One of the last times I visited my Grandmother at the Care Center where she lived, staff members wheeled her hall-mate out on a gurney.
“We all come here to die,” my Grandmother said matter-of-factly after her sheet-covered neighbor passed from view.
She was right: residents in her wing of the Care Center weren’t waiting to get better or younger or to move somewhere else. This building was their last stop in this life. She and her neighbors had come there to die.
Words failed me at that moment, as they often do when we come face-to-face with the limits of our existence. I held her hand as her words about death lingered in the space between us. The conversation gradually picked up again and we talked about goings on of various members of our extended family. Invariably Grandma’s information was more up-to-date than mine on cousins and great aunts and family friends. Even as the world she inhabited narrowed, her sharp mind and wit enabled strong connections to a much wider world beyond her tiny room. It was true that she longed for death. But even as the end drew very near, Grandma died like she was living.
When she moved into an apartment in the assisted living wing of the nursing home a decade ago, my Grandmother signed up to deliver the morning paper to her neighbors. She attended concerts, Bible studies, and many other events offered in her new home. She also made it out to countless family events.
Then came the smaller assisted living apartment and the walker. She persisted in delivering newspapers, handing them out from the basket perched on the front of her walker. She attended fewer family events, as travel beyond the nursing home required energy she only occasionally had.
A couple falls landed her in the Care Center temporarily, and a few times we thought the end was in sight. But her body was resilient and she returned to her apartment—the last time in a motorized chair—to pick up again with her magazine subscriptions and her phone calls and visits with family and friends.
She moved to the Care Center for good last year. Even more of her belongings were given away. She and we together witnessed the downsizing of her vast life into a single room with a bed, a chair, and a dresser. But even though her yearning for death grew in inverse proportion to the size of her living quarters, and even though moving, sleeping, eating, living became increasingly difficult, Grandma recommitted herself daily to showing up for another go at life.
Last summer the girls and I stopped in for a visit, and when we arrived at her room, we found it empty. As we headed back to the nurses’ station, we spotted her, wheelchair positioned close to two friends, head buried in a newspaper. After assuring us she could return to the paper after we left, we proceeded to her room for delightful conversation, hearing yet again the stories about her years in Madagascar as a missionary kid, about spending her thirteenth birthday in Paris, about how it happened that she ended up going to St. Olaf College in the 1930s, about her thoughts on the latest political elections and use of tax dollars in the city of St. Paul.
In December, Grandma had a stroke and was taken to a local hospital. A day later she lost consciousness and the decision was made to return her to the Care Center. Back in her room, a constant stream of family, friends, and staff made its way into her room to say goodbye. Family drove in from neighboring states; fellow residents kissed her forehead and described the vibrant friendships they had enjoyed with her. Staff members stood at the foot of her bed with wet eyes, relating stories of the conversations, laughter, and prayers they shared with my Grandma. She had come to the Care Center to die. But those final visits from so many who loved her testified to how Grandma had been dying like she was living.
Living with a stage IV cancer for the past five years has caused me to think a great deal about dying. About how I hope it doesn’t come for a good while but also about how it might, and about how I will face it when it does. My Grandma gave me many gifts in my forty-seven years of life, but the most recent—and perhaps the most valuable—has been the gift of seeing her die like she was living. She often said to anyone who would listen, “I know I’m going to live fifteen years longer than anyone wants me to.” Truth is she lived about five years longer than she wanted to. But even as she prayed fervently for death, for the reunion with her parents, her siblings, and her husband of sixty one years, my Grandmother never stopped having stimulating conversations with her friends, relishing every visit from family members, reading her Bible and the newspaper, and thanking God for this new day.
I thank God for my Grandmother’s fabulous long life, and for offering us all a view of how we might live, even when death is just down the hall.