This is my paternal grandmother, Zella Bardwell. I didn’t know her when I was growing up; I’d only visited our family’s dairy farm a couple of times when I was a very little girl and once my parents divorced my father and his family became little more than distant memories. It took twenty-five years, but after an excruciating divorce of my own I decided that what I needed most in order to rebuild my life and have a successful future was to reconnect with my dad and his family. After a joyful and long overdue reunion with my dad, I called my grandma. I’ll never forget that call. I was sitting on the edge of my brother’s queen-sized bed that I was sharing with my two small daughters. The room was piled high with all of our personal belongings and all of my brother’s things, too. He’d been gracious enough to not only let us stay with him after I finally decided to escape my abusive marriage, but he’d also given up his bed and most of his personal space in order to accommodate us until I got on my feet. I sat there among the piles and listened to my grandma tell me about my family. She talked about the farm and my grandpa who’d long since passed. She told me her memories of my childhood (the little she’d known) and my dad’s childhood and her own. We talked for two hours. I didn’t know it at the time, but every conversation for the next thirteen years would be just like that one.
Grandma talked. She gave me history and perspective. She told me things I’d never known and confirmed suspicions about myself that I’d always harbored. My mother’s family had raised me; they’d loved me and cared for me and sacrificed for me, but there had always been an odd disconnect. It was more than the fact that I didn’t look like them, though perusing family photos it was clear that I was odd man out. I just didn’t ever seem to “fit”; they didn’t ever really seem to “get me”, nor did I “get them”. But with Grandma Zella, it was effortless; I was hers and she was mine and for thirteen years she was the one person that I knew I could truly depend on to understand what I was going through. She’d raised six kids on a farm that for many years had no indoor plumbing or central heat. She’d supported my grandfather’s desire to work constantly and ferociously, working by his side not only on the farm but also at the family’s grocery store. She understood poverty, loneliness, fear and doubt. I could tell her anything and she always seemed to get it.
She was the one person I didn’t have to censor myself with, but she was also the one person who would tell me the unabashed truth, as she saw it, no matter what. She was an absolute beacon in my life when my five kids were little and my husband and I were struggling with a new marriage, a new business and trying to blend our two families into one. She helped me work out my concern and disappointment when my husband spent the majority of his time either at work or doing his own thing, and assured me that I wasn’t the worst mother in the world when I was struggling with one or more of the kids. She taught me how to administer tough love, how to disagree without being “judgy”, and that the best way to avoid putting your foot in your mouth was to keep your mouth closed! She taught me that being able to laugh at myself would help to keep me sane in the midst of our constant and very normal family drama. Most importantly, she taught by example; grace, dignity, understanding and patience were all lessons I learned over the phone. We were a whole state apart and because I had five little ones and a growing business and funds were always tight, I only physically saw her three times in those thirteen years. Her voice was all I had.
In February of 2013 we were on a short trip for my birthday with our two youngest children when I got a phone call from one of my sisters; both my dad and my gram had been rushed to the hospital overnight. I’d known that my dad had been sick and his hospital trip wasn’t all that out of the ordinary, but I hadn’t known grandma had been sick. I mean, sure, she was ninety-one and had been living in a nursing home for almost a year, but rushing-to-the-hospital-sick? I hadn’t been prepared for that.
Though my sister assured me that there was no need to cut my vacation short, within twenty-four hours both of their conditions had worsened to the point that we were preparing to leave; my husband would take the kids home and back to school and I would drive across the state and tend to my precious family. Then as we were packing my phone rang; it was my dad. My dad?! Yep; he was feeling better and assured me that while gram had gone through a bit of a struggle, her doctors were talking about transferring her back to the nursing home. Crisis averted. I couldn’t have been more relieved. Other than my husband and children, my dad and my gram were my family. They were my heart, and I truly couldn’t imagine my life without them in it.
A week or so later the phone rang. It was, of course, my grandma. My dad had said that the nurses were trying to keep her quiet so I hadn’t called to check on her yet, but she wanted to talk to her granddaughter and no one (not even a staff of very patient and well-intended nurses) was going to stop her. She had something important to tell me.
In her always gracious grandma way she apologized for not sending me a birthday card; it was the first time she’d missed my birthday in thirteen years.
“Do you know what I was doing on your birthday?” she asked. I told her no, I didn’t; she had been ill and hospitalized, so I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to get at.
“I was dying,” was her quick response.
She went on to tell me that she’d died in her hospital room. That though she was aware that the nurses were trying to revive her, she’d allowed herself to slip away; to be pulled toward a light. She said that she went through a tunnel and that at the end of the tunnel the light was very bright. She said that she knew that the light was God and that she was very afraid, because she knew that He knew all of the “bad” things that she’d done in her life. She said that she felt sorry and that He knew that without her having to say anything at all. But then He showed her all of the good things that she’d done in her life and asked her if she was ready to come home.
It is important to note that when my grandma hit her mid-eighties, she started to feel mildly depressed. She would often state that she felt “useless” and wondered why God continued to let her live when she was so ready to die. She was tired. There was no more farm to work and no more grocery store to run and her kids and grandkids and even great-grandkids were all grown and gone and didn’t need her anymore. She had done her job and done it well and she knew it. Gram was ready to go; not in a morbid, death-wish kind of way, but more of an impatient, I’m-waiting-on-a-bus-that-never-seems-to-get-here kind of way. She was joyfully ready. Impatiently, joyfully ready. I, however, didn’t share in her readiness. I told her time and again that she wasn’t useless. I told her that I needed her here and that she needed to stick around. Who would I talk to? Tell my secrets to? Who would kick me in the butt when I needed kickin’? Now here she was telling me that she’d died, and the reality of all of her ninety-one years gripped at my heart like a vice.
“I thought about it, but then I said ‘no’. God asked me why; that I’d been asking for years and years to come home and now I didn’t want to? I said I did want to, just not that day. I told him, ‘I can’t go today because today is Linda’s birthday. If I go today, it will ruin her birthday for the rest of her life and I can’t do that to her’.”
Tears streamed down my face as I tried to catch my breath.
“So, He said, ‘Alright, Zella, you can go back. But the next time I call you, you’ve got to come, O.K?’ I said, ‘O.K.’.” She paused. A long, thoughtful pause. “So when my time comes, you have to be O.K. with it, too, alright, Linda?”
I tearfully agreed. It was the one and only time I ever lied to my grandma. Four months later she died peacefully in her sleep.
Of all of the lessons my grandma taught me, this was the greatest. My grandma loved me. Not some vague, biologically-driven obligatory love. She loved me. We throw the word love around like it’s nothing. We use it to get what we want and to secure our futures and to move the people around us. But real love, soul-love, doesn’t work for the benefit of the individual, it works for the benefit of the other. How many times has the phrase “I’d die for you” been uttered? Would you? Would you really die for another person? Maybe. But here’s a bigger question: Would you live for someone when all you’ve wanted was to be done?
My grandma had prayed for a solid decade for the sweet relief of death, to be reunited with my grandpa and her son who had died long before her and her own mother and father and brothers. My grandma wanted nothing more than to move on and told me the same every chance she got. Yet when the time came and she was no more than a breath away from the finish line, she paused and thought about me.
The next time you tell someone you love them, think about what that really means. Do you love them? Really? Would you put them first? Would you make yourself uncomfortable so they could be at ease? Would you sacrifice the one thing you desperately wanted in order to give them the gift of peace? And could you do that without an ounce of bitterness in your heart and truly expect nothing back in return?
Love is a big word; use it wisely.