My Grandma Flo died four years ago this spring. I’ve found myself thinking about her a lot lately, leading me to wonder if she’s been thinking about me too. And I can’t help but smile at that comforting thought.
She was ninety when she died quietly surrounded by a dozen family members after suffering a series of strokes on the heels of the Fargo Flood the spring of 2009. “A victim of the flood,” she had called herself.
During those days, I learned something precious about death and life, both punctuated by the sounds and smells of spring—and a welcome end to a very long North Dakota winter. But I’ll admit the lessons felt bittersweet as my grandma lay dying.
My grandma always preferred to go with the flow and defer decisions. But in the days following her strokes, she was decisive and incredibly brave. In the two weeks surrounding her hospitalization and death, my grandma spent most of her waking hours preparing us. With more courage than I knew she had, she declared, “I have already won the race.” She carefully took decisions out of the hands of her five children and declined any extraordinary measures.
I remember tearfully telling her how proud I was of her for being so brave, to which she replied drolly, “It’s a toss-up.”
In hindsight, I realize that my grandma had not only accepted her situation, but everyone else too, with all of our imperfections. And I see how she appreciated, in the moment, the complexity of our family dynamics: the serious, the silly, and the sublime. Blended together, they made our flawed relationships somehow perfect. Through her acceptance, I learned about letting go, which seems to mean allowing people to simply be, to do what they need to do – even when that means dying.
As I entered her hospital room late one evening, my grandma was sitting up in her hospital bed giggling with my two aunts. Feeling relieved, I laughed with them, recognizing that hadn’t seen my grandma really laugh in many months. For the next hour, the four of us laughed about ordinary things, which suddenly seemed ridiculous. With her death imminent and relishing every moment, my grandma giggled with delight as her eyes squeezed shut and her face crinkled into that big familiar grin.
I wonder if I’ll be brave enough to laugh like that when I’m dying, but I like to think that I will because I now know what grace looks like.
That said, if I die when I’m ninety, I’ll be more than twice as old as I currently am. And with that thought, I realize that my grandma’s dying magnifies a way of being and points the way to living. So why wait until then to be brave?