*This is a private journal entry of mine from 2 years ago that I finally have the nerve to share. In loving memory of my Nana, Michael Reynolds, who passed away on September 17, 2012. She is dearly missed.
My great-grandmother is dying.
My Mom called me last week and said she’s refused to eat for 6 days. An already frail and withering body shrinking more and more into itself.
“I quit,” she tells my Mom.
I’m not sure how to feel. Maybe it’d be different if I was looking at her. But I’m in Texas and the family is in Indiana. I’m not seeing these last days, hours, and minutes. I don’t have to hear her familiar voice say such unfamiliar things about giving up.
“But hasn’t she earned it?” I ask myself. If anyone has the right to quit, isn’t it someone who’s almost 93? Who’s lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, and 9/11? A difficult marriage to an abusive husband without any options to leave? The lack of tools and opportunities to heal herself and her family that we take for granted now?
Ahh yes. Now I feel something. My eyes dampen, my throat tightens, and I hold my breath with a question. A deep and dark cave of sadness surrounds me.
“Did she love her life?”
My jaw aches because the more I clench it, the more secure I am against avoided emotions and repressed tears.
I don’t know.
What brought her pleasure? What little stolen moments of fun did she experience? What made her laugh?
I have no idea. And I didn’t have questions until it was too late for her to answer them.
Anthony de Mello says death brings sadness to people because we are thinking of ourselves. Those who have passed are not sad —they’re just gone. We make death about ourselves, our agenda of grief. We fear the loss of the known.
My Nana is ready to go. Why is that sad? She is weak and tired. She’s had Alzheimer’s for over 2 years. She’s a stranger to herself just as the world is around her. What am I hanging onto?
Last year, when she was still staying with my Grandma, I was visiting them back in Indiana. I was looking for floss in the bathroom with the door open. My Nana is sitting on the couch, watching me. She no longer knows who I am but she is kind and helpful as always, asking in her gentle Kentucky accent, “Whatchya lookin’ for?”
“Oh, just something to clean my teeth with. It’s fine —I don’t think she has what I’m after.”
My Nana gets up off the couch instantly. She moves very slowly. Her back has been hurting for weeks but I know well enough not to try to stop her. Helping her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren is an ingrained muscle memory to her body. It leads without cue or conscious thought, like a dancer or musician. It always has.
She makes her way to the bathroom and starts rifling through drawers with me. She doesn’t even know what I’m looking for. After a few minutes I say again, “It’s okay Nana. I don’t think she has it.”
My Nana looks at me with a shrug and a helpless smile and says, “I don’t know. I’m just visiting here myself.”
I can’t help but laugh.
And then she laughs.
We laugh together.
In the months after, when I retell this story to a few close friends, we are amused and moved with this unintentionally poignant statement. “I don’t know. I’m just visiting here myself.” A summation that hits the mark more closely than most things I’ve heard or read.
Brandon Burchard says that at the end of our life we all want the answer to 3 questions:
“Did I live?”
“Did I love?”
“Did I matter?”
Did we enjoy the hell out of our visit? Did we laugh? Did we travel? Did we say, “I love you?” Did we play? Did we share? Did we apologize? Did we dance? Did we nap? Did we create? Did we take chances?
I guess I am making her departure process about me. Maybe it can’t be helped, I’m not sure. And maybe I’ll never know if she loved her time here this go around. Maybe it’s none of my business either.
And even though it’s too late to ask her all the things about her life I sometimes still ache to know, she unknowingly left me with a gift in the form of a question:
How do I want to spend my visit?