Life With No Regrets: The Passing Of My Grandmother

Life With No Regrets: The Passing Of My Grandmother

“Katie! You made it! I can go in peace now.” It was around 2 AM at John Dempsey Hospital in my hometown of Farmington, Connecticut. I had been on planes and in airports for over 30 hours, my hair was greasy, I was exhausted and I needed to brush my teeth… but all of a sudden, none of that mattered because I finally made it, to say goodbye in person to the last of my living grandparents. I gave her a hug, choked back a hugely unattractive sobs and tried not to cover her cheek in my snot.
“Don’t be sad,” she said quietly and calmly. “I’m not,” I blubbered, “I’m just so happy to be here. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it”.
“It means a lot you’re here”, she replied, worried about what I spent on the last-minute, long-haul flight from Auckland, which of course, was not even of slightest concern in a situation like this, a precious moment that could never be recovered.
My mom had warned me that she was tired and confused, but she put on a good show for me, reminiscing, “Katie, I’ve never met anyone who lives as deeply as you do. I don’t know if it’s the lupus or what, but you’re always making the most of each day. All the places you’ve been, all the things you’ve accomplished… I just don’t know where you came from!”. “I came from you, grandma”, I said quietly, too much of a mess to really explain my thinking at the time but I’ll outline some of the ways she’s influenced my life here. At 96, she was eager to get to heaven, catch up with friends, spend some quality time with her mother who died young. She’s probably too busy socializing to keep up with my blog but just in case.

Assorted photos throughout the ages

Assorted photos throughout the ages… photos of photos I dug up when I was home

1) Prioritize experiences over things

While my globetrotting might have been a different level to what could be accomplished back in her day, she was quite the traveler herself, traveling all the contiguous states, Mexico and Canada. She worked as my grandparents raised a family of three.  She was proud of being frugal on a day to day basis but travel was a priority. My grandparents took the family camping, on cross-country road trips and eventually got an RV to meet up with a group of friends each summer.
Growing up, I knew her as a bit of a shopaholic, but she was always clipping coupons and taking advantage of sales at Kohls to make sure everyone was dressed nice.  I’ll always remember how excited she was when I got invited to give a talk in Taiwan.  The next day, my bed was filled with glitzy dresses that seemed better suited for a bachelorette party in Vegas than speaking to stuffy Asian scientists.  But who knows, she was more fashion forward than I’ll ever be…

One of the first days she was hospitalized, I was able to call in on Skype and listen into an hour or so of her reflecting on life. This was the first time I learned that she wasn’t the first woman my grandfather proposed to. He was self-conscious about proposing with the same ring, but she remarked, “I don’t care about a fancy ring. I’d rather a down payment on the house!”

The grandkids in handmade costumes

The grandkids in handmade costumes

2) Never stop learning
My grandma had a million hobbies, even while raising a family. She was an incredibly talented seamstress and while I as a bit embarrassed to wear dresses with puffy sleeves to school on picture day, I had the best handmade Halloween costumes in town. She made dolls out of clay and sewed their outfits by hand. She and my grandpa worked together to make hand painted woodcarvings. She was a prolific and very talented painter with pastels, and while she’d humbly dismiss your compliments with, “I just copy real artists,” we’re lucky to be left with dozens of her work. I don’t have many regrets with my grandma but she did always encouraged me to write a book about my life, and she had an idea for the title and artwork. The one thing I wish I asked her to do was paint her vision for the cover.
In addition to her hobbies, as soon as she learned I was moving to Auckland, she checked out a book on New Zealand from the library and probably knows more about the country’s history and wildlife than I do, even though she loved to share what she was reading.
She kept up to date with celebrity gossip and magazines. One of the last days, she whispered something to my aunt, which my aunt had to ask her to repeat several time before she realized my grandma was asking if Beyonce had her baby yet. Of course, my aunt had no idea but got a chuckle of how grandma was keeping track of everyone.

