One year ago today I got one of those phone calls. The kind we all dread. The kind that made me slip out of church when I saw the voice message to call right back and get details. The kind that made me sit on the bench outside for a moment to collect myself before I slipped back in.
Grammy, my dad’s mom, had a stroke. She was in an ambulance on the way from the farm to the hospital St. Louis. They didn’t know much yet.
I was heart-broken and angry. This is why we were supposed to move to the Midwest, I thought. If we lived in the Midwest, I would be there. “Get on a plane,” Dave told me. “Go be with your family.”
So I got on a plane Tuesday morning, and my parents picked me up and brought me to the hospital. I sat by Grammy’s bed in the ICU. I told her who I was and she squeezed my hand. She knew me.
I stayed for two days, then extended my trip for a third. We sat in the hospital, waiting. I sang hymns to her, read scripture. My grandma was a singer and loved nothing more than a good hymn. I gave her a river rock I had picked up on the farm six months before; she slept with it in her hand. My dad and I spent one night in the hospital, taking turns sleeping in the chair in her room. We kept vigil. I swabbed her mouth with a wet sponge when it got dry and thought of Jesus.
I sat with my aunts and uncles and flipped absently through magazines. I painted in my journal with watercolors. I gave my Papa lots of hugs. The doctors removed her feeding tube, took her off of fluids. She was ready, and we all knew it.
Friday morning, we all held hands around her bed and sang, in wavering voices, How Great Thou Art. When we reached the last verse, she opened her mouth to silently form the words along with us:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow with humble adoration, And there proclaim, "My God, how great Thou art!"
Tears poured down our faces. I said goodbye.
I came back a week later for her funeral, bringing Everett with me. He was too small to fully comprehend what was happening, but he knew that Great Grammy was in heaven. He followed Great Papa all over the house and yard, playing trains, reading books, and helping him fill the bird feeders while my sister and I cooked and cleaned.
We buried her with a river rock in her hand.
I came home.
Since then, I have felt a lingering question – what happens to people in my community when they reach the ends of their lives? Who is with them, if they don’t have family nearby, in those final, lingering days? I googled nursing homes in my area, thought about volunteering or visiting, but couldn’t quite figure out the next step.
Then I opened my eyes.
This morning on our way out the door for preschool, Everett spotted our neighbor across the street. “Hi!” he yelled at the top of his little lungs. “Hi! I’m just going to school!” He yelled and waved until she smiled and waved back. She’s retired and lives alone. Her husband passed away last year.
On Valentine’s day, Everett delivered homemade valentines to several of our neighbors, all in their 70’s and 80’s. Several of them invited us inside. One said, in Spanish, “I love you. I’m sorry, I love you! I am so grateful to have you as neighbors. Your babies are so beautiful.” She sent us home with a bag of fruit. One neighbor showed Everett where the Thanksgiving card he made was still on her fridge, and she put the valentine next to it.
A few weeks ago, we invited several neighbors over for a bowl of soup. We had a table full. We talked about their grandkids – some in Los Angeles, some up the street. Everett didn’t want them to leave.
The people I am called to love are the people right in front of me. I just have to be brave enough to walk across the street.