She would’ve been 92 today. 92..
Had she not passed away nearly 8 years ago.
I remember her lying helpless in her hospital bed, appearing tiny, shrunken under the scratchy blanket. Having suffered a stroke a few days earlier, by the time we came to the hospital, she was fading fast. We were told there was nothing more they could do. And so we waited. The days that followed had people telling me “At least she had a long life,” to which, I wanted to reply, “I’ll be sure to tell you that when you’re dying.” But I refrained, simply nodding dutifully to the awkwardness that accompanies death. I didn’t care how long her life was… I wasn’t ready for her to go.
It’s what she said the day she had the stroke. It was the last words out of her mouth as the bleeding in her brain took over her functioning mind. She was stuck on repeat, “carry on, carry on..” Over and over, gazing carefully at each of us from across the room with intensely ice-blue eyes that were her signature. There we stood, roughly seventeen of us, without my little brother who was traveling our way. Tears rolling down faces, not realizing these were her last words, but completely comprehending she was saying goodbye and trying her best to send a message with the little she could say.
I would come and go from the hospital that week, not sure what to do and completely uncertain about how to watch someone I loved so dearly die. I was familiar with death at a young age, but it was mostly sudden and violent. I was quickly realizing I wasn’t accustomed to the long goodbye and didn’t care for it either. She could no longer eat and the thought that she was starving to death tormented me.
The week she died I was fighting a cold that I denied was anything but allergies to continue to gain access to the ICU. My sister-in-law sat in a chair keeping vigil overnight, soaking my sweet grandmother’s lips with water from a sponge. She was selfless and unafraid of death like I was. Dragging myself back to the hospital in the morning I found her still sitting. I immediately felt shame for having gone home overnight and for the weakness that accompanied my very being. April looked up from what she was working on in the corner and smiled. “How was she?” I asked. Staring at my grandmother, who appeared little, almost like a child in the bulky hospital bed. “Same.” She answered. “They say that your hearing is the last thing to go before you die so I’ve been talking with her,” April said, thoughtfully. “Do you think?” I trailed off, motioning to the empty space next to my grandmother’s wilting frame on the bed. “Of course, get up there next to her, talk with her.” April patted the bed and then my arm. “I’m going to go downstairs for a bit and leave you two alone.” She disappeared out the door and I carefully climbed up next to my grandmother on the bed.
Don’t forget her hands…
With everything I loved about her, I probably loved her hands the most. Lifting her fragile hand into my own, I studied them, they were weathered and knotted from arthritis that had ravaged them. I stroked her hand lovingly, tracing the raised veins with my fingers. Remembering her diamond wedding band that once circled her finger, big enough to fit over her knuckles, yet too big to stay stationary once on.
Her hand, dwarfed by my much larger one, rested in my open palm. With our fingers next to each other, my hand was much larger, this was true, but my fingers were long and delicate like I imagine hers once were. “Piano hands,” she had always called them, though I barely knew to play, and poorly at that.
Wynona, or “Ginger,” as she was called by most, was a small woman, maybe five foot two at her tallest. I towered over her at five foot eight. “Gro-mo,” had become my brothers’ silly nick-name they would tease her with as they’d engulf her tiny frame with a hug.
Though small in stature, she was mighty in love. I sat in awe, being pulled back in time and thrust into the future all at once. These hands had cared for me and in a matter of days, they’d be gone. They cleaned up after me as a baby and looked after me as a woman when broken by anxiety. Whether a baby or a woman.. they comforted me.
Sobbing, I stared lovingly at those hands, trying with all of my might to memorize them.
My mind drifted to the life she had seen, the work those hands had done. She was born in a time when little was had. Carried in a womb that didn’t necessarily want her. Her mother had cinched her in so tight by corset that she had a club foot when she was born and struggled with the pain of it all her life. Called a bastard when she was young and never knowing for sure who her real father was. Raised primarily by her grandparents in the oil fields of Oklahoma, she went out on her own at the tender age of 17. Traveling to California and as far away from the dust of Oklahoma as she could get. She worked hard, climbing San Francisco hills in 6-inch heels and raising a family at the same time. She was a career woman at a time when it wasn’t fashionable.
She had survived breast cancer 3 separate times and took the treatment so well that as a girl I thought cancer was tantamount to having a cold. Enduring an alcoholic, unfaithful husband for years and watching her only son spiral into drugs and eventually death, she was no stranger to heartache. She held her 2nd husband in her arms as he breathed his last breaths. She lovingly and faithfully held 2 children, 5 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren. Strengthening her only daughter, my mother, as she laid her own son to rest far too early, she was ironclad. Love and devotion to her family and her Jesus was who she was. Those hands of hers cleaned up messes, wrestled rose bushes, patted away hurts, wrote out scripture and worked harder than any pair of hands that size should have. All the while belonging to a woman with a fierceness that belied her size.
Gently laying her hand on her chest, I thought simply,
And through it all she carried on…
“Carry on,” she had said with a smile only my grandmother could give as she knew she was dying. It was wisdom. Wise advice from a woman who did just that. Through abandonment, pain, disease, grief, and heartache she carried on.
As long as I knew her, she never gave up and never sat it out. And with her last words to her beloved family, she said the thing that has shaped what I choose to do each day. When circumstances are not what I wish, when life is tough and when it is sweet…
I will choose to carry on.
We’re carrying on grandmother and I think you’d be proud.
“I know the plae