I grew up spending my summers at my grandparents’ lake home in Wisconsin. A couple dozen grandchildren cramped into bedrooms, piled in bunk beds and sleeping bags, snuggled together with fingertips sticky from s’mores, the scent of bonfire in our hair. Wet bathing suits hung on the porch railing, never lacking hugs and giggles and hot dogs and corn on the cob. The house that Grandpa built served as our gathering place and it was good.
Life at the Lake was magical.
A month after I moved away for college my Grandpa passed away at the young age of 70, leaving my Grandma in charge of the clan. I still miss my Grandpa like he was just with us yesterday.
We all got older. I graduated. Traveled the world, writing home to Grandma and appreciating her blessing as I tried to be a grown up, even though it didn’t always go as planned. I watched my cousins and siblings marry and have kids. I was always looking forward to the day that I could show her I finally had it together, though I know that’s not how she looked at me. I knew she would be proud and say things like, “That is so cool that you’re doing this now… I love hearing all that you kids are up to!”
Even all grown up, we still went to the Lake, making sure any trip back home would coincide with the long drive to the old house that held so many memories. Grandma was our family matriarch and we needed her just as much as when we were little. She was the glue that held our family together. I don’t know how she did it, but it was her presence that tied us all up nice and neat like when we were kids.
So, six years ago when I was pregnant with my son and about to venture into single parenthood, I knew that if I wanted to give him a happy childhood like I had, I needed Grandma to be at the heart of his life like she was mine. I may have been parenting alone, but I was ready to surround my new baby with my gigantic, messy and really quite amazing family.
I matched every moment of watching Grandma grow old and tired these last years with desperate pleas that somehow she would turn out to be immortal. To me she never seemed to age.
If love and willpower and big long hugs trying to share my entire being’s need for her in my life were enough, then that Thursday morning in September would have gone much differently. A message came on my phone. Grandma had a stroke. It was one of those moments. You know, the ones where you always remember where you were when the news came. I felt like my love and willpower failed. My mind raced for a reason to see her through, even though I knew her body had been waiting for years to have a chance to go home to Grandpa. It turns out, her stroke wasn’t just a stroke, it was also a massive heart attack. The perfect little storm to send a weak, aging body into eternity.
My heart knew. This was her chance and she would take it.
But we still need her. Didn’t she know?
I wasn’t ready to face this reality, so how was I to prepare my son to spend the next days with Grandma as we let her worldly body go? Everything in me fought having this conversation with him. Strokes. Heart attacks. Dying. Comas. Saying goodbye, but not forever. I’m not sure any of us really know how to walk into that place with our children (or even on our own). I knew if Grandma wasn’t going to be here to share her love and strength anymore, then somehow I would be responsible in sharing it with our next generation. The generation that won’t be having summers at the Lake like the rest of us did. That seemed like a responsibility bigger than I could accept.
Then it happened. Grandma crammed over 40 loved ones in and out of her hospital room her last weekend with us, bringing airplanes and carloads full of her people from around the country. Cousins, aunts, uncles, great-grandchildren, those we wanted to be with, those we didn’t. Holding on longer than we expected, we realized Grandma wasn’t done parenting us all. Her loving heart had one last gift for us.
She may not have been able to talk to us those last days, but her presence in our lives became so real and raw in those moments that she held us all, very closely, together. Her presence pushed us to talk to each other. To hug those we probably planned on never seeing again, to work on those burnt bridges (and probably holding on long enough to see that we’d try). No other hug could match that of a cousin feeling the same deep grief as I was. The room filled with stories and laughter and tears and absolute, pure joy those last days with Grandma. A lifetime of beautiful life poured over her family.
I worried I’d need to be the one to depart all my Grandma’s wisdom onto my own children, and I realized that weekend, that Grandma did it herself. Even as she lingered between earth and eternity, she wasn’t done parenting us.
Family is everything.
That reminder was her last gift to us. My grandparents lived that lesson with their entire beings. And the best part is, it is a gift that will forever be passed down in our family. I kissed my Grandma’s soft cheeks one last time just two short weeks before my wedding day. I carried her flowers in my wedding bouquet and knew she’d be proud of me. What wisdom have your grandparents passed down in your family?