My grandmother LaRue Marie Brown Lundin just passed away on Tuesday, October 18th at 11:15pm. She was 100 years old, born on May 2nd, 1916. At the time of her birth, Woodrow Wilson was president and the United States was just about to enter World War I. The automobile was still relatively new, having been around only 30 years. Motion pictures were still being produced without sound. As a teen, she would have heard about Gandhi’s Salt Marches and Amelia Earhart being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. When she was 29, she would have likely been amazed at the unveiling of the world’s first computer.
She lived through World War II and Vietnam. Her first husband walked out, leaving her to raise two little girls solo in the 1940s. She was a woman who rarely sat down until well into her 90s – and even then she would put up a fight to help with the dishes. The ham and potatoes were always perfect and served on her finest china. She had to have things done her way. She ruled the roost – and her kitchen especially – late into her years. Forks went one way in the dishwasher and spoons another. In her life she was often feisty, funny and quick witted. She was known to ride roller coasters even in her 60s. In her 80s she took a ride in a motorcycle side car with a wide grin on her face.
I was lucky enough to get to her death bed in Casper, Wyoming a few days before her passing and shared some of her last words before she fell silent on Saturday. There were so many poignant moments all at once. The wind was harsh and chaotic, contributing to my own turmoil as I balanced parenting my three young boys with my desire to sit quietly at her side. It was the familiar feeling of being splattered in too many directions – laid bare and stretched toward a horizon as vast as the Wyoming landscape my grandmother called home for her last years of life.
Her imminent death was inviting me to slow down and abide. And yet the chaotic, messy, tumultuous land of my very much alive three boys inevitably eclipsed my need for silence. Wanting to pay homage to my grandmother’s life, I took every opportunity I could to sit with her and hold her hand. Each moment of reflection felt stolen as I bounced back and forth between my grandmother’s bed and the quickened pace of parenting. The experience of holding space for my boys, holding space for myself, and also simultaneously holding space for my grandmother felt both relentless and impossible. My two-year-old tantrumed like never before. I scrambled to cook, mitigate conflict, launder and keep up with the potty training and snacks. There was a diaper here and another there. Did they brush their teeth and was I connecting enough with them? The Hospice nurse’s injunction for quiet contrasted sharply with my bundle of never-ending movement and energy wrapped in three precious boys. Where was the place for children in this liminal moment of parting? How to not drown in what felt like unconquerable chaos? It was a feeling I was well aquainted with, amplified by Death’s Door. I only wanted to focus on what’s important – but how to do that when so much calls for one’s best and most present self? I took the moments of quietness I could get, and tried to go gently.
Sitting with my grandmother, I was struck by all she worried about in her final days. In particular, the fierceness of a mother’s love and care until the very end shown through. That some of her last words were about a baby – and her “two baby girls” – sinks deep. She needed reassurance that they were okay. As my grandmother struggled, the Hospice nurses recommended a Reiki practitioner who does energy work with those dying. She did her work from a distance, only knowing my grandmother’s name. She didn’t know that my grandmother had been talking about a baby and telling us over and over again that she was ‘seeing’ a baby. And yet, the practitioner relayed that my grandmother was struggling with an early pregnancy loss. She was meeting the baby, said the Reiki master. She was talking to the lost child, apologizing. Apparently, she needed to work through this loss before she died.
“I can’t believe I’m leaving,” she said to me as she looked intently into my eyes. “Unreal. Absolutely unreal,” she said. In her final days she said “sorry” many times. “I just have to say that.” She also told us she loved us. When I mentioned her great-grandsons were there to see her, she said “Oh wonderful!” and called them honeys.
While we aren’t sure all she was sorry for, we do know she was grappling with different moments in her life. The regrets, the love, the mistakes, the hard moments. She was worrying about her two daughters. Were her “two babies” okay? She worried about money. Was that okay too? Whatever she was working through, she held on fiercely. For days the Hospice nurses said it was the end – but her heart kept beating and her lungs kept breathing. “Are you ready to go?” we asked her on Saturday. “Yes.” I whispered in her ear that she could let go and that all was okay. “Thanks. That would be nice!” she said, with her familiar humor. Different names were spoken. She called for someone named Wesley. She asked for my brother. Was Aunt Carole okay?
The Hospice nurse called it “Terminal Restlessness.” She had only seen one other person hold on so tightly for so long while they were actively dying. For Grandma, she was actively dying for many days. She didn’t eat for almost two weeks. Some breaths had 45 seconds in between. Others, a minute and a half. At one moment I asked my two-year-old what he thought was important to remember when being with his great grandmother as she dies. Without hesitation he says “give love.” He and my four-year-old both sang sweet preschool songs to her and touched her forehead as they said goodbye. My oldest sat guard just outside, practicing his knitting – perhaps as a way to integrate the gravity of the moment.
After a while her words stopped. She couldn’t move her mouth any longer and her eyes were mostly closed. My mother and I light candles. We speculate on what she could be waiting for. She was one who was very particular about the parameters of her comfort. We awaited the constellation most supportive of her release.
Her death reminds me that more important than the dishes or the dinner or keeping up with the endless sea of daily tasks is the airing out of our mysteries and darker internal experiences. She reminds me that taking time to fully digest and integrate my experiences will pay off as I age – and perhaps as I too am faced with my own death bed. Her death reminds me of the importance of staying current and connected with our deepest troubles and doing the work required to allow them to heal. And – I’m also reminded that some things may never dissolve, even at the end. Here she was, 100 years old, ready to go but somethings perhaps left unresolved. She tries to communicate and we only get snippets towards the end. Money. Babies. The number 59. Like riddles unsolved or pieces of a puzzle without the whole, we choose to reassure her. We tell her it’s all taken care of. What’s left in the heart and mind can be released. And, if letting go is a task impossible, then blend the light and dark, lovely and difficult into one expansive, integrated gesture in the heart. I whisper into her ear that the heart can hold it all. She doesn’t have to be burdened with casting something off or letting something go before her final release – but rather she can accept, embrace and integrate. Then, let it all dissolve. We remind her again and again that she is so loved, even when she tells my mother at one moment that she can’t feel that.
Her death reminds me of the lifetimes of baggage we can carry – perhaps even to the grave. She reminds me that the experience of motherhood is one of the most important in a lifetime – and that we likely worry about our children intensely until the end. My grandmother’s death also reminds me not to waste any time in delighting in the feeling of sun on skin or wild winds in hair. She reminds me that love is the most important thing.
Death is akin to a birth – a labor of anticipation. In my grandmother’s case, it appeared that hard work and surrender was required. She had to struggle to find her final resting place. On the night that she died, my cousin Michelle had a dream. “I was trying to find her a place to sleep. She didn’t say anything. We just walked around a house, sometimes her leading me and other times I was helping to keep her steady. Every room had a fireplace, but all the beds were taken. I had to grab someone else’s couch cushions and laid them down to make a bed for her…I don’t know if I have ever dreamt about Grandma so it’s incredible that I dreamt of her on the night of her passing.”
Just before she died I saw her via a video call. Like looking into a mirror at the future, I witnessed the way in which nature and life do their alchemy of transformation on each of us. Her skin and jaw were falling towards the earth in a profound dance of gravity and release. As my grandmother held on with quick shallow breath, I wondered about the ways in which we hold and process memories throughout our lives. What happens if we don’t say what needs to be said? Is there unfinished business to tend to? When we too are knocking on death’s door, will something hold us back or give us pause? What life did we lead? And was it what was imagined or hoped for? Her eyes leave me with the silent injunction to ask again and again what is needed to come to peace with our one precious life.