was ready. “Why do I have to go on like this?” she’d say, after a particularly tough day. Getting old isn’t pretty or dignified, I now know. The process is full of frustration, compliance, coping and loss. I’m a little more prepared for it after watching Lucy do it with such grace. I’ll never make the assumption again that losing an “old person” is somehow easier or more expected than losing any other loved one. Though she was ready to go – and I thought I was ready to let go – I didn’t understand that the grieving and mourning wouldn’t begin until she left. It’s painful no matter when or how a loved one goes. I didn’t know that before.
I’m sad today and I miss her so much. The day after she died, I was at a work conference in San Diego and some of my beloved colleagues who’d heard about Lucy’s passing sat me down and gave me a gift. They said, “Tell us about your grandmother.”
Without thinking, I replied, “My grandmothah was a nuhse in the Ahhhhmee.” I wish this blog had an audio format, because I’d imitate my grandmother’s voice like I did for my colleagues. I had to channel her for a moment because I wanted them to know an important part of her – her voice. It’s impossible for me to think about Lucy and not hear her speaking. Her accent, her clear articulation and how strong she spoke was so much a part of how I knew and understood her. No one else in my life spoke quite the same (well, except her sister, Betsy, with whom I often confused her when I was young.) To know Lucy was to love her voice.
Indeed, she was a nurse in the army. She enlisted after she graduated from nursing school at Duke and was immediately sent to the South Pacific. She witnessed horrors and difficulties I’ll never know that made her into the pillar of strength she was for the rest of her life. Today, I am lucky to have one best-friend-grandmother still with me, but I’ve had three WWII veteran grandparents pass on. Three times now, I’ve gone to the same little chapel at the veterans’ burial grounds near Annapolis, MD and listened to the soldiers play taps and watched them fold and present the flag to the family with gratitude for the veteran’s service. I remember when Lucy sat in the front row and received the flag from our country in gratitude for her husband’s service. Last Friday, my father received it for his mother’s service. If you are invited to a funeral, go. If you are invited to a veteran’s funeral, run and get a front-row seat.
Her service was held in the Methodist church she attended. I’m a preacher’s daughter, so I know how to estimate a crowded church. I’d guess there were almost 300 people in attendance. At 97, Lucy had probably already buried that same number of friends. What a testament to her life to see so many people still around who knew and loved her.
I learned so much from Lucy, but mostly she showed me how to laugh and have fun. When I was twelve she taught me the joy and freedom of skinny-dipping. Thankfully, she was on hand to rescue me with a towel when my bathing suit sunk to the bottom of the lake and other swimmers arrived! About twenty-five years later, she took my children down to the little beach on her property and right there for all the world to see, she taught them the same thing. She laughed herself silly when the crabbing boats came in and waved to us.
She loved “a pahhhdee.” It didn’t matter if she had 2-3 people over for soup or a crab feed for thirty of us, she would call me on the phone and say “Oh, Joy did we ever have a party!”
Her life showed me the value of making and keeping friends. More people than I will ever know loved my grandmother. She collected friends daily and never shied away from approaching strangers and turning them into friends. Her sweet, life-long friendship with Eleanor is one I admire and try to emulate. (In fact, I recently wrote about it here.) How did Lucy find friendship so easy, when in fact we all know that making and keeping friends can be a challenge for many of us? I think it had to do Lucy’s way of showing a focused, steady and unwavering interest in the life details of whomever she was with. To be in her presence was to know she was “all there” for you. Holding space for the other to shine was one of her gifts. Whenever I arrived for a visit, she’d have two lists ready. The first one was a list of questions about my family, my business and my life. Before I’d arrived, she’d thought long and hard about me. She loved friendships that spanned generations. After an afternoon out with a woman in her thirties. Lucy called me to say, “Joy, surround yourself with young people. They will keep you young!”
She also taught me to stay current. Lucy’s love/hate relationship with her computer was something to observe with awe. She embraced technology in a way I can only hope to do as I age. Her emails were funny and filled with mistakes and sometimes I’d get multiple emails in a day with no content or that were meant for other people. She struggled her way up the learning curve when the internet exploded, but she basically kept up. I remember multiple July visits in a row teaching her how to copy and paste and later finding the instructions in her own handwriting taped to the side of her computer. One time I called and she said, “Joy, I cannot speak right now. My friend is here fixing the computer.” I later found out her friend was a 15-year-old boy from down the street she’d call about once a week for help.
As fiercely independent as she was, Lucy modeled something very important for me: asking for help. She was not afraid to show vulnerability when she needed something. Many of the people who gathered for her service were answers to her calls for help, and I loved all the big and small ways her community assisted her as she aged. She was able to live a long time on her own and in her home because of them. Neighbors, church members, and friends across the creek constantly checked in on her and helped her with rides and things around the house. When I would come visit, Lucy would get out her second list, which was full of things she needed my help with. After we’d talked and visited for a while she’d say, “Ok, Joy, here’s my list, get the step ladder.”
Finally, she taught me the pure joy of eating ice cream. Lucy watched her figure her whole life. But after a day of eating celery for breakfast, cantaloupe for lunch and a spoon full of cottage cheese for dinner, at nightfall the ice cream would come out of the freezer and the fun would begin. When she stopped driving in her early 90s, I thought the Highs convenience store up the street from her house might go out of business because that little old lady wouldn’t come in for pints of ice cream any more.
During the last year of her life, she had very little interest in food. She’d force herself to eat though she wasn’t very hungry. I’d cajole her and try to make it easy by focusing on the most delicious thing on her plate. “Oh Joy, I really couldn’t eat another bite!” Just then, an aide would walk by with a tray of ice cream cups and ask if she wanted any. “Why yes, I’ll have one now and I’ll take another one to my room for later, ” she’d say. There was always room for ice cream.
After Lucy’s funeral service and the moving veteran’s graveside service, many of her friends and family gathered at her house to visit and remember her. My daughter walked down to the crabbing pier to see the skinny-dipping beach and breathe in that Chesapeake Bay atmosphere one last time. Together we looked at pictures on the walls and introduced ourselves to the neighbors who’d heard all our stories over the years. After a few hours, the crowd dwindled and the only ones who remained were her children, grandchildren and the spouses she’d long accepted as family. We’d eaten a hearty lunch provided by our closest family friend, Chris, Eleanor’s daughter, and we’d talked ourselves out, but we didn’t want to separate. Who knew when or if any of us would be in her home again? Who knew when we’d even see each other again?
Just then, my Uncle Randy and his son-in-law Ryan darted up to the Highs and loaded up on ice cream. Together we filled heaping bowls and toasted our dear departed Lucy one more time. We did just what she’d tell us to do: We Enjoyed. Every. Last. Bite.
Thank you for indulging me and listening to my memory of my grandmother. My friends, Betsy and Rebecca, gave me such a gift when they asked me to tell them about Lucy. I’d love to hear about your loved one – still with you or departed. If you’d like to share, leave a comment here. I’ll treasure your story.