I have just returned from a very quick trip to Illinois. On Tuesday morning (Dec. 16th), as I was getting out of the shower, Adam, knocked on the bathroom door. I opened the door and he told me that my mother wanted me to call her. I knew in my heart what his next words would be.. My grandmother had died. I cried what were really tears of bittersweetness. Adam said, "honey, I'm sorry" and I said, "no, don't be, this is good".
I am nervous to approach what seems like such a sacred subject. For those of you that also find this sacred, I want to apologize to you for my inability to give our grandmother, mother, aunt, friend the justice that she deserves. For the sake of my children who will only know her when they meet her in heaven, I want to try to explain the greatness that was held inside the heart of this little housewife in southern Illinois.
There are so many memories so fresh in my mind. The smell of the cherry trees beside her house. The old fashion desks that sat on her front porch. The concrete horse that stood in her front yard that gave each and every grandchild a ride. Often all at the same time. The piano that I played underneath. The donut sticks and the RC colas. The Trix cereal that I ate out of the bowl that had the gold ring around the outside and the little pink flowers in the bottom that encouraged me to finish off that last sip of milk. The summer that she told me that I was old enough to play rummy even if the older cousins said I wasn't. And how she spent hours and hours playing with me until she had taught me well enough to beat them all. Her cute use of the word "fiddlesticks" when she was frustrated. How she would pull one of her purses out for me to pretend I was big and then search the house for items to fill the purse with. Always included was a small writing pad, a pen and a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. There are so many things that my heart holds dear when I think of the summers that I spent with my grandmother. And I'm sure that these little things left marks on my life that would have no doubt had much less flavor without them. But there are some things I learned from my grandmother that effect my actions each and every day and it is those things that I particularly want to tell you about.
There may not be any other event that has made me question God more than the last 12 years of my grandmother's life. I have not so much questioned His existence but if He did in fact, know what He was doing and if He did, if I actually wanted to be a part of that. There I said it, Dana Ellis, preacher's wife has questioned if she wanted to be a part of his "wonderful plan" that has often seemed not so wonderful to me. It's an ironic thing because in these moments of doubt, it has often been my grandmother's words that brought me back to my faith. "Dana, the Bible says that the road is long and narrow, but what awaits you at the end is both deep and wide".
It's funny the way that a persons mind works when someone they love is slowly slipping away. In 1999, I went to visit my grandmother very soon after Adam and I were married. She had been unable to travel to Alabama for the wedding because her health was beginning to deteriorate. As soon as I walked through her door, she handed me a card with twenty dollars inside. I knew that twenty dollars was a lot for her. I also learned during that trip that she handed me that card just as soon as I got there because she was learning that otherwise, she would forget. All through the house, I found evidence that she knew her mind was slipping away. On the calendar on September the 4th she had written, "that means it's the fourth day of September". In the kitchen, there was a note that she moved to let herself know that she had taken her medicine. There were lists where she had written the names of the grandchildren and great grandchildren, a few of the youngest, missing. I guess we all knew in our hearts what was beginning to happen but no one wanted to fully admit it. That particular trip, she talked a lot about my grand dad who had died 17 years earlier. I can remember her saying that 17 years was a long time to live without the love of your life. After that trip, I began to pray, "God please heal her"
A year later, my mom and I went to visit and during that visit, we repeatedly reminded her of who we were. There were several times that she thought I was my mother. My mother and I sat with photo album after photo album asking her questions trying to get any information that we could glean. We knew that our time was limited and with her mind would go some family history. That night, after the photo album incidence, I laid in bed in my mother's arms and sobbed. I was sad for myself but even more so at the thought of my mother losing her mother in that way. My mother had such a sweet relationship with her mother. I can never remember either one of them passing up the chance to do something for the other. They adored each other. I think it was natural, the feelings that they had for each other. It was nothing that was contrived. I don't think they knew it at the time, but as I watched them love each other, I was learning how to love my mother and my children. I often hear about curses that are passed down through generations. Well, I'm hear to say that blessings pass down too! I also adore my mother and upon talking to my mother about it, her mother did too. After that trip, I began to pray, "God please heal her by making her better here on Earth or by taking her to be with you".
