The hospital bed seemed a paradox, as if it didn’t belong in the cheery yellow bedroom. My mother-in-law, a cancer patient, lay tucked in with flowered sheets pulled up to her chin as she stared out the window at a snow-covered landscape. A stiff wind blew the bushes next to the house; they knocked persistently against the glass. Sprays of dry snow swirled like tiny tornado funnels across the lawn.
“I wish I could put on my boots and take a walk out there. See, there’s a flock of birds across the road, way in the top of that tall oak. I’d like to see what kind they are….”
“Me too, Grandma.”
“But it’s alright.”
She turned her head toward me and smiled like a child discovering a new diversion.
I’d learned a lot from this woman and her husband, I mused. Things I did not learn from my own parents.
“Yeah, you’re usually alright with things. You’ve always said the best stage of your life was whichever one you were currently experiencing…”
“Well, I believe that’s true, honey.”
She turned her head to watch the snow again. We both knew it would probably not be long until her body would be buried beneath the soft white blanket covering the ground.
“So Grandma, how did you learn how to be such a good parent?”
She continued to scan the yard while her lips moved with invisible words. Then she looked into my eyes.
“If you love your family the way you love God - with your whole heart - you’ll be a good parent, which is the most important job we have while we’re on earth. But what am I saying? Look at how good you kids are to me right now…”
“We must have learned something from you then, huh?!”
A tender look crossed her face. “Now go along and get yourself something to eat and ask someone else sit in here with me for a while. And maybe whoever it is can bring me a hot cup of coffee.”
I retreated to the kitchen and asked those gathered there who would like to take the next shift.
“I’ll go,” offered my brother-in-law.
“She wants coffee – here, take it to her in this flowery teacup.”
I settled down at the table with a cold turkey sandwich made of leftovers from our Christmas dinner. The kitchen looked the same as always, and yet different without Grandma. I almost thought I could hear her voice as I looked around the room.
“Now honey, your husband loves to fish, just like I do, so I want you to have the collection of fish plates on display in the hutch after I’m gone.”
“The stained-glass bird lamp should be yours since you always liked it so much.”
“You’re the cook in the family – take any of my cookbooks you want.”
I was startled from my reverie when my brother-in-law returned with a message. “All you women – she wants to see you – right now.”
Sisters, daughters, nieces and in-laws hurried to Grandma’s side - eight of us in all - to find her sitting upright in bed and surrounded by jewelry boxes. She grinned impishly, as if eager to share a special secret.
“Now you all line up around this bed. I have some things to give to each of you.”
With that, she opened each tiny lid one by one, looked around the room, and then assigned the contents of each box to a new owner. She was a woman captivated by everything beautiful, and one by one the lovely earrings, necklaces, rings, and pins that had meant so much to her piled up in our hands. There was not a dry eye in the room.
It was a very tangible passing of the torch.
“Now shoo, go about your business. Just one of you stay.”
I was the one who lingered. We quietly studied the landscape outside together where swaying tree branches cast playful shadows as darkness fell. I silently thanked God for blessing her – relieving her pain and giving her mental acuity – for an entire afternoon and evening.
Grandma suddenly looked at me with wide eyes full of love and readiness – eyes reflecting a heart schooled by hope.
“If this is what dying is like, it’s not so bad.”
As she spoke, the snow seemed to fall with new intensity through the beam of the streetlight.
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