More of my grandma's craft projects

More of my grandma’s craft projects

3) Have fun and don’t be afraid to live a little
When I was younger, I’d sometimes spend summer days helping grandma with housecleaning… up until the end, she liked to keep the house and lawn looking pristine. One day, I was dusting knickknacks in the basement as she tidied other things nearby, reflecting out loud about some of her teenage days. Specifically, she was remembering a road trip with her girlfriends to New York, where they ended up at some club watching a woman named Tassles, because she was wearing nothing but… you guessed it! As someone who was proudly Catholic her whole life, it was hard for me to imagine my grandma so nonchalant about going to strip clubs but she knew how to balance being a good person and having fun. When my sister went through an extremely religious phase, I remember grandma encouraging her to live a little, “a cocktail never killed anyone! You’re young, have fun!”

4) Don’t rush into important decisions
My grandma was proud of waiting until 30 to get married and encouraged us to enjoy our lives as single females before rushing into anything. My grandma had met my Kiwi partner, Tim, a few months earlier, loved him so many of her questions in the last week involved asking how he was doing. (Specifically, I told her, he got me a skydive for my birthday and she couldn’t wait to vicariously live through our jump).
One of her parting pieces of advice was, “I hope things work out with you and Tim but don’t rush into anything. Making sure you live a good life comes first”. After this trip to Farmington, returning to Auckland was a challenge, freshly reminded about how far away I am from 99% of the people I care about and that combined with other factors, led to a tough conversation with Tim about parting ways when I leave the country. While it’s hard to deal with, having the support of a strong female like her, makes it easier.

Helen Harris, my beautiful grandma

Helen Harris, my beautiful grandma, on her wedding day

5) If you live life right, death is nothing to fear
Death scares a lot of people, dealing with the lupus scare at 18, I think I realized earlier than most that being alive and not living is worse than dying. At 96, my grandma had lived a really full life and was eager to move onto a better place. It was incredibly comforting to watch someone reflect on their life with joy, no regrets and a feeling of accomplishment. She died slowly enough that she was able to see all the people she wanted to see, pass on her wisdom and she stayed mentally sharp until the end. While I flying somewhere over the Pacific, she passed peacefully in her sleep (as she wanted), I couldn’t help thinking, “I hope I die like that”.

Overall, it was incredibly special to share those moments with her. While I felt guilty for not being in Farmington for much of the past decade, she told me how much she appreciated my Skype calls, postcards, letters and efforts to stay connected. I know as her mobility was increasingly limited in her old age, she vicariously lived through adventures and enthusiastically encouraged me to have new ones.

A snapshot from one of my grandma's favorite videos of me

A snapshot from one of my grandma’s favorite videos of me

One memory she kept bringing up is a video of me paragliding in Turkey. “You were so calm, like you were in your dining room chair, drinking tea!  But you were falling through the sky with a man strapped behind you!”. She asked my aunt and mom to play that video for her at least a dozen times because she got such a kick out of it. I must admit, my image of her heading up to heaven, isn’t a golden chariot, no scifi beam of light. I imagine her attached to a Turkish paraglider, relaxed, smiling and enjoying the view on the way up.

“Every man’s life ends the same way.  It is only how the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another” -Ernest Hemingway

NOTE: I’ve been procrastinating writing this for over a month, mostly because I was scared my words wouldn’t do her justice. My friend Taylor recently wrote a beautiful post on his blog about watching his grandma die, which kicked me into action. I highly recommend checking it out.

Song of the Moment: This Plane Don’t Go There– Jason Aldean… I listened to this album on repeat on the long flight home. This song is about missed opportunities and regrets. While it somewhat heightened my anxiety of getting home in time, it’s a reminder of the most important lesson that came out of this experience: don’t postpone things that you’ll never can get back later.

Movie of the Moment: The Last Word

Be Sociable, Share!

1 Comment

  1. Jimmy
    Aug 17, 2017

    Very nice tribute of Grandmother’s life – she definitely was special!