Frailty, Death, and Unexpected

My great-grandmother recently passed away. She was ninety-eight years old and utterly remarkable. She lived on her own until just a few years ago, still canning and climbing the fence to pick apples from her apple tree well into her eighties. In her younger years, she worked in a factory and milked cows for a living. She was an incredible cook. She had an unrivaled garden. She fed half the stray cats in the county. She cared for her husband when he was bedridden for the last decade of his life, and he never had a bedsore. She raised four children and buried one baby girl.

She was strong and independent and kind.

But for the last year of her life, she had to live in a nursing home. Not by anyone’s choice. She reached the point where it was more than my mom or my grandmother could do to lift her. She needed more care in her rapid decline than anyone could give in their own home.

There were times when it seemed like it would be a mercy for God to take her because she seemed so very tired and uncomfortable. Her skin grew sallow and her body just wound down, slowly and painfully. Her mind began to wander and she would be confused sometimes. She started asking for her mother.

It would be easy to write off those final years as pointless suffering. What really was “accomplished,” after all? If nothing else, the issue of assisted suicide shows how very afraid of suffering and a drawn-out death we are. We want a clean break with the world.

But what about when that doesn’t come? What about when dementia and bedpans and mouth sores take over? What about when we become that “burden” that we all fear being in old age?

I can only say this: where many would expect to only see suffering and brokenness, I saw remarkable beauty.

I saw my mama stay up late into the night making a coconut cake from scratch for Great-Grandma’s birthday, because she had always kept a coconut cake in her freezer for us to share when we visited. I saw my grandma comb her fingers through her own mother’s thin wispy white hair, and kiss her cheek, and say, “This is my sweet, sweet mommy.” I saw my five-year old artlessly and tenderly reach over to kiss her thin, withered cheek. I saw my boys paint pictures and make necklaces to take to her. I saw my daughter sit in her great-great-grandmother’s lap and bring a smile to her face when nothing else could.

We are told that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. I’ve assumed that meant that his strength would come to me when I am weak. But sometimes, it means God can strengthen others in response to our own frailty. I saw my children grow in tenderness and compassion as they loved on their fading great-great-grandmother. I saw strength and gentleness well up in the family that surrounded her as she made her long goodbye.

It was hard and it was often heartbreaking. But it was also beautiful. Perhaps some of the most important work my great-grandmother accomplished was during her last months, as this woman who had been the backbone and strength of her family for many years, released her grip on life and passed that mantel of care and courage on to her children and grandchildren.

I find this encouraging for many reasons, not least of all, as a reminder that weakness is not really the end of the world. How many times in my life have I tried to pretend I have no weakness, no needs, no failures? But in those moments of need, perhaps God is summoning up the strength I lack in my husband, my children, my friend. We mock the “damsel in distress” idea, but if no one ever needs, how can anyone grow to be a hero? I know that I have never felt more in love with my darling husband than when I have vulnerably shared my weakness and need with him and seen him rise up to offer me his strength. I pray that I show that same strong, sheltering love to him and to our children, and to all whose needs are placed in my path.

When my great-grandma had reached the point where she barely spoke, and even then in mere whispers, she spoke her last words to me, which were, “Don’t you take that baby out in the cold!” Always looking out for someone else, protecting the vulnerable. I love that about her.

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