“I just want to die,” she tells me, wisps of gray hair floating over her pale forehead. “I don’t belong here anymore. I want to die and be with Bob and with Jesus.”
“Don’t say that, Grammy,” I admonish her, a sick feeling rising up in my stomach at the brutal honesty behind her words. “We still want you here.”
Grammy shrugs. The bones in her shoulders are painfully obvious, evidence that the cancer or the morphine or whatever is eating her away. She is diminishing before our eyes. She barely eats anymore. She might eat a few dry cheerios, or half a serving of yogurt on a good day. But we have to push her, because she is never hungry.
“Hand me my Bible please, Becca,” she tells me. I hand her the worn old book, and she clutches it in her veiny hands. Her eyes roam the page ravenously, eating up every word. She’s hungrier for that old Bible than she is for real food.
I watch her and blink back tears. This doesn’t seem real. None of it seems real. I know bad things happen, but they’d never happened to me. Now Pop Pop is gone. He died two months ago from stage four lung cancer. And Grammy, more than ready to join her late husband, is dying from the same exact thing.
“I can barely read,” Grammy says. Her voice is raspy and she coughs a few times before continuing. They aren’t like regular coughs though – they sound dangerous. They are tearing apart her body. “I think my eyesight is going, too. Everything is going.”
And as I see the tears of frustration slip from the corners of those eyes, I wonder if maybe Grammy is right. Maybe it is time for her to be with Bob and with Jesus.
Condolences aren’t too hard to hand out. It’s pretty easy to tell someone you are sorry for their loss. But I have learned that it is much more difficult to be on the receiving end of condolences.
“I’m sorry about your grandparents,” everyone told me at the funeral yesterday.
How do I respond to that? It is not their fault that Grammy was diagnosed three years ago with lung cancer. It’s not their fault that a few weeks after she was put on hospice, my grandfather was diagnosed as well, and then died not a month later. No one wished this on them. No one wished this on our family.
“Me too,” I’d say. Because I was sorry. I would not wish lung cancer on my worst enemy. It’s not a good way to die. You watch people you love slowly waste away before your eyes. You watch as they stop eating, then can’t stand up, and then can’t remember your name and start crying because they are frustrated at their own confusion.
Then I’d change the subject. How are you, how’s life, how’s your family. I would have to answer questions about myself too, of course. I’m fine, life’s great, yes, I’m still in college, no, I don’t really know what I want to do with my life. The typical answers. Almost like a family reunion, but not quite.
Still, that’s all almost better than what comes next. After the ashes are in the wall and the people have slowly ambled out of the church into the icy winter air, we realize the next item on the agenda. We have to clean out their house. We have to wipe away any evidence that they ever lived in that little house with bricks and tan siding at all.
We start off ambitious, but I am quickly overwhelmed. I try not to show it, but how do I know which quilt I want and whether or not I want to take some of her pots and pans to put away in the attic for later? How can I go into their bedroom and take jewelry from her jewelry box to save for myself as a material memento?
I don’t want to do this right now. I really don’t.
But a pile of books tucked down beside the couch, beneath an end table, catches my eye.
I sit down on the floor and look at the books more closely. They aren’t just any books. They are old Bibles and devotional books, books that have been read and cherished and studied time and time again.
And right in the middle is Grammy’s Bible.
I gingerly pull the Bible out of the stack, as if I fear it will fall apart at the slightest offense. The Bible looks old and well‐read. The paperback cover is curling at the corners and fraying at the edges. The photograph on the front is of a bubbling brook, of reflected light and water plants and peace and tranquility. I flip through the yellowing pages, and try not to let anything fall from the book.
Scribbled notes slip out from between the pages of the Bible. A brand new 2015 daily planner, labeled “A Year to Remember”, that never had the chance to be used. Slips of paper with quotes like, “Jesus has the right to tell me what to do and enable me to do it”, and “Because He lives I can face tomorrow”, and “If God is for us who can be against us?” A handwritten list of the channels she liked to watch on TV. Hallmark on channel 137 for all those cheesy Christmas love stories. Charles Stanley on channel 15 for the times she couldn’t go to church but needed to hear God’s word. Disney on channel 256 for when my little sister came to visit. The Phillies on channel 76, and the Waltons on channel 286.
I tuck the notes and the planner and all the other little papers back into Grammy’s Bible. I want to take special care to make sure all of these fragile pieces, these delicate memories, are not lost. I want to sit cross‐legged in front of the fireplace in my grandparents’ living room with the Bible open in front of me. I want to see what Grammy wrote, what was important to her in that old book. I want to understand how she could watch her husband die as she herself was dying, and still make it through with her faith and hope intact.
I tuck the Bible away with the other things I am taking with me from this little house with bricks and tan siding. Now I will help clean out the house. Later I will look at the Bible.
It’s 11 am, and the first time alone I’ve had since getting back to campus. I make myself a cup of tea (also from Grammy’s house), pick up Grammy’s Bible, and go into a room on our floor that no one really uses. I sit on the ledge in the corner with my knees tucked up close to my chest and the Bible on my lap.
