That was my grandmother, Shirley Bailey. She died a year ago today. This is some of what I had to say at her funeral:
You have probably heard it said that we all die alone. Our final moments are so far removed from common experience that we might as well be long-eroded solitary islands, finally swallowed by the rising sea.
That’s a bleak way of looking at things, but note well: “bleak” does not always mean “true.” If it is possible not to die alone then my grandma did not die alone on Friday night. She was at home surrounded by all of her children, her kid brother, and several grandchildren, friends, caregivers, and in-laws.
I was there. I witnessed her last receding breaths, heard the prayers go up to heaven, and saw the funeral attendants take her body down the elevator shaft. And I’m still not sure I fully believe it. Right up until about 15 minutes before she died that evening, I expected gram to find some way to pull out of it.
That was not a medically sound opinion. But I shared it with some of my cousins, anyway, after the fact, and found that they had held it as well. Her passing from this place was so hard to fathom because Shirley Bailey was the stubbornest woman any of us had ever known.
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” the Gospel of Matthew warns us.
For many, many years grandma stuck her tongue out at that notion. Her flesh was weak, sure. Her eyesight was bad, her hulking hearing aids were next to worthless, her stature was receding, her bones were brittle, and her heart was overburdened. But her spirit wouldn’t hear of it, and that was all that mattered.
Gram’s stubbornness infuriated friends and family, but we loved her for it, too. She insisted on praying for everything, including parking spots, and she held infallible opinions. Gram was driving once and I was riding shotgun. A guy in a Volvo cut us off. She snapped, “I bet he was on pot!” I asked how she could possibly know that. She explained, matter-of-factly and without any hesitation, “In the city of Portland, 9 out of 10 Volvo drivers are on pot!”
Gram also refused to allow her near-deafness to shut her out of conversations, which… certainly made for more interesting conversations. At one point she complained that one of the Bailey households kept picking up and then hanging up on her when she would phone them. Then came the explanation: she had got the answering machine.
I find myself at this moment not just amused by but grateful for her stubbornness. It held together a young and struggling family through some very hard times. More recently, when she stubbornly persevered in conversation, gram could push past the language barrier, past our inattention, and through the fog of old age to say things that still resonated.
Gram’s stubbornness also gave us one final gift: the chance to say goodbye. Over the few last weeks, she had made what amounted to a decision. She had had a good run but it was time to go. She spoke of seeing grandpa again and she stopped eating most food, including her beloved chocolate chip cookies.
Gram finally let death take her Friday, but she insisted on doing it her way. Her body began shutting down, yet she held out long enough for us to travel to her bedside, to say our last words to her.
As I said, I was there. I took this all in. And I came away from the experience convinced that we need not die alone. Because every indication that day told me gram heard us, loud and clear, until the very end.