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courtney opdahl and her grandma

This Mother’s Day was particularly difficult for my family:

The matriarch of the Lewis family, Isabel, passed away on May 1. She was 81 years old.

Although my grandmother had been sick (she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2008), she had been doing somewhat well long after her doctor’s prognosis. He gave her six months to a year to live, and yet, nearly three years later, she was only now leaving us. It really was a testament to her spirit that she proved him wrong.

When I visited with my grandparents in Phoenix in January 2010, Grandma was still driving a car. She took me to her church in Sun City West, introduced me to her friends and showed me her final resting place in a meditative garden between the chapel and the reception hall. She shared with me her wish to be cremated and placed in a wall where we could visit, and asked that I understand why her and my grandfather chose this location versus the cemetery where my two aunts are buried in Richfield, Minn. My grandparents’ place of worship, Desert Garden Church, had become home to them, and they found support in the community there. She told me that although her body wouldn’t be placed somewhere I could easily visit, her spirit would always be with me. It was an important conversation for us to have, and I only realized its true value recently. She wasn’t just showing me this place, she was sharing with me the gift of acceptance and peace.

Along with her choosing a location in the open columbarium, Grandma had also written all of her own obituaries — six in total, each one a little different for various publications (placed in the Arizona, Minneapolis, and Ohio papers, as well as announcements for her church, her alumni magazine, and her “active seniors” community newsletter). In the week following her death, I worked with my father and aunt and uncles to copy edit the obituaries, and each time I was struck at all of her accomplishments. She truly had a full life, full of children and friends and work and travel.

Both her and my grandfather were college graduates — my grandmother attended their alma mater, Miami University in Ohio, as a high school junior — and were active citizens in the black community when they moved to Minneapolis, fighting discrimination laws that kept them out of the neighborhoods with better school systems for their children. When Barack Obama was elected president, my grandma sent a letter to the family saying how proud she was to see this in her lifetime: As an infant, she sat on the lap of her great-grandfather, a former slave who fought in the Civil War as a free man, and now she was watching our first black president take the oath of office. What change she had seen in her years! I can’t imagine it, but can only hope my generation achieves such great advancements.

When I arrived in Peoria for the services, where I would join the members of my extended family, I read through a notebook Grandma kept with her obituaries and wishes. She listed several pages of friends to contact upon her death, with phone numbers and the order in which to call. In her obituaries, she left notes after the grandchildren’s names — “if Jamie is married when I pass, please update her last name” — and instructions for the program format.

Paging through it, I found great comfort in knowing she was planning this, and, like our conversation in the reflective garden where the inurnment would take place, she wanted us to know she had made peace with the fact that she was dying. She had a big love and deep appreciation for life and all the people in her world that made it wonderful, and it almost seemed as if writing her wishes gave her closure. It was, as my uncle said at her service, her final loving act: to make sure her children and grandchildren would have guidance and strength to make it through our grieving.

My cousin Larry, who we’ve always called Paco, and I spoke on behalf of the grandchildren. I drafted what I’d say — I even timed my speech so it wouldn’t be too long (like Grandma, I’m both a planner and can be a bit verbose) — but I don’t even know what came out of my mouth. It was a bit of a blur. I do remember, though, Paco’s comments on Grandma’s strength, and how impressed he was with her eternal optimism in the face of so many great challenges. When she was told she was going to die, she didn’t spend long in sorrow — she made her final plans and she cherished every minute she had. And I believe it was for this and her lifelong fortitude that she was granted extra time, enough so that one of her last visits was with her seventh great-grandchild, Isabel Delphine.

She really was a woman to admire. I can only hope for so much grace. I was blessed to have so many years in her presence. My memories of her — her thoughtfulness, generosity, and enthusiasm for life — will serve as navigation for me in the greatness I hope to achieve. And that peace that I understood from her in the end, one that seemed to come from a life well lived, can only start with today.

UPDATE MAY 1, 2017: For more on end-of-life planning and conversations, see “New Thinking on End-of-Life Planning” from the November 2016 issue.

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