In December my Grandmother passed away, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. On her birthday weekend in January, her entire family—joined by many friends—gathered to celebrate her life. At the memorial service, the eldest of the nineteen great grandchildren, Linnea Peterson, who I’m also proud to claim as my daughter, offered a tribute to her Great Grandmother. This is what she said:
As the oldest of the great-grandchildren, I felt called to give a tribute to Great-Grandma Swanee from a great-grandchild’s perspective. I’m going to structure what I say around a hymn that I’ve learned and come to love at Tverberg reunions, one that I think Great-Grandma particularly embodied. It’s called Borning Cry. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s is a hymn about a life lived in God’s word and promise, from the perspective of an onlooker. The onlooker is God, but it took me several years of singing the hymn to realize that. Before I figured that out, I often imagined the onlooker as a parent, a grandparent, some sort of older relative. With Great-Grandma’s deep investment in all of our lives of faith, she fit the image I had of this onlooker. Let me show you how.
The hymn begins,
I was there to hear your borning cry
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized
To see your life unfold.
This summer my aunt sent me a copy of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, a novel about a 50-year-old Harvard professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Scanning the back cover my eyes rested on the phrases “searing spotlight” and “dread disease,” tempting me to set the book on the bookshelf unread. My own dread disease of stage IV cancer already dominates much of the landscape in my life—why devote precious summer hours to another tale of grief? Breezy novels about beaches and sunsets seemed a more attractive option.
But the book was a gift, so I decided to give it a few pages. It didn’t take long to be drawn in to Genova’s chronicling of the cracks in Alice’s wonderful life. A thriving professional woman at the height of her career, Alice’s life was rich with things we in academia covet: smart students, speaking engagements in lovely locales, always-engaging campus environment. Amidst the loveliness of her life, the forgetting begins slowly, almost undetectably, building to a silent roar that only Alice can hear. She initially hides her diagnosis from everyone in her life, hoping that if she doesn’t say the words “early onset Alzheimer’s” out loud she can prevent the disease from taking control. But take control it does, and the rest of this first-person narrative walks the reader down the treacherous path that Alice must take as her life becomes increasingly dictated by the disease.