re-picturing LESSONS LEARNED FROM LOVE AND LOSS

Below is a short tribute to lessons of love and loss from my Grandma Mildred “Millie” Armistice Jensen who passed away last week.

Ice. One of my first memories of Grandma Millie involves icy roads. It was 5:00 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and my grandmother was fretting over the ugly storm that had blown in overnight. When I rode the school bus and met her at her green house on the corner the afternoon before, we heard rumblings of another storm, but we were not deterred. We had enjoyed tacos (as was often our tradition) down at Cindy’s, which was a bar and pool hall with a Taco Tuesday special. We had drunk Squirt and played Uno that evening until I nestled into bed with her – feeling warm and comforted as the wind roared outside.

We were now listening to WCCO (or “CCO” as she called it), a radio station out of the Twin Cities, to see if school was cancelled. If it was, we were in luck. But, if it was only 2 hours late, we would have to hit the road, despite the icy and windy conditions. My grandma was the cook at my elementary school, and even if classes started late, school lunch would be served on time. And that meant that Grandma Millie would have to venture onto the icy roads to Tracy, which was where the area school was located. Grandma worried about the weather, but she never used it as an excuse to skirt her lunch lady duties. If school was on, we would leave an hour early to slowly make the 13-mile hike north.

I guess it should come as no surprise that my last memories of her also involve ice.  I had heard that it might not be long – she wasn’t eating much and was losing weight. Although I had heard this story many times over the last 5 of her 91 years, like when she took a nasty fall down her narrow old stairs or when she fell and broke her arm – twice, this really seemed like the end. So, I struck out. Another nasty ice storm had made its way through the area and schools were first 2 hours late and then closed. As I drove to southwestern MN from my home in Lincoln, NE, however, I was struck not by the dangerous driving conditions, but by the beauty of the ice. A two-inch layer clung not only to the roads, but also to the trees – when the sun snuck out briefly that afternoon, it made the branches sparkle.

When we arrived at Prairie View Nursing Home, which had been Grandma Millie’s home for the past 2½ years, I was not prepared. She was a shell of the woman I had seen just two months before at Christmas. She was extremely thin. Dark circles formed under her eyes from dehydration. A wet towel rested on her forehead because of the fever. Her breath was quick and shallow. One of her eyes was closed and the other lay half open staring at nothing.

I cried. A lot. This was not the strong woman who I had known during most of my life; the woman who was fiercely competitive when it came to bowling and playing cards; the woman who spent her life serving others – from serving milk from the dairy farm with her husband Alden during the early days of their marriage to serving meals on wheels to the “old people” up until age 85. This was not the resilient woman who grew up wearing flour sacks during the depression, who survived the loss of her husband to a sudden heart attack in her mid-50s, or who religiously trucked to North Dakota to visit sisters even though they didn’t remember her visits due to Alzheimer’s. This was not the woman who loved to dance the polka.

This woman was not Grandma Millie.

So, I said my goodbyes and my “I love yous” and I left. I went back to my parent’s house. I soaked in the hot tub. I drank wine. I took Tylenol p.m., hoping to sleep. However, my slumber was restless and nothing tempered those images of her.

You are stronger than you think you are.

My friend, Lauren, had left me with this phrase during a phone conversation earlier in the week. Her words echoed in my head and became my mantra as I returned over the next three days to spend the last face-to-face time I had with Grandma Millie.

I’m embarrassed to say it, but my reaction from the day before had become the norm since she had become a resident of the nursing home a couple of years before. When I visited, she was mostly sleeping. It was unbelievable that a woman who hardly sat down during most of her life was suffering from bedsores because of lack of movement. Sometimes she was awake, but just stared back at me. Once and a while she would talk with me and in a few rare moments her words made sense. She told me she liked my earrings, obviously forgetting that before they were mine, they were hers. In response to “love you” I got “thank you.”

However, this was time was different. I knew in my heart that this would be the last time I would spend with Grandma Millie. So, rather than letting the denial, the anger, the guilt, and mostly the sadness overtake my heart, I stayed. I let the emotions rush over me, but they felt better than numbness.

You are stronger than you think you are.

So, on the first day, I pulled up a chair. I held her thin, mangled hand in mine and talked to her.  Hospice told us that her hearing would be one of the last things to go. We talked about some important things, but mostly the mundane. Our conversations were only interrupted as pieces of ice were flung from the trees hitting the windows.

The time passed quickly. I couldn’t believe another hour had gone by when the aids came to move her to a different position. But I also had difficulty remembering what day it was and how long I had been in this icy wonderland. Yes, the ice remained; it did not melt. The temperature hovered just below 32 and gray clouds blotted out the sun most of the time.

But during this cold and dark time, I got reacquainted with my warm and colorful grandmother. Things were not the same as they once had been, but the core of the relationship was still there, even if the roles were somewhat reversed.

She used to perm my hair. Now, I curled hers. She loved curly hair and even during her last hours, I knew she would want to look her best. So, I curled and combed her matted mane.

She used to insist that I clean my plate. Now I offered her a wet a sponge hoping to sooth her mouth, dry from her shallow breaths.