In my mind, I thought opening the Bible would be easy. I imagined it would fall open on my lap and I would skim through its read, worn pages and smile at the picture in my mind of Grammy enjoying the feel of those same pages in her wrinkled, veiny hands.
That’s not what happens, though. I am afraid to open the Bible. I am afraid of the truths within. Not a week has passed since Grammy’s death, I realize. Maybe I’m not ready to read her Bible. Maybe reading her Bible in her memory means that she is really gone, and maybe that’s something I still haven’t accepted, even after the funeral service and cleaning out their home.
A deep breath and a sip of tea convince me that now is the time. I want to wait, but at the same time, I don’t want to wait another moment. The Bible opens, but I don’t even remember opening it. It’s almost like it opened on its own.
The Bible is open to Romans 8, to one of the many sticky notes Grammy has hidden within its great depths. Orange highlighting scattered over the page catches my attention. The orange is still vibrant, and I realize these might be some of the last things Grammy read. Yet, at the edges of the lines, the orange faded. The fading lines indicate that the highlighter was used a lot.
I turn over to a different part of the Bible, and then another. More orange. I get this weird feeling in my stomach, and I can hear my heartbeat in my ears. I want to read those words behind their orange veil, but once again, I am afraid. I have to fight off that fear, that agitating compulsion to hesitate, and I tell myself to read. It takes some convincing, but then I am ready.
The words that Grammy highlighted, the words that jump out at me from the old yellowing pages, are beautiful. They are promises of God’s power. Promises that we don’t have to fear, because God holds us in His arms.
Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. (Romans 8:38)
God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear, even if earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge! (Psalm 46:1‐3)
Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! (Isaiah 43:1‐2)
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6‐7)
That verse in Philippians about not worrying wasn’t just highlighted. Grammy also underlined it. She underlined it word by word, placing an individual emphasis on each idea. She believed in God’s peace. She really did.
Grammy was probably afraid. She was ready to die, but she still had to be anxious. Not knowing is a scary thing. Feeling your life fade away would be hard. Yet, comfort was to be found.
He gives power to those who are tired and worn out; he offers strength to the weak. Even youths will become exhausted, and young men will give up. But those who wait on the LORD will find new strength. They will fly high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29‐31)
My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever (Psalm 73:26)
Grammy had no strength left, but she was still strong. The last time I spoke to Grammy was on skype. It was just days before she died. Her strength was gone, but it was there in the way she managed to talk to me anyway. She broke through her own limits to give me all of what she had left. I think it’s because she turned outside of herself for strength at the end. Grammy knew what it meant to be fully reliant on God, especially those last few days.
...We confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. (Romans 5:2)
Remain faithful even when facing death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
That, in many ways, was her legacy. Grammy had faith. She had faith before the diagnosis, after, and throughout. She had faith when her husband breathed his last breath. She had faith as she realized she could no longer no things on her own anymore.
And so right now, I am confident that Grammy is wearing the crown of life, sharing God’s glory.
Following Grammy’s path through her Bible brings tears to my eyes, but I’m glad I did it. I learned something. Actually, I learned lots of things, and not just about Grammy. Sure, I learned about her too, but I learned about life and death. I learned that hope is not just an idea. Hope isn’t as abstract as it may seem. Hope can be the difference between holding on to faith and losing faith.
I picture Grammy clutching that Bible, and reading it, breathing it in, even with failing eyesight.
Hope can save someone’s life, even if to the rest of the world, it looks like they’ve lost it.
There’s a song called “10,000 Reasons” by a Christian artist named Matt Redman. The song has become popular in many contemporary worship services. We would sing it a lot when I was in youth group, and here, during worship with college students. I love the song, but it wasn’t a song I would’ve imagined Grammy listening to. I imagined Grammy enjoying hymns and other more traditional music.
Yet, when asked what she wanted sung at her funeral, Grammy picked this song. She said it was one of her favorites. And so now, whenever I hear “10,000 Reasons”, I will think of Grammy. I will think of her faith, hope, and perseverance. And hopefully, on that day when my strength is failing as well, I can follow her example.
Grammy, I want to be like you.
And on that day when my strength is failing.
When my body is growing weaker and weaker. When each breath becomes a battle and my eyesight is dim and I can’t keep my thoughts in line. When I know nothing as I know it will ever be the same.
The end draws near and my time has come.
When I see my life the way I see the setting sun. As the sun draws nearer to the horizon, I can feel God calling my soul into His presence. My family, my friends, and all those I love on this earth will no longer be able to see me, but I’ll still be there. Just in a different way. My time here could only last for one reason, and this end is only a beginning.
Still my soul will sing your praise unending.
I will be joyful in this loss, because even though the end is seen as pain, for me it will be the most wonderful victory.
Ten thousand years and then forevermore.
And I will spend the rest of eternity in the presence of my God, filled with life, laughter, happiness, singing, and dancing. The pain I once knew will not even be a memory. I will be more alive than ever before. I will be whole, forever.