Thursday, March 6, 2014

On Living and Not Dying

The primary reason for our trip to Seattle was to visit two ladies dear to Brad's heart--his aunt Monica Denton, and his grandma Dorothy (Cardon) McDaniel. As it happened, we ended up seeing them both on the same day.

Brad's dad is the baby of two brothers.  His brother, Jim, died six years ago of cancer, and since then, Jim's wife, Monica, has been alone. I've only seen Monica twice in my life--once at a wedding where she gave me some life-changing advice, and a second time just two years later, this time with two little kids in tow.

Monica faced her own battle--colon cancer--a few years after Jim died, and although it was painful and difficult, she was declared cancer-free, only to have it resurface this past November.  Remembering how awful the treatments had been in the past, Monica declined any treatment this time.

When we arrived at Monica's house, her daughter, Beth, answered the door. Now a grandmother in her mid-forties (just like me), Beth hasn't aged a day since I saw her. She guided us into the living room, where Monica was cozied up on the couch. I saw muffins and doughnuts on the table, and at that moment I realized how important this visit was to Monica--she had asked Beth to prepare some version of a celebration for our visit. I felt a bit out of place at first--the outsider invited to this final party. I had little to say, and that always makes me feel a little awkward, but the longer I sat in that room, the more I realized that I had a lot to learn as I listened and observed.

The three of them began retelling funny memories, memories of cousins--four little boys and two little girls (Monica's four kids plus Brad and his sister Amy) causing trouble wherever they went, bringing home garter snakes attached to one of their hands, piling in the camper that belonged to their grandma and traveling to Idaho, making their grandma cry on that same trip because they were all so rambunctious and rowdy.  Talk of boats and wood-sided station wagons.  Talk of quarry adventures and bike escapades--many stories from childhood that moms don't know until kids are adults and they feel it's safe to reveal the truth.

A quick visit turned into three hours before we knew it, and I had gotten caught up in the stories just as much as they had. I had mostly forgotten the reason behind our visit--the ugly truth lurking behind Monica's pain medications and quickly fading energy--until a comment from Monica suddenly hit Beth with the brunt of reality, and Beth had to excuse herself. When she returned from the bathroom, her eyes were a little moist, a little red, a little tender, and that's when it hit me.  Beth was losing her mom, and there was nothing Beth could do but try to make the inevitable exit as comfortable as possible. 

As much as we could tell that Monica wanted us to stay, her failing energy and inability to sit upright or keep her eyes open told us that it was time to leave. Somehow, the importance of that moment hit all of us, and as we took turns embracing each other, the words became more difficult.  I whispered into Beth's ear, "I'm sorry you're losing your mom," and as she openly sobbed for the first time during our visit, I realized how easily that could be me. I hugged her a little tighter, knowing that in a few short months or even in a few short weeks, her goodbyes wouldn't be for us.

And then, we were gone--on to our next visit.

Grandma has been in a nursing home for the last few years, facing issues that many nonagenarians face.  I have loved Grandma from the first time I met her--at her hilltop home in Caldwell, ID, in March of 1989. Brad and I were engaged, and we had made the trip from Provo to Caldwell to celebrate not only Easter but his grandparents' fiftieth wedding anniversary.  I remember seeing the love she had for her family, oldest to youngest, and now that I was going to be part of the family, she instantly included me in that select group.  She knew exactly how to take charge of every situation--from making meals for an enormous group to the logistics of getting everyone from place to place, to making sure everyone was looking at the camera for a family picture.  She stayed up late and played games and laughed with the adults (we now qualified to be part of that group, since we were engaged and all), then arose early to hug us goodbye as we headed back to school.

Over the next 25 years I watched her slowly, ever so slowly, age. At first, she couldn't remember to take all of her medicine and got a little wobbly on the stairs.  Then she began making the rounds, staying with each of her children for an extended period.  That didn't last long, because the travel became too much for her, and she lived with one of her granddaughters for a while before she was placed in a nursing home in Seattle, to be near her only son. We saw her less and less when she moved back to the Northwest, and I missed seeing a smile crack her wrinkled face and hearing her laugh. In 2011, most of her extended family gathered in Seattle to celebrate her life, and that was the first time I'd seen her in a few years. I was surprised how much she'd declined, but she could still communicate and she still recognized her family, including me--which surprised me. 

I had heard that she had declined a lot recently--a few times all of the family had been told that she wouldn't make it through the week, but then she would rally and linger on.  When Brad and I got to the nursing home to visit her, I can't say that I was shocked to see her, but I was sad. A flicker of recognition crossed her face when she saw Brad, and she clutched him in a grasp that I have no words to describe. I had become a stranger.  Her reaction to the single white rose Brad had brought her (under strict instructions from his mother) was strange yet touching.  Grandma has always loved flowers of any kind, and when that stem was placed in her hands, she couldn't stop smelling it and having others smell it, but then she began to destroy it--breaking off leaves and parts of the stem until all that remained was the head.
She took a fancy to Brad's tie (she loves pretty things, and even though she had little money for most of her life, she always loved to shop and dress up and do her hair), so he removed it from his own neck and gently placed it around hers.
 It's been a few weeks, and I've thought a lot about these two different visits to two different ladies.

