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She's a grand old gal.

Updated on January 20, 2012
Grandma and me, me in her wedding dress.
Grandma and me, me in her wedding dress.

How does one say good-bye to one of the most important people in their life?

Both of my grandmas were recently diagnosed with cancer. My Mom's Mom, 85 year old Grandma E, was diagnosed with lung cancer just before Christmas. My Dad's Mom, 88 year old Grandma O, was just last week diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys, liver and lymph nodes. A week ago today, Grandma E underwent surgery to remove the tumour from her lungs. Doctors are quietly confident that they've removed all of the cancer, and she has been home from the hospital already for a few days. I called there yesterday, and she sounded...spry. You'd never know she underwent major surgery within the last seven days. And according to my Mom, Grandma E's hair was never even out of place the entire time. I'm guessing that she would rather not even talk about it anymore, and would instead love to chat about the two new great-grandkids she's got on the way.

My Grandma O will not have this ending. Her cancer is in stage four, and even if they thought that chemo would help her, she wouldn't have gone that route anyway. She's been sick for two years now (don't even get me started on why it took them this long to diagnose her), and is ready to go. Plus, my youngest cousin Sarah isn't living at home anymore, and doesn't need to be able to go to Grandma's after school. The family always joked that Grandma wouldn't die until after Sarah moved away from home. I guess we were right.

I can't even put into words how much this woman has meant to me over the years. My parents were stupid young when I was born, and when my sister was born 11 months later, and when my brother was born 15 months after that. Because of health reasons, when I was seven months old, my Mom had to go onto bed rest in the hospital during her pregnancy with my sister. Dad was a young farmer just setting out, and Grandma E worked outside of the home. This meant that I spent a very crucial formative time in my life with my Grandma O. And as we grew older, us three kids often found ourselves over at Grandma and Grandpa O's house for various reasons. If I am honest with myself, I have more childhood memories from that house than I do from my own. They are memories of warm chuckles and batch after batch of molasses cookies for us to decorate, and costumes sewn while we were at school just because we wanted them, and of falling asleep to the sounds of Hockey Night In Canada blaring. Of playing school - complete with packed lunches - and knowing it was time for class to begin when the old cowbell rang, the old cowbell held together with duct tape. Memories of having 'Jesus Loves Me' sung to me.

Grandma O always kept her family well fed and clean, but she preferred to be outside beside my Grandpa. She was proud of the family and the farm they had created together. I remember calling her once after a woman's studies class at university where the teacher had declared that farm wives from a certain era (the one before dishwashers and other electric conveniences) were put upon and often felt they lived a dreary, drudgery life. I raised an eyebrow when I heard this, and immediately upon getting home from class that day, I called my Grandma O. "Grandma", I asked, "did you feel put upon or depressed by your lot in life?" Well. I had to sit down for this answer. No, she did not feel put upon. Yes, it was hard work, but it was worth it. She loved getting her hands dirty, and she saw herself as an equal partner in the whole endeavor. She didn't help Grandpa build up a successful farm, she worked beside him to do it. I proudly announced this in my next class and was - as predicted - given the cold fish stare of one who doesn't want to admit that men ever did anything good for women and who was from the big city besides and had likely never been on a farm. But still, I was comfortable in the knowledge that many (most?) farm wives of a certain era were just fine with their lot in life, thank you very much. I know this because my Grandma O told me so. I learned from her that life is what you make it. You get out of it what you give.

I could talk about her generosity, but we'd be here all day. I could talk about her unconditional love, but again with the all day thing. Maybe I'll talk instead about her how sweet old lady facade was just a front for one of the most competitive people I know. This started off early in life, with competitions with elder sister Agatha, and carried right on until now. Grandma loves watching sports, and definitely had her ideas about things. One of her ideas was that former baseball star Ricky Henderson was a bit of a jerk. I remember being at her place once years ago and watching a Blue Jays game with her. They were playing against Ricky Henderson's team, and he had just stolen second base. Grandma, with a look of intense dislike on her face, muttered with feeling "Somebody just needs to break his legs". This became a family catchphrase for years afterwards, and Grandma would always giggle sheepishly when it was uttered. She delighted in watching her family play board games or card games and add their own rules to make things as competitive as possible. Again, the warm chuckle as she would watch the offended game player put their hand into the middle of the group for a round of hand smacks for having made a mistake in whatever game was being played. This next year of hockey playoffs will be the first year in my life that I won't be able to call my Grandma up to ask her the score of any given game or series - she kept a record of every game on paper on the table beside her chair.

I won't be able to do that this year, because she won't make it that long. Her cancer is too aggressive, and she is too ready to go. Yesterday, she went home from the hospital for what will likely be the last time. She was supposed to rest, but she kept thinking of things she needed to do. She'd keep reappearing from the bedroom to sort one more item, to issue one more order. One of those orders better have been that I get her recipe boxes.

