What use is writing a letter to a person that will never read it?
I’m pondering that question this Thanksgiving weekend. Should you communicate thanks to a person who will never read your words? How do you describe the moment that leaves you both thankful and torn?
I can still see that moment where I left it earlier today in a little nursing home in Louisville, Kentucky. Young hand is gripped tightly by old hand. Kind eyes shine through the film of Alzheimers. Thin lips that once kissed my childhood Christmas cheeks now struggle to say “….yes.” I sit in that moment, stroking her bright floral skirt, smelling the nursing home that has replaced the old smells of her past Thanksgiving feasts, and I am so thankful for her.
I’m thankful for her life. That she gave our family life. That she still has kind eyes and a wide smile. She still looks like she will be that pastor’s wife with a huge hug and a ready prayer. She’s still the grandma that understands everything when I call her as a teenager. I let myself travel to holiday’s past. She still has a big den and exciting Christmas decorations. She still fixes huge meals while Papaw hides the popcorn tin filled with candy for us kids.
But I’m faced with reality. She used to take care of us. “Don’t get up – I’ll get that.” Now she needs us to care for her.
As a child, I had the illusion that my grandparents would live forever. I remember the first day that illusion was shattered. It was Christmas Eve and a small Christmas tree was in the living room instead of the big one. I was disappointed. Decorations and popcorn tins seemed to be absent and Christmas somehow felt colder. Then I heard Papaw, my Papaw who should always be around to hold me on his lap while we watched Andy Griffith, throwing up in the bathroom. They said “he’s fine – just a little sick.” But it didn’t take long to hear the hushed whisper of “cancer.” He wasn’t fine. A few years later I sat reeling in the hospice room as my grandma held my Papaw’s hand, saying goodbye to the love of her youth and old age. Suddenly I knew that these precious moments we have with family aren’t guaranteed forever. Now they are memories, erected on the walls of my past and dusted off every time I see my grandma. It feels like it was only a day after his death that the dementia started. I’d call her and she would say, “I’m worried about my memory. I keep losing my keys.” I was not worried. “Oh, grandma, you’ll be fine. You’re still the same to me!”
And now I hold her hand. She’s still the same to me. Still Esther Richardson, full of vibrancy and way too many plans for the weekend. The grandma who would do anything for us. The grandma who 50 years ago was just like me. A life ahead of her. Busy thanksgiving filled with family. Introducing everyone to her new fiancé – her new life – her new legacy.
Before she went to the nursing home, I found 40 days of “The Purpose Driven Life” devotional notes my grandma wrote while she was in the beginning stages of dementia. Even with a failing memory, she wanted to remember her purpose on earth was to serve Christ. She wrote, “Dear Lord, I don’t want to hold anything back from you. I love you so much. I thank you for being such a wonderful God to me. Please show me which area of my life that I am holding back from you.” She was concerned about being able to remember things. She jotted down, “What can I do to remind myself to think about God and talk to him more often throughout the day?….Write down God’s word/notes to meditate on. Carry it with me or put post-it notes up. Lord, please help my memory. When you think about a problem over and over in my mind – that’s called worry. Lord, help me to turn everything over to you and not go over and over it in my mind.”
“Grandma,” I say to her in the moment, “This is Andrew. We’re getting married.”
She looks at me blankly, squeezing my hand tightly. Trying. She struggles to respond and nothing comes. I suddenly see myself sitting by her gravestone, telling her everything. She can’t respond. But I want to think she hears me. So I keep talking to her.
I grieve, yet I know we are all so blessed. Blessed to have her legacy. Blessed to have these short moments hand in hand, young and old, separated only by time.
I can’t write her a letter she can read. But I can sit with her. I can follow in her footsteps, loving God, family and church. Giving my life to serve others in the path God gives me, small and unrecognized as that path may be. Living, not for myself, but for Jesus. Not living a perfect life – but living.
Grandma never sat down and told me to think these things. She just was these things. Day in. Day out. Faithful in church. Faithful in marriage. Faithful in the Word. Faithful in service. Faithful to care for her family.
And someday soon, she’ll hear those words she lived her life for. She won’t be trapped by her earthly body any more. She’ll close her eyes to this world and open them to the next.
There she’ll hear what I hope to hear someday– “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”
What use is a letter if the person you’re writing to can’t read it? I don’t think I needed to write this letter for her benefit. I think I needed to write it for mine. I needed this letter so I could work through these thoughts of thankfulness, loss, love and legacy.
Letters, just like people, are never useless. If we’re still here – if they were written — God has a purpose behind it. We don’t always see it right away.
In closing I’d like to share a letter that my grandma wrote me– a letter she forgot to give me and that I accidentally found when we were cleaning out her apartment. She was trying to thank me for a gift I gave her for her 70th birthday.
It was so great to have you with me for my 70th birthday. You are so very special to me. How I wish we could live closer. You mean so very much to me. I never dreamed of you giving me a dozen red roses. I never had any roses for years and then you gave me a couple roses that I really cherished. And then for my 70th birthday you gave me the dozen red roses. They were very special. They kept beautiful for a long time and then dried nicely. I have them in vases in the kitchen. I wish you and I could have gotten to talk more while you were here. I will never forget getting to spend time with you and your family at Christmas. It was a highlight in my life. I am so very sorry I got sidetracked and forgot to mend your jacket. This is why I gave you $30. I hope that helps you get it mended or please spend it on whatever you want.
I love you so much,
I know I’m reading this late, but I love you, too.
- So thankful. (renziandleeannestone.blogspot.com)
- Keeping The Holidays Joyful After A Loss (965tic.cbslocal.com)
- Thank you Grandma Janet (jamesclissold.wordpress.com)
- My Grandma (thenetherlandsnanny.com)