And Gramma makes three.


Over a year ago, my mother and father moved across the country to live with my husband and me. My grandmother, my mother's mother, was supposed to come with them. But Gramma fell and broke her hip just before the move. She has not recovered enough to continue being cared for at home, as she had been before the fall. This meant being left behind by my parents when they relocated, much to my mother's despair. But finally, months after my parents arrived, we were able to bring Gramma here—just not in accordance with our original plans. Instead of moving her to the room designed for her in the little home my husband built for my parents, we moved her to a nursing facility.

These events—waiting months for a space to open in the nursing home, followed by the nightmare of transporting across the country a frail 97-year-old woman in need of an airline-approved oxygen tank, an accompanying nurse, and proper identification documents (apparently, government agencies are not very sympathetic to the ways of the world a century ago, and those ways do not include the ubiquitous and standardized paperwork of today)—have given me a glimpse into recent headlines in my community predicting a shortage in services for the growing population of the elderly.

But more important, having my grandmother so near, within walking distance, also means that for the first time in my life, I have an up-close view of aging, death, and dying. Because my immediate and extended family members have always been spread out across the country, I've never really witnessed these things.

And to be honest, it really scares me.

It scares me to see this person—someone who once milked cows, churned butter, dug hands into soil, grew vegetables, hayed fields, stacked wood, raised hens, trekked two miles and back to church each Sunday (before she and my grandfather owned an automobile), and accompanied my grandfather's trombone with the piano—now confined in her last days to a quiet, air-conditioned space with beige carpeting and peach-colored paint and wallpaper.

It scares me to help whittle down all of my grandmother's worldly possessions—which once included a farmhouse, 140 acres, a tractor, a pond, a dozen Guernsey cows, a hog or two, a henhouse, goats, barn cats, a Boston Terrier, a piano, a station wagon, and decades-worth of accumulation that only those who lived through the Great Depression can understand—to just what fits into a 3' by 5' particle board closet, a bedside table, and a bulletin board.

It scares me to watch someone who loves animals, and who built an entire life around them express such visible, mute pleasure at the little stuffed dog in her room, the only animal she can have now.

It scares me to witness a once-feisty, robust woman—with whom "conversing" meant simply hearing impassioned, opinionated monologues punctuated by table slaps and boisterous cackles—become a quiet, docile listener who smiles and nods a lot.

It scares me to know that this strong woman—whose greatest outrage has always been that the card she was dealt from the deck of life was being a woman in a man's world—has, finally, become like a child.

It scares me to see, every time I visit her, not only my grandmother, but room after room, row after row, of people like her, wheeling, in slow motion, ever-diminishing, toward death.

It scares me, in short, to see the process of decay and dying so close.

Yet I recognize that my fear and pain are not only about my grandmother, although they are certainly that. This fear and pain are also very much about someone else I love: me.

It scares me, whose clothes and shoes and books occupy rooms, to think of funneling all my earthly possessions into a portable closet; whose every moment at home is surrounded by dogs who never leave my side, to think of a life bereft of animals; who has labored with my husband in the years-long restoration of our beloved old farmhouse, to think of a life confined to half a room and a hallway; who runs 35-40 miles every week, to think of spending each day in a wheelchair; who was born a woman in a woman's world and is glad of it, to think of losing my independence; who finds so much of God in the life of the mind and the body, to think of the erasure of both.

Yes, as I witness my grandmother's journey toward her savior and mine, I am filled with fear—for myself, mainly.

But I know that watching her, being near her, offering merely my presence to her, is a gift—more so to me than to her. For I know that in witnessing the end of her life, I can learn how better to live my life. In watching my grandmother's slow surrender of her life to death, I realize that only by surrendering all now can I be joyful and content when it is no longer mine to surrender.