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Hospice and Home CareBy Mary Cook
On July 21, 1987 I was lying in a single bed with my cousin Renee, our dying grandmother tucked in between us. To the heart-breaking accompaniment of Grammie's ragged breathing, Renee and I shared memories:
"Remember going to Grant's for hot dogs and red, white and blue ice cream after Grammie's guitar lessons?"
"Remember how all the tough boys on Grammie's street called her 'Ma' and flagged down the bus for her if she was running late?"
Renee and I laughed and cried for hours as we remembered an entire lifetime with our beloved grandmother, and tried to imagine how different our lives would be without her constant and unconditional love.
How do we go on living when loss leaves a hole in our lives so huge we can't help but fall into its darkness? One way is by continuing to nurture those essential relationships and to remember that the indomitable spirits of our deceased loved ones can always inspire our lives.
Erin Haida's grandmother, who died a year ago on June 24, was the bedrock of her life.
"Grandma thought I was amazing, she believed in me in a way that encouraged me to believe in myself. She taught me to be brave."
When I asked Erin to describe her grandmother to me, she exclaimed, "I think it would be easier to describe a stranger, that's how familiar Gram is to me! The natural world is a constant reminder of her. Riding in the car with Gram; she'd point out each tree, flower and bird as we went winging by, Grandpa driving. 'There's a birch. Oh, there's a robin. Queen Anne's Lace. Slow down, Hartley! I can't see a thing!' No matter that none of us would ever remember the names of things, even if we could catch the blur of them through the back window. If my Dad was driving, Gram would read all the signs to him. 'Curve ahead. Speed limit 55. Loose Gravel.' She'd lean over and check his speedometer. 'You're going over the speed limit.' Then she'd look out the window. 'There's a deer! See it? Oh, and a mountain ash. Men Working Ahead.'"
I wanted to know how Erin's life had changed since her grandmother's death and her answer surprised me: "It's like nothing has changed; she feels even closer than she was by telephone. I look around my house and she's everywhere. On the day she died, I wondered how I'd live without her, but I soon realized that she's in the very air I breathe."
That kind of seamless transition may not be common, but it is a beautiful example of how love endures.
Deb Johnson lost her mother, Jeanne, on February 28, 2004, and the pain of that loss is still raw. Deb misses her mother fiercely and struggles to accept her death. "My mother was my hero, my cheerleader, my mentor. She always held me up and loved me no matter what. She loved fishing and sailing, anything to do with the water, and was so proud when I became a boat captain. When my mother got sick, I watched her go from a strong vibrant woman to someone who was frail and elderly. She was in a nursing home in the months before her death, but I was there on a daily basis attending to her every need. Little by little she became my baby, and then one day she was gone."
I wondered if Deb could still feel her mother's presence.
"Before she died my mother told me that she would live on in my heart, so I know she's with me. I see her in the things I do, hear her in my own voice. I have a heightened sense of compassion now, and I know it is her compassion, that whatever spirit left her when she died came into me."
I asked Deb if there is anything that encourages her during her darkest days, and she said, with tears in her eyes, "I hear my mother's voice saying, 'Buck up, baby.' I know she would want me to be happy again."
The day after our interview, Deb called me and said, "One of the things I like to do is go to the beach at low tide and write a message in the sand. I started doing it fifteen years ago after my grandfather died, now I do it for my mother. I especially like to go at sunrise, when it's quiet. I sit and think about my mother, then write her a message. The tide comes in and takes the words away. And you know, I always get a message back. Tell your readers it's a nice way to stay in touch."
Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice & Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.