My grandma passed away this morning, about an hour before Penny and I woke up. She was 87, and already as I write this I hear the flat, plainspoken tone of an obituary starting to emerge. A life summed up in a paragraph, with all the juicy stuff left out. I promised to have it written for tomorrow morning's paper.
Martha (though no one ever called her that) June Dullaghan came to Indianapolis from her family home in remote Montana because my grandpa looked good in his Navy uniform. His regiment was passing through, probably on the way to Seattle, and she saw him in the train station.
Thus, us: nine kids, seventeen grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, with a fifth on the way. All raised in Indianapolis, a place Grandma probably couldn't even place on a map when she was growing up on her reservation.
Usually in an obituary I guess you discuss career and achievements, outline how many years so-and-so spent at such-and-such insurance company or whatever. Grandma had babies. Decades and decades of dedicated service to a job with no paid time off, no pension, no gold watch at the end. The older kids scarcely remember a time when Grandma wasn't pregnant. Aunt Joan, the youngest, came some 30 years after Uncle Dick.
She was a funny lady, and a Scrabble powerhouse. She spoke softly, and I wonder if they listened to her when my aunts and uncles were growing up, a half-dozen rambunctious kids in a little white one-story on the near eastside. I certainly did.
She was wise, and possessed a serenity that I eventually came to realize wasn't just the product of age. I think she was always like that. Always patience, always gentleness, always a little smile that seemed to say, "I didn't know it would turn out exactly this way... but I was pretty close." She seemed amazingly steady, and content to flow over and around whatever bends might arise.
She lost my grandpa nine years ago, and got herself an apartment. She traveled the world with some of her kids; Uncle Dick and Aunt Nettie showed her Europe and Alaska, I believe. She had a ball.
Her knees wore out first, and Grandma got some new ones a few years back — a painful surgery, but she was happy to be able to get around again. It actually made her seem suddenly a few years younger, which we all appreciated because it got easier to kid ourselves about how close the end probably would be.
She was 87 when she died, and she was 87 earlier this year when she headed off on another of her adventures, and we all thought maybe we'd just get even luckier and have her around another decade or so. She had an aunt who lived to 99, you know.
Maybe, we thought. There didn't seem to be much wrong with her, at any rate.
When she went to the hospital, I realized finally that she'd been taking pills for a heart condition for the past few years, and that she even had a regular doctor who she loved: Doctor McPhail. There must have been more going on in that 87-year-old body than we thought, if her doctor was around enough to be a friend and all.
There was a stroke, or a series of small ones, and the last time I saw her she could almost move her left arm again. She hurt, though, and when she got too weak to eat they put in a feeding tube, which is when they found the esophageal cancer. Before that, my Aunt Mary had suggested that maybe her chest pains were just heartburn, to which my Grandma reportedly said, "Maybe. But, *something's* got to kill you, right?"
She knew. Ten days or ten years; her days were numbered.
When the call finally came that it was time to say goodbye, I didn't get it. I was out camping, my cell phone totally out of battery power. It was a beautiful weekend, and in the 80s here in Indiana. Record highs for October, actually. The leaves were already changing as Tom and Sharon and Mason and I paddled our kayaks across the perfect lakes of a state park not far from my new house.
Brilliant yellow treetops gleamed -- no, exploded in brilliance -- as the sun rose against the clear blue sky. We couldn't believe our luck.
And this morning, after checking the voicemail that said she'd finally passed, I tried to put the weekend behind me and think about what needed to get done this week. Now "write obituary" was added to the list. It's an honor, but not a welcome one.
I checked the weather, out of reflex. It's supposed to be 80 and sunny today, but then that's it. It'll be in the 50s and cloudy -- more appropriate weather for an Indiana autumn -- by the end of the week. That stinks, but it's okay.
It's only human nature to enjoy your good fortune, and to hope for even more. I'm sure a Mediterranean cruise is just as good as an afternoon of kayaking for enjoying what you've got.
There were moments when the water seemed to go on forever — we'd been out there for hours, and one lake just seemed to lead to another. There were narrow channels that connected them, so we threaded through the arching trees and falling leaves and marveled at it all and waited to see what was around the next bend. Our arms ached, and we had to stop every once in a while.
Around 1:30 we pulled into a dock to make a bathroom stop, and suddenly noticed: there was the car. We'd already reached the end. Mason may not have realized it, since he's only 14, but the rest of us have seen enough summers to know that this was the last of it.
Still, as we walked up to the car, dragging our kayaks and hoping there would be drinks in the cooler, there was relief. A little sad and surprising to see our lake run out so suddenly, but our arms were tired anyway. And we all knew, even more now that it was over, what a wonderful ride it had been.