It's been months since the loss of my grandmother, but my family is still stinging from the thought that we won’t be able to see her the way we did. Grandma spent these last years in a nursing home. As my mind wanders, I think, selfishly, that my routines will change. I won’t be able to pick up hot donuts on my trips to New York and swing by to have an early morning visit with her.
When we lose a loved one, our Christian traditions bring us together with family and friends. The cadence of our tradition is so perfect. Coming together, we move from not knowing what to say, to reflect on the life of the one we’ve just lost.
As we come together, we remember Grandma. We talk about the way she cared for everyone. Sitting around the table with my mom and dad, we joke that Grandma would invite anyone with no place to go into her home for a holiday dinner. She would invite people to play cards and stay up with them long after they would have worn out their welcome with many folks. She loved the awkward among us, too, not just the ones who were easy to love.
So you can see the kind of person my grandmother, Imogene, was. I miss her. And during my personal suffering, another question was answered. Grandma always used to say, "I don't want to be in a nursing home and incapable of taking care of myself. If I ever get that way, just shoot me."
When she had the TIAs and ended up in an extension of the hospital, we focused on getting her up and out and back home. But it wasn't to be.
She ended up wheelchair-bound in a nursing home for nearly eight years. And in all those years, she never insisted we take her home, nor did she complain of her conditions. "I'm all right," she would usually say. She'd remark how someone else had it much worse. If you visited her, she would welcome you with a big smile and her standard greeting: "How are ya?"
I had no idea why she was there in this place and in this state, suffering indignity and pain. I admit I was sometimes angry that God would give her this. I just didn't understand. Until recently.
One Saturday evening, we were rallied around Grandma for what would be her last day with us. One of the nursing home’s staff members shared that Grandma was often found holding another resident's hand when they were near the end. I could picture her waiting stoically in the dark of another resident’s room, holding their hand for hours. And she’d be strong in being there to comfort a friend in their final moments when everyone else had forgotten them.
And there it was. She wasn’t suffering as some kind of punishment. This was her final mission. She struggled against her own suffering to be there for the least of these. And who knows how many she reached in those years? If it was only one, it would have been enough, but I'd imagine there were many who fell under her care in one way or another.
I am reading Father Ron Rolheiser’s new book The Passion and the Cross, and found myself going back to the first chapter, “The Passion and the Garden of Gethsemane.” Rolheiser starts with a discussion of the word passion and its root from the Latin word passio. Rolheiser offers that passio refers to inactivity, absorbing things done. The two distinct branches of Jesus’ ministry: one is the active healing, teaching, and preaching; the other is the passive absorbing of what was done to him.
“In the garden, they arrest him, bind his hands, lead him to the high priest and then take him to Pilate.” This is when Jesus enters the passion, Rolheiser writes, the point at which he ceases to do and absorbs what is done to him. Our faith rests on the teaching that we are saved more from Jesus’ suffering and death than from the active years of his ministry.
Reflecting on my grandmother’s life, I realize she imitated Christ in that she had her years of active ministry, serving those on the margins of society.
As it reads in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
It occurs to me now that in her final eight years, Grandma had a passive period, enduring suffering and showing us how to do that with grace. At the end, her passive ministry still had the active aspect—her hand-holding with a friend. Of course, Christ did remain active as well: Even hanging from the cross, he comforted the least of us, the thieves hanging next to him.