Love like lilacs…on Grandma Alyce and a life well-lived

Everyone and everything I love is holy…

I pause as the sentence pops to mind. It does occasionally, even though it came to me completely by accident at first, the consequence of a mistype and autocorrect.

<<<>>>

A few years ago, a friend and I were chatting about therapy. She was gearing up to go back, but was dreading the work. I was thinking that I probably needed to get back on antidepressants first, because as my depression sat, I didn’t think I would actually get anywhere.

“It would be a fairly nihilistic therapy session,” I began.
“Therapist: so what brings you in today
Me: everyone and everything I love is “

And here’s where I started to write “going to die” and autocorrect changed “going” to “holy.”

I think sometimes the universe interjects itself into our lives, and in this case, I think it was letting me know that I was missing the point.

<<<>>>

Everyone and everything I love is going to die…

My 92 year old grandmother, Alyce, passed away on June 28, leaving behind 9 children, 21 grandchildren, and 26 great grandchildren. Less than a week before, John and I drove up to visit her in the nursing home to which she had recently been moved. We met my cousin Erin there, and the four of us passed the afternoon.

Me, Grandma, Erin, and John

It wouldn’t turn out to be my last visit with her, but the possibility clung to me, a thought I worked to push back. I wanted to enjoy my time with her, and I did. We talked and laughed. Hugged. I turned pages for her while she looked at our wedding album. She told us about the singer who had come to the nursing home the week before. The song she requested. I wish I could remember the name…

Grandma was moved to hospice the next day; it was her choice, and we knew it was coming. She chose to transfer when it became apparent that her congestive heart failure was getting the better of her; she was tired of the doctor visits. Of struggling to breathe.

Maybe, in some ways, she was just tired.

A few days later, I went back to see her again. This time at hospice. She couldn’t speak much, could barely stay awake. The nurses (god bless hospice nurses) kept her comfortable and answered our questions.

Family rotated through. My cousins sat with me. I called my dad and told him to come. I watched several of her sons say their goodbyes. My father audibly. My uncle with a hug.

Her heart was giving out, but her mind was still sharp. She worked to say “I love you” to each of us.

Strange, there was so much sadness in that room, but what struck me over and over was the way love spilled out from every corner. The way it permeated the air.

We stood with her on the edge of death, and it was holy.

<<<>>>

We sat vigil with grandma, no one leaving until the next person had come in. She was never alone.

We talked about her life as we held space for her. Memories each of us had. It’s strange how the people you love, the people who love you, hold different pieces of you. Strange how you can come together and add pieces, one after another, until you paint a vibrant picture.

It’s remarkable how you can come to the end of a 92 year life and leave everyone you know wishing it was longer. I think every single one of us will miss her. And I think the ones who didn’t know her, like my cousins’ children whose memory is still too young, will hear stories that will make them proud of her.

<<<>>>

On July 3, we attended her Celebration of Life.

It’s funny. Knowing her my whole life didn’t quite prepare me for her eulogy. For learning about all of the living she did in the space before me, before my aunts and uncles, before even my grandfather was part of her story.

She had told me about her childhood here and there. I knew that her parents had divorced, in a time when almost no one divorced, and that she had been in the custody of her mother as a young child because her father was willing to take his sons but “didn’t want the girl.” Then she was handed around between caregivers. Her mother. Random relatives. The upstairs neighbor. Her grandparents.

She had a traumatic childhood, one that gave her every excuse in the world to perpetuate the trauma she experienced, but she broke the cycle during a time when people weren’t talking about breaking trauma cycles and mental health resources were far less available. She raised loved and loving children. She was known for welcoming everyone who came through her door (and usually feeding them, even though she actually hated to cook).

I found out that she was a writer, too, in high school. Creative writing. Press club. Even the editor of her high school newspaper. How had that never come up?

I listened to stories about the jobs she held: preschool teacher, Headstart teacher, Meals-on-Wheels deliverer. All jobs that lifted others up. Cared for them.

Hearing new stories from her life felt a little bit magic: a reminder of the depth and breath of nearly a century on this planet. A reminder that we were celebrating a life that had been well lived.

<<<>>>

I asked her what her favorite flower was once. She told me about how her children would bring her lilacs in the spring, and she told me about how she would have liked to have purple roses for her wedding to my grandfather, but that they were poor, so she made her wedding flowers out of tissue. I like that she answered the question with stories.

We had daisies and lily of the valley at her funeral, because I guess those were her favorites, too.

But I think about the tissue roses, and how she made something beautiful with so little. And I think about the lilacs, and how the answer to what she loved wasn’t about the aesthetics. It was about the way her children showed their love. It was about the story.

<<<>>>

Have you ever walked into a grove of blooming lilacs in the evening when the air is heavy? Or walked into a midwestern farmhouse where the cut flowers are sitting in a vase on the table? The scent always registers before the source. It permeates the air.

I think about her final days in hospice, and it occurs to me that grandma spent her final days surrounded by a love like lilacs. A love you felt hanging in the air before you could pin down a source.

<<<>>>

Everyone and everything we love is going to die; everyone and everything we love is holy.

I miss her.

I didn’t see Grandma all that often, but I feel her absence. The planet was better with her on it.

But, also, the planet is better for her having been on it. That, I think, is the most we can wish for anyone in the end.

Well, that, and a holy love.

Like lilacs

Grandma and Grandpa

2 thoughts on “Love like lilacs…on Grandma Alyce and a life well-lived

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