“For death is part of the human experience. I think we must respond when we are called upon to bear witness to suffering. We may feel hopeless because we can’t make the pain go away. And ultimately, we can’t stop death. Yet our willingness to simply be there leads us to greater compassion and greater wisdom. We become more fully human.”
Keeping a Home, Keeping a Legacy
“The ordinary arts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.” –Sir Thomas More
My grandma, who passed earlier this spring, was a woman who had led a simple life. A typical life even, common to many of her era. Her immigrant parents, from the “old country,” came to the U.S. as young adults and eventually settled in Detroit, Michigan. Grandma was born in 1916, the younger of two children. She took her high school education to a typing job at the phone company and then to a real estate agency. She gave up full-time work after she married my grandpa in order to raise a family. They too lived in Detroit. She would take the bus to Hudson’s department store with her two young daughters, outfitted in true 1950s fashion in matching dress coats and tams, looking like tiny models out of a catalog. Her home was spic ‘n span clean with the décor arranged just so. And of course, she cooked. Hearty meals of roast beef or macaroni and cheese, with endless pleas to have some more, don’t let it go to waste.
Yet for such an ordinary life, the struggle at the very end of her life’s journey was extraordinary in the fear and agony she experienced as her body declined. Being with my grandma during her final, wretched days was heartrending. Months later, I am still processing the emotions from those mere handful of days. As Jane Austen would have said, it has “required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover.” Talking, and especially writing, has helped me find perspective. This essay is taken in part from the eulogy I delivered at my grandmother’s funeral.
There are some, like my late grandfather, who have a zest for life. He owned a succession of small businesses, owned a sailboat, and organized rafting trips down a raging river in Virginia. But every adventurer needs a solid anchor back home, making that home and keeping it.
Such a simple-sounding verb, to keep. Yet it means more than mere tending. The art of keeping includes an array of responsibilities: being able to form strong habits, fulfilling your part of an ongoing agreement, and preserving long-standing traditions. At our best, we keep friends and promises; we keep Christmas in our hearts; we keep a home for those we love most.
My grandma was a home maker, and a keeper of that home. There’s a how-to book, Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson, that I came across several years ago. In it, Mendelson suggests that many of us underappreciate the value of a well-kept home. She explains it like this:
“Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home…it is your housekeeping that makes your home alive, that turns it into a small society in its own right, a vital place with its own ways and rhythms, the place where you can be more yourself than you can be anywhere else.”
That was my grandma’s house. No matter what calamities were occurring in the world or what stresses we faced in our personal spheres, time spent at Grandma’s was restorative, a reminder that structure and comfort will always exist because they can be created with readily abundant supplies: diligence and love. She made homemaking a practice. A practice she worked at every day, creating—and keeping—a warm, inviting home for us, her small society of family she loved so dearly. A home and hub that for decades structured our lives, brought us happiness, and from which multiple generations would make our way in the world.
In her last years, Grandma lived in an senior apartment that offered some care assistance. Her apartment, with its kitchenette and small living room, was still a home in the sense that she could receive guests. They could gather at her table or sit around the TV. Toward the end, however, we had to move Grandma to a nursing home, which was little more than a glorified hospital room, short on both privacy and space for visitors. Although she would be in the nursing home less than three months, moving her there more than anything signaled the beginning of the end. Not only was she facing the physical decline of her body, she was also losing her role, her place in life as homemaker and hostess.
And then the pneumonia set in. Her body had little defense against illness and it began to shut down. We — my mother, aunt, and a few other close family members — braced ourselves. We contacted hospice. We had been here before. In the early 2000s, we gathered at the deathbed of first my great uncle and then my grandfather. We thought we knew what to expect.
But where my uncle and grandfather went more or less “gentle into that good night,” my grandma resisted. For several days, she writhed in an agitated, restless state. She kept trying to sit upright, though lacked the strength to do so. We wrung our hands in despair.
She’ll wear herself out completely, we said. We had to take turns, relieving one another of the harrowing vigil because of the difficulty of watching her and feeling completely helpless. It will be ok, we said. The nurse will come soon with more medicine, we said.
Yet we could not soothe her. We knew our words were feeble; we knew that we could not make them strong merely through force of repetition. But we didn’t know what else to do.
So we repeated ourselves, again and again. Mother, it’s ok, we said. Lie back down, Helen. Let go. It’s ok, Helen.
We love you, Grandma.
Did she hear us? We couldn’t tell. Her distressed mind slipped into the Finn of her girlhood. She pleaded with people who were none of us. At times, the hovering people must be speaking, for Grandma would suddenly be still, listening. Who were they? Her long-lost parents? Her revered older brother, the exceptionally smart one who had been the family pride? Surely he would know what to do, how to help her.
Then she would moan and wail again, a stream of vowels and gurgling consonants, erupting from deep recesses within. She would push her frail body forward, away from the pillows. Where in life she sailed calmly like a mother duck on placid waters, in dying, she clawed her way along a rocky path, brambled, always into the head winds.
Was she fighting against death in pure terror, or was she pleading for it to take her faster? Perhaps it was the knowledge that at age 99 she was one of the last of her generation to carry the weight of her home, her life, and all that had been across her thin shoulders.
We’ll never know. Around 9p Monday evening we lost contact with her after a very long weekend. The morphine at last took over. She passed at 11:30p. In many ways, we were relieved. She was finally at peace.
* * * * *
It was the hospice nurse who helped me see what Grandma’s life stood for. We talked about her life, her vocation as a homemaker, for she was more than a consummate homemaker, she was the keeper of the well-being of her family. A role she held onto stubbornly, so that even two days before she died, she insisted on knowing the fate of her apartment furniture. My brother told her he had taken it. This was a “loving lie” — as the hospice nurse later called it — because we had actually donated the furniture. Yet we knew Grandma would rest easier if she believed that her table, her bed had stayed in the family. Her shrewd shopper instincts were still intact, though, and much to our surprise, she had asked what moving company we used and how much we paid.
My brother was forced to embellish the little loving lie into a full-blown story (which he did with gusto, I might add!) We have certainly laughed about this incident many times since. It’s a moment that will be cherished amid so many that were emotionally charged and downright painful. Yet it’s also a moment to serve as a reminder of how Grandma kept something very dear for us for 60 years: an inviting, comfortable, loving home. And beyond that, she had given us the resources and the know-how to keep homes for our own families. Her care and dedication has extended outward through the generations.
It was difficult to decide if I should bring my two teenaged kids to the nursing home during Grandma’s final weekend for it was hard to see her in that state. She was no longer the great-grandma who gave them coins from her bingo winnings or who was excited as a little kid when it came time for dessert or opening gifts. I’m proud to say that my kids decided that they should be there, for her sake, and for the family’s sake. I thought that they should be there for their own sake as well. For death is part of the human experience. I think we must respond when we are called upon to bear witness to suffering. We may feel hopeless because we can’t make the pain go away. And ultimately, we can’t stop death. Yet our willingness to simply be there leads us to greater compassion and greater wisdom. We become more fully human.
And sometimes, it is only at the end, that we can fully appreciate a life. Despite her understated ways, Grandma knew how to make her home a living embodiment of her love. May I have the grace and fortitude to keep her legacy going strong and pass it on to my children.
~ Nancy at Practically Wise ~
July 17, 2016
This post is a part of the series Me in the Middle Invites Guest Bloggers. An Invitation to share a time in life where you thought you’d never make it through and you did. A witness of the strength that you never thought you had.
It’s an honor to feature Nancy’s writing. I encourage you to visit her Blog at ~ Nancy at Practically Wise ~.
~ For guidelines on submitting your inspiring story please go Here ~