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July 21, 2010

With her in the end, her children and her faith

Written June 27, 2010


In a room meant to seem more relaxing than it was really capable of being, I sat.
Here and there, small groups of families stand or sit near one another, talking in hushed voices. Some sit alone, trying to read unable to focus. A television is on, but no one is really watching it. Outside, the sun has been replaced by raindrops on the window and a bleak, greyness in the sky. It matched our mood.

Inside the waiting room of the intensive care unit, in that room, people faced realities they were unprepared for.
A cardiologist emerged from a door and as tactfully as he could, told a family that their loved one had congestive heart failure and that his time yet to live was limited. Unable or maybe unwilling to understand that, they asked for clarification. They wanted more answers. He could only give them answers limited to his medical knowledge, but not for the things only God knows. How long will he live, they wondered aloud. "Half of the people in his condition will live six months or longer. Half will not." But how long would he live, they asked. The patient doctor did not know. They grew silent.
Awhile later, another door opened and a young man emerged. In a place filled with sadness and fear, a great smile spread across his face. He drew close to others and exclaimed, "This is, indeed, a very good day." On this day, his loved one would be moved to a new area of the hospital -- their prayers had been answered. Their loved one's condition had improved. You couldn't help but to be happy for them. They were the lucky ones there that day. There wasn't a lot of good news in a place where you see more tears and trepidation than smiles and joy.
Eventually, a door opened and a nurse emerged, her face grim - her motions quick. She wasn't there to answer the questions of the family concerned about their loved one's diagnosis. She wasn't there to share in the joy of the family whose loved one was being transferred out of intensive care. No, as much as we tried to prepare ourselves for the moment, she was there to see us...and deliver the news that while we might have hoped to spend even another day wondering about my husband's grandmother's future, her life was rapidly drawing to a close. It was time to say goodbye.
As I looked at her, surrounded by her children and a few grandchildren, I couldn't help but think how strong she had been. She was strongly committed to her children and her faith and in many ways, those two elements were the most constant in her life: children and the Catholic faith. Grandma had outlived three husbands. Her first husband died in World War II, leaving her with a baby son. Her second husband died a painful death from cancer in his early 30s, leaving her with two more toddlers and a set of infant twins. Her third husband she nursed through a sad end from Alzheimer's. She buried an adult son and a granddaughter in childhood. As a child, she was there when her little sister died on a playground in front of her. She knew struggle and sadness. I can't imagine the burden of sadness lived with and the many "if only" and "what ifs" she must have contemplated. Yet, her faith kept her focused on those things in her life that she could handle and on the many people in her life who were still there walking life's path with her.
She had nine children and three good marriages. She had 18 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren who adored her and who will always remember her hugs, her sweet smile, her voice and her baking. She enjoyed several trips, in her golden years, to visit friends in Australia. She enjoyed holidays around the table over a meal. She relished hugs from little ones and little ones who'd grown up to have those little ones. She sat quietly and serenely on hot days overlooking the lake. She looked with wonder at falling snow on winter days.
She found the things in life worth celebrating and never seemed to dwell much on the sadness, at least not that I ever heard. I know she still thought of them, though. I know she did. She dedicated Masses to them at church. And Sunday afternoon, as we said goodbye, I couldn't help but wonder if, standing there with Jesus, they were also waiting, arms outstretched, to welcome her to her eternal home.


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