Every story has to end, even one as long and epic as Grandma’s. She made it to her 98th birthday–barely; she died at 1:10 am. But she made it.
Since she was 98, her passing was neither tragic nor unexpected. But it still hurt, and it still hurts. Yes, she lived a long, full life, but without her, the lives of those of us left behind aren’t quite as full.
I can’t write any more, so I’ll leave you with the eulogy I wrote for her. It’s not the finest piece of literature, but it’s hard to polish writing when you can barely see it through tears. And it sums up a lot of what I feel. Here it is:
Naomi Kimball Harris, my grandmother, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As children, my brothers and I spent many happy days playing and exploring at her house, which she called Gessner after the road it was on. She also spent many nights sleeping on a cot set up in my room. I still remember lying in the dark with Grandma at my side, listening to Sally Jesse Raphael on the radio and knowing I wasn’t alone.
Grandma knew she wasn’t going to live forever. She didn’t like it. She didn’t accept it. But she knew it. So when I visited her on July 10, sunflower bouquet in hand, she sat up in bed. “Take a picture of me holding this,” she commanded. I was thrilled; generally when I visited her during the past few months, she’d been feeble and often disoriented. But not that day.
After I took a picture of her with the bouquet, she had me take pictures of her holding all sorts of items in her room, from the paintings of her favorite crabapple tree my brother Jeff had made for her to the typewriter her mother had given her as a high school graduation present. Each object she held had its own story. At the end of our photo shoot, I had more than forty pictures of Grandma.
She was pleased. “I’m not going to be around forever,” she said. “Now you’ll have something to remember me by.” She added, “When you’re 97, you have to start thinking about these things.”
Grandma’s last days were hard to the point of being excruciating, both for her and for everyone who loved her. She fought death almost to the end. But thanks to that gift she gave me on a sunny day in July, I won’t remember the suffering. I’ll remember Grandma as she appears in those photos, vital, loving, and full of stories.
Grandma lived an extraordinary life that reached beyond her immediate friends and family. She served 30 years as a foster grandparent in Head Start classrooms, and she was called “Grandma” by generations of children. In 2009, she received an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Children’s Legacy Luncheon to honor this achievement.
So when I think of Grandma and her legacy, I think of Walt Whitman’s words. In “Song of Myself,” he wrote: “The smallest sprout shows there really is no death,/And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,/And ceas’d the moment life appear’d./ All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
Grandma lives on in hundreds of ways, in hundreds of hearts; her legacy goes onward and outward. And all of us touched by that legacy are indeed lucky.