Monica is leaving this life while she is still young enough to enjoy grandchildren and traveling.  She may be leaving reluctantly, but she's leaving on her own terms, deciding this time to face the demon instead of fighting it. I admire her resignation to the inevitable and her almost emotionless talk of reunions on the other side. Her journey may be long or may mercifully be cut short, but whether it's weeks or months, it will never be long enough for those in her life who love her.

Grandma, on the other hand, has been hoping to die for years.  The love of her life died twenty years ago, and she has been missing him ever since. She remarried, but he, too, passed on before her. She's lost all of her siblings but one, even lost one of her children. Her memory is unreliable and so is her gait.  She can't groom herself or remember to feed herself. She loves visits from family, but the joy is fleeting and refuses to find permanent residence in her mind. As much as Grandma would like to leave, her body is still relatively strong and refuses to admit that the rest of her is ready to move on.

Is there anything worse than dying?

I would love to have the opportunity to say goodbye to everyone I love before I die.  As painful as it may be, the satisfaction of being able to tell everyone you love them one more time--holding every baby and hugging all of my family--appeals to me.  Dying young and missing birthdays and weddings and . . . 2015--well, that doesn't seem quite fair, though.

I would love to live long enough not only to hold my great-grandchildren for an obligatory four-generation picture but to know them and to love them.  I would love to write heartfelt notes and hand pick gifts and attend reunions surrounded by many generations of my progeny, but the prospect of nursing home life and having my mind imprisoned in my body--well, that doesn't seem quite fair, either.

As human beings, we all agree that there are worse things than living our mundane lives, and most things we endure in life are better than dying. This visit to Seattle taught me greater truth.

There are worse things than dying. Loss of recognition and bowel control. Loss of independence and pride. Loss of self to the merciless ravages of age.

There are better things than living. Saying goodbye. Laughing and sharing happy memories. Heartfelt expressions of love and gratitude that usually wait to be expressed at a funeral. Reunions on the other side.

I'm grateful Brad was able to visit these ladies one more time, and I'm grateful for all they did to contribute to the man he is today.



  1. Such a beautiful post, Jenny. Posts like this one keep me reading blogs. I like to be made to think about life and the commonalities that are there for all of us, despite distance, culture etc think about the things that make us human.
    When I looked at the picture of your husband's grandmother I was struck by the strength of the genes - there is so much of her in your lovely daughters.

  2. The closer I got to the end of this post the harder it was for me to read. I identify too closely with Beth, and I wonder if she would agree there are better things than living. I wonder what my mom's answer would be if I could ask her. Is it better to miss decades of family moments and love? Is it better to quietly sob on random Thursday mornings? To miss baptisms, ordinations, graduations, weddings, and daily triumphs? Is it better?
    It's just different. Different pain. Different ways to say goodbye. Different blessings to recognize and different tender mercies granted. Different hopes to be granted and different realities to accept and different sorrows to grieve.

  3. I just read through my comment again, and it sounds harsh-- even to my own ears. Know that it is not meant to be, your words were beautiful and thought provoking. My point of view is just.....different I suppose.

  4. I think that this was written more from the perspective of the one who is dying. Is it better to leave when you know it's coming, or imprisoned in your body? If I could choose, I don't know which I'd pick, that's for sure.
    I guess that's why we're not allowed the choice. Hugs to you.

  5. Tears at this post. Tears at seeing what good this visit did for Brad's loved ones. The hugging picture was the place where the tears started and reminded me of my own mother. My choice would be to go well before I am as old as she was even though her mind was still so sharp. Even at my age, days can be long and lonely without hearing from someone you love. I can only imagine how hard it must be to have only that to look forward to.

  6. Jenny- the pictures you captured of Brad and his grandmother are...I don't even know what words to use....the way he is looking at her...made me cry.
    Such a beautiful and sad post.

  7. I know my own view is skewed, and so I wonder, knowing all that she has missed, and all that she was spared, would my own mother still choose to stop fighting her cancer. Is it truly worth it? I hope so. I have hope that she sees and rejoices and though we can not see her she is able to be near us when we need her. I have hope that her time now is equally as joyful as her life may have been here. And I have to remind myself not to be so selfish and shortsighted. While I wanted her here to walk life's path with me that was not the plan, and most days I am comforted in the knowing. This was just a little close to the heart.

  8. I have followed your blog for quite some time and this post just hit home for me. I just lost my dad a few weeks ago. He was in a place somewhere between these two beautilful women. He wanted to die but he was still young. You have a beautiful writing style. Thank you for your post today!!!

  9. My father died last year, and my aging mother misses him terribly. She will be 89 this year. She still remains in fairly good health, despite having had colon cancer and breast cancer in her 80s. She is starting to lose some of her cognitive ability, and forgets easily, and has trouble completing even simple tasks. She too wishes she could die, but has to endure until it's God's time for her.

    It's wonderful that you could make this trip. I'm sure it meant the world to them. And as the years go by, I'm sure it will mean even more to you.

  10. Beautiful post. I loved reading this.
    I see this so often in the ER, seeing families go through this.

    Beautiful pictures and a treasured time.

  11. This post touched me on many levels. Thank you for writing it.

  12. I agree with Jamie. This is such a heartbreaking post. It’s never easy to lose a loved one, but it’s a fact of life that we must go through. Thanks for sharing this to us. My thoughts are with you and your loved ones.

    David Amunson