They told her she couldn’t do it. It was too far, too dangerous.
“That’s all you need when you’re 19 or 20, someone telling you you can’t do something. The next thing we knew Lois and I were at the train station, and everyone was giving us boxes of food for the trip,” she once said.
My recollection of Grandma, my memory of her spirit, is that she always had this optimistic stubbornness about her. She believed. In herself, in things working out, in her boys, and in God. Some of our family have described it as Norwegian grit. Maybe she got it from her Norwegian ancestors who settled in the most rugged of North American terrain, carving out a life in colder than cold climates long before centralized heat was even a blip in human consciousness.
So she did it- she left home in North Dakota for the Kodiak frontier. And it was there, on Alaska’s shores that she met my grandfather, Harvey. He was a military man, had served in the Pacific Theater, and was in the Coast Guard at the time. They got married, had four boys (Alan, Bryan, Conrad, and Doug), and lived in every nook and cranny of our nation, until they settled in Richmond, California. While raising her four boys, Grandma put herself through nursing school and purchased a home for her family herself. Grandma’s journey was one of a kind. Her sprit always carried independence, perseverance, gratitude, hope, and faith.
On Tuesday Alie and I loaded up the Honda Fit with sleeping bags, folding chairs, a cooler, a tent, and other camping essentials. We made a quick pit stop in Sonoma County in order to wet our whistles and stock up on some grape hydration, then it was onward to the shoreline.
We made camp just north of Fort Bragg on the coast, with a marine layer overhead and the low roar of the pacific current slowly eroding the coastal cliffs of California in our ears. The fog broke just long enough for us to see the sun sink below the horizon, before we roasted some dinner over the fire and called it a night.
Morning came and for the first few hours things started out as expected.
Then we got a text from my parents about Grandma. This wasn’t a surprise, as Grandma had been battling against failing health for the past few years. There had been some setbacks, but Grandma and her Norwegian stubbornness had bested death for a while now.
Just an hour later or so we got another text that carried more urgency. We called back and it was clear that her time was near. So we reversed course on highway 1, and charted our way to the hospital that would be her final earthly home.
Late that night, or maybe early the next morning, Grandma continued her trailblazing by taking that fateful step into the greatest unknown adventure there is, leaving this place for that final somewhere.
My parents house was full. My sister, her husband, and our niece had driven up from Southern California to say their goodbyes. They joined Alie and I and my folks for a few days of unstructured time together. It was stinking hot outside so we mostly just hung out indoors eating, watching TV, caring for and laughing at Callie, and trying to figure out our O.C.D. dog Sonny.
That time and space together was an peculiar mix of mundane and sacred. As we all bumped up against mortality together, awkward and unfamiliar at every turn, I did my best to just feel and process what we were encountering in the death of my grandma.
So here are some unfiltered reflections:
– My final memories talking with Grandma were filled with words of gratitude. She kept on saying how grateful she was for her time, her family, my dad, and me and Alie. With death so near, it felt like the most sincere and striking expression of gratitude you can have. It’s like she knew she had for a time held something precious, a beautiful gift, and that her time holding it would soon be over. Instead of being resentful that this thing would be taken away, she saw it as a privilege to even ever behold it. I hope I can hold life that way, seeing it all as a gift.
– Death wins the battle but faith wins the war. Grandma was still sharp towards the end. She voiced that she knew it was time, but she still didn’t want to go because she’d have to leave everyone. Part of her wanted to keep fighting, and for the last few years that’s what she’s done, but eventually, our bodies fail us. It was there in those moments that I heard Grandma say things with a tone of surrender like, “I know God is in control”. There was a sense with her that though she knew she would soon die, that death was not the end. In listening to her, I know that this hope stems from her belief in resurrection, that even as Christ died he walks with us through our own death, and as he won the war over death in his resurrection, so too can we have hope that the war will be won in the end.
– One of the most significant areas of this season for me has been watching my dad faithfully care for Grandma. For the past few years his role as child to parent has in many ways reversed. He’s been with Grandma every step of the way, sacrificing his will for hers. He’s empowered her to choose her own path, supported her health while it was failing on multiple fronts, and willingly surrendered countless days and nights to be there with Grandma- from her home to the hospital and back again. It hasn’t been easy, at times it’s been exhausting, discouraging, and frustrating. I know because I’ve heard it in his voice and seen it in his eyes. This is the woman who cared for and nursed my father, and he’s done his best to return the gesture in the most admirable and remarkable of ways. As Solomon wrote, “there is a season for everything”, and certainly we are in the time of mourning now- but at the same time I can imagine that for my dad there is relief within the grief, that this time faithfully and sacrificially caring for his mother will be entering into a new season- that in some ways he’s been released, just like Grandma has been released from the pain and anguish of her failing health to the season of eternal spring. Thank you Dad for persevering these last few years alongside Grandma as she persevered also. Thank you for the ways you modeled being a son. Thank you for leading the way as a father.
– Personally grief has felt strange this time around. I guess there is no protocol for it. It just is. I didn’t really want to be with people, but at the same time I did. Typically I enjoy striking up conversation and asking questions, but not these last few days. I wanted to be around people and be alone at the same time. Grief came in waves, usually gentle and smooth, but then one wave would crest and fall in on itself releasing the pain and loss underneath. Then it’s back to the softer swells, all the while you have no control of the currents, winds, and tides. I think grief is like that, it comes when it wants to. It’s fluid and wanes and waxes on its own schedule. Our job is to be attentive to it, allowing it to rush or calm as needed. We need to create floodways and overflows in the wake of grief, giving ourselves permission to feel what we feel, creating space to reflect, cry, say goodbye, and capture our memories and experiences in some form or another (I think that’s why I feel compelled to write all this out). Death can be a great window into the reality of the ocean we live in, giving us the chance to see what’s really going on all the time just below the surface. If we allow death and loss to be our teachers, I think we’ll learn a lot about life.
-I’ve noticed this before, but being around my niece who is just under a year old had a restorative affect on us. Her utter obliviousness to death was pure innocence and had a way of bookending life.
–I’m beyond grateful for Alie. Can’t say that enough. This all happened on our anniversary, a day which I’m usually already emotional, so I was all over the place, and she was so loving and supportive through it all.
So there is more, but for now I’ll leave it there. Maybe I’ll add more reflections as time goes on.
Goodbye Grandma. Thanks for your optimism, your generosity, your perseverance, and your trailblazing spirt. We trust you now into the care of the resurrected Christ who holds the power to calm any sea. May you enter into communion with our Creator with your genuine smile.