I went out to say goodbye to Grandma the other day. It was -47 with the windchill, but still, I packed my car with blankets and my kids and my sister, and off we went. To get to our hometown, we have to drive on one of the longest, most boring, worst roads in the province. As we were bumping our way along after what seemed like one hundred hours, my sister rolled her eyes with exasperation and exclaimed "Why do all of our grandparents have to die on the other end of the 51?" I giggled. So did Grandma when we told her. In fact, when she signed her DNR papers last week, she specifically stipulated the term "no more ambulance rides to Saskatoon on the 51." She understood. She also understands irreverence. After my Grandpa died, and we were all gathered quietly at their home afterwards, it was Grandma who broke the silence with a shrugged "Well, I guess I won't have to buy bananas when I go for groceries anymore." Bananas had always been a source of contention in their marriage - he loved them and she hated them. But now she was free of them. I'm glad it was my sister who took that last trip with me. She understands that its okay to giggle at things. She understands that Grandma would not have been, and was not, offended when I asked if I could have her recipes after she died. My husband was horrified when he found out, but Jeni understood. So did Grandma.

Grandma is ready to go. She is ready for Heaven and to see people she hasn't seen in a while. More than ready, she is impatient. She is annoyed that the doctors won't say that she doesn't have much time left. We tell her that maybe that's because the rest of us aren't ready for her to go, but I'm pretty sure she's thinking that we'll get over it.

And we will, eventually. But until then, there will be uncontrollable and unannounced fits of sobbing on my part. There will be wondering if there were any better way I could have said good-bye to her other than to grab both her hands, kiss her, tell her I loved her and that she meant more to me that she'll ever know. I don't think I can ever make her understand just how much. She has meant more to me than I can ever say. She has always been my safe place. With her, I could always exhale and relax and just be myself. I could bask in her happiness at my just being there, and later in her joy at seeing her first (my eldest) and subsequent great-grandkids. With her, I was always home.

I could write about what she has meant to me and what I have learnt from her forever. Instead, I'll just say Good-bye, Grandma. I love you more than you could possibly imagine, and I will miss you every day until we meet again. I hope I made you proud. And I hope you'll forgive me for crying when you go and all of the times after.

But as I'm sobbing, I'll be clutching your recipe boxes in my hot little hands.

Grandma meeting my daugher Maeve for the first time.  Maeve was her first, long waited for, great-grandchild.
Grandma meeting my daugher Maeve for the first time. Maeve was her first, long waited for, great-grandchild.


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    • profile image

      Heidi W 5 years ago

      What a lovely ode to Helen O. Thinking of you all, and of my own dear grandma who will miss her so much too.

    • profile image

      esther reimer-pittari 5 years ago

      thank you for such an honest look at a women i call grandma helen, even though she is my rental grandma. on my bed is a beautiful handmade pillow she crafted when i moved from kerrobert to toronto a 1.5 years ago. she is everything you have mentioned, especially generous of heart. she was super proud of all her grand and great grandchildren and told me stories (complete with pictures) fairly often.

      i love how grandma helen could so easily balance strength, humility, generosity, humor, singing songs of faith and cheering for sports while making a delicate blanket. i miss knowing she will be praying for me far away almost as much as the bean salad she concocted so i would have something to eat at potlucks after church.

      saying goodbye will be difficult, BUT imagining her hear:

      "well done my good and faithful servant" eases the sadness.

      to all those of her biological family, i pray for your comfort in this and the coming weeks. grandma helen has left big big shoes to fill. we all have work to do.

      with much love and gratitude,


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      Damaris 5 years ago

      Truthfully, I don't think Ive even ever met Grandma O, but I know how incredibly special she is to my cousins and Uncle Dan and Auntie Pam. When they visited us this summer and met my brand-new, first born daughter, they presented her with a beautiful blanket that Grandma O had made for her. If that doesn't say generous and thoughtful, I don't know what does.

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      Dan Bergen 5 years ago

      What a beautiful tribute!

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      Erika Wiebe 5 years ago

      Beautifully said. I'll miss dear old Aunt Helen.

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 5 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      Very well written. She will know how much you love her when she passes over. No words needed. It's all about energy then. Life is love.

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      kjarv 5 years ago

      Great, just great...tears all over my IPad! This should come with a tissue warning! Loved it! So emotional and so beautifully written. Remember, her blood runs through your veins so she'll always be with you. xxx

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      This is a beautiful and loving tribute to your grandmother. I am so sorry that you are going through this. I understand it though because it has happened with me. Yet I love how you have so wonderfully captured the personally meaningful facets of your life your grandmother. I also love how you explain that she is ready to leave; and what an encouragement we have that the life to come is far grander and more real than this one of cares and sorrows. May God hold your heart. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.