She used to take me to her Presbyterian church. Now I read her scripture and asked a pastor to come and pray with her.

Not everything was different. We played Uno. We played out Grandma Millie’s hand just as she would have (with lots of skips and draw twos) and as usual, she won.

I did not go through this alone. My parents, especially my mom, as well as my aunt Dorothy and uncle Wayne also spent many hours with her. My other uncles, Bruce and Glen, aunt Shari, and cousin Kathy arrived on Saturday, so that we would not have to shoulder the long hours keeping vigil alone. We sat around talking about the good times. Moments of laughter were peppered amongst the tears.

And amazingly, on that last night, Grandma Millie came back to us – just for a few moments. While we were talking with her, Grandma Millie’s gentle blue eyes replaced her distant gaze. When we looked at her, you could tell that she really saw us. I haven’t seen her that “with it” for a very long time. We took turns. I told her I was sorry for things I had done to hurt her. I told her I loved her, I respected her, I admired her. She tried to talk, but we reassured her that we knew how she felt and that she should rest and be comfortable. Shortly after, the distant gaze returned and happy hour (one of Grandma Millie’s favorite times of the day) was over.

As we left the nursing home, I noticed that the branches no longer slumped under the weight of the snow. Most of the slush from the roads was gone. Just as most of the ice had melted off the trees, so had it melted from around my heart. Just as ice turns to water, the love that Grandma Millie and I shared was the same, but manifested differently.

*****

We almost made it. After getting a phone call shortly after midnight that the end was very close, we rushed back to the nursing home only to learn that she had passed away a couple of minutes before. I cannot help but think that this was purposeful on her part. Once happy hour had ended and most of us had gone, her breath slowed and she exited the party for good.

As we sat at the nursing home well past 2 a.m. waiting for the funeral director to arrive, my family sat in a circle. We mused silently. I whimpered. Letting the ice thaw from my heart made it hurt more now. Then, slowly we began to talk again. My uncle Bruce cracked a joke. I looked around and saw that although she was no longer physically with us, Grandma Millie lived on…her love, her laughter, and her lessons shared even in her last moments of life.

What lessons of love and loss has life taught you?

 

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your Grandma Millie. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’ve had my own loss recently and I learned that there are so many small moments and memories I’m holding on to, and those keep me close to my loved one that is no longer here physically. He’ll always be with me in my heart. I trust that your Grandma Millie will always be close in your heart. Much love, dear friend. And your strength knows no bounds. xoxo

  2. Sarah, this is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing her story. Such a touching tribute. So sorry for your loss. Big hugs to you.

    • Sarah Gervais
    • March 13th, 2012

    I don’t think this is the most flattering story about me or Grandma Millie, but it represents my truth and it feels (mostly) good to share it. Thanks for the support. xxoo

    • Lauren
    • March 13th, 2012

    What a lovely tribute, Sarah. I read it with tears in my eyes because your experience resonates with mine, as well. I’m also touched & honored that my words were a comfort to you during that tough time. Thinking of you and sending love!

  3. I’m writing this through tears. The story of your painful loss brought up so many memories of my own losses, as it always does. My grandfather died, at 93, the summer I was pregnant — in my third trimester — with Abra. Because travel was getting difficult I had to choose a “goodbye” visit, for we knew the end was close, or to fly for his funeral. I chose the latter, more out of my own cowardice, I think, than anything. As you have so eloquently stated here, it is very difficult to bear witness to someone’s slow decline, especially someone who we remember to be so strong.

    I was also reminded of my great-grandmother’s passing. After suffering from dementia for years, she, too, became lucid and clear at the very end. In the hours before her death she stayed up most of the night, telling her roommate the story of her life.

    And of course, although it was quite a different end, I was reminded of my own mother’s death.

    I think one of the greatest gifts one human being can give to another is to stand vigil, as you say, and accompany them into death.

    I love how you have told this story through the ice, and the beautiful photos that accompany it. I hope your trip home was healing. Have you ever read Terry Tempest Williams’ “Refuge?” It might be a

  4. balm to your soul at this difficult time.

    • Tara
    • March 14th, 2012

    What an amazing writing, Sarah. Your grandma was a very special lady. Thanks for sharing your beautiful memories with her!

  5. Admittedly I’ve put off reading this. My nana, my mom’s mom was named Millie too, and she passed several years ago. I can’t help but cry now too with you as I read this knowing this familiar pain. You put it so beautifully though. You share your amazing heart, even as it hurts, and that is something for which I can’t imagine your Grandma wouldn’t be beamingly proud of. I didn’t spend much time with her near the end, we weren’t as close as you and your Millie, but you put into words so many of the feelings I still carry with me. Thank you for that. Thank you for bravely sharing, my friend. xox

    • Tiffany
    • March 23rd, 2012

    Sarah – you are most definitely stronger than you think you are. Warm embrace my friend. Take care during this difficult time.

  6. I’m so sorry for your loss, Sarah. And like the others, so blown away by your writing. Choking back tears. You have written such a beautiful piece on love and loss and a moving tribute to a wonderful-sounding woman. Thanks for being brave enough to share this. Sending you so much love during this time.

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