There are stories that I've heard of things that she did as Alzheimers was taking it's grip on her that are sad but also show the sweetness that never left her. . My Uncle Ronnie had taken control of her checkbook and was distributing money as she needed it. He would give her money every week and the money kept disappearing. When he asked her where it was, she would say that she gave it to Jesus. When my mom and uncles cleaned out her house, they found a picture of Jesus. Guess what was taped to the back? Yep, the money. At one point, when she was living with my aunt and uncle, she mistook my Uncle Ronnie for my grandpa. As he was tucking her into bed, she asked him if he was coming to bed. He tried to explain to her who he was and that he had to sleep with "Carol". She fussed at him in her typical way saying things like, "All these years, I've been with you and you sleep with that woman down the hall". Then, my Aunt Carol went to tuck her in and she told her, "I don't know what I'm going to do with you". Here she is with the woman that she thinks is sleeping with her husband down the hall and she says, "I don't know what I'm going to do with you"? My grandmother didn't have the ability to be anything but love. My heart confuses me when I think of stories like these because I both love and hate them at the same time.
As time moved on, it became apparent that it was no longer safe for her to live by herself. She moved in with my mother's brother and his wife. My Aunt Carol took care of her as if she was her own mother. I truly believe that my grandmother loved her like she was. As her condition worsened and my grandmother escaped out of the house into the cold a few times and things of that sort happened, they began to realize that they just did not have the resources to give her the care that she needed. My aunt and uncle made the very painful decision to put her in a nursing home. It was never in any of our plans but even as her mind, was slipping away, God apparently had more plans for her life. It's unbelievable to me that a woman who didn't even know her own name could still touch so many lives but as I was listening to everyone's stories at her funeral. I heard of the nurses who were in the room when she passed, crying and saying things like, "I'm sorry, I just wasn't ready to let her go" and, "she was my sweetie". A couple of my cousins have been remarried in the last several years. Their ex spouses were there. I'm not sure exactly why, but that alone is profound to me. I truly believe that my grandmother embodied Jesus' love and that no one around her could help but feel it.
I visited my grandmother for the last time in 2004 when Emma was a year old. At that point, she didn't know who any of us were. I wasn't even sure she knew we were there until she sang along as my mother, my sister and I sang her favorite church song, "How Great Thou Art". After that, I got on my knees beside her holding Emma on one knee. I tried to explain to her who I was and that I was holding my child. Then I repeatedly told her that I loved her. Finally, I said, "Grandma, we love you. Do you know that"? And by some miracle she said, "Yes, yes I sure do". I can remember looking up at my mother and saying, "well, that's good enough for me". I was pretty sure that was the last time I was going to see her this side of heaven and hearing her say that she knew we loved her was the peace I needed to let her go. At that point I began to pray, "God please heal her and I understand what form that healing will take". So for several years, I held my breath every time I answered the phone. There were a couple of times when they called the children in. Even one time when they pronounced her dead and then she started breathing again. The whole time we lived in West Virginia, I feared that I wasn't going to be able to make that trip because it was so far. Just a week before she died, I told my mother that I thought I might need to take Chloe to see her if she made it until Spring. Really, I'm glad that Chloe will only know her whole but situations like this make you question the proper thing to do. I feel sure that one day, Emma and Chloe, you will sit down at a table in heaven to eat the huge breakfast that your great-grandmother has prepared for you. Complete with homemade biscuits and the best gravy you've ever tasted. And then, you'll know this sweet gentle woman that loved a few generations of people into being better than they would have been without her. Until then, I'll tell you stories of her and try to be the example that was set for me.
I don't understand the human mind and I still don't claim to understand God. I don't know exactly where my Grandmother was for the last years of her life. But I do know this, she walked with God when she was here. She is walking with God now. Nothing separates us from the love of God. So He was always there with her. And just maybe, somewhere in Galatia IL there is a little nurse that knows what the love of God looks like because even though my Grandmother was slowly slipping away, that love that we all knew her so well for, never did.
To live a life where not only is there no one that you know that doesn't like you, but where there is not one person who doesn't love you, can be done. I've seen it first hand.
And that, is a legacy worth living to leave.