Some things death teaches us about life

Grandma Rose Woo 1916 – 2009
Grandma Rose Woo 1916 – 2009

Between new years day and Chinese new year, Rose Woo, my grandmother, and my children’s great-grandmother, passed away at the age of 92. She had been fighting what we thought was the flu and was confined to her bed during Christmas. We admitted her into the hospital on new years day because she had stopped eating. Over the following weeks, she appeared to recover well, but she still couldn’t manage enough strength to walk, nor even stand. She died peacefully in her sleep only one day before we would have celebrated Chinese New Year. We’re going to miss her.

At the “Celebration of Life” service we held in her memory, Rev. Terry Shea opened with a poem by Linda Ellis, to remind us that while our date of birth and date of death appear on our gravestones, it is more important to consider how we spend the years in “the dash” between those dates. I first heard “the dash” several years ago when Wayne Myers, an elderly missionary to Mexico, spoke as a guest at Coastal Church in Vancouver. The message within those 36 lines was appropriate for the occasion; I later spoke about my memories of life with Grandma Rose, packaged as “some things death teaches us about life”.

This is a recap of those thoughts, but not exactly as I presented them. I’m not sure why I chose not to use notes, but I am thankful that God answered my prayer that I would speak sensibly, and encourage those in attendance. Two of my relatives also shared their memories, and the sunny (albeit windy) weather cooperated, helping to turn a sad occasion into the homecoming send-off my grandma deserved.

Grandma lived quite the dash!

Ninety-two years… now that’s some dash! My grandma had seen so much change during her lifetime, from growing up on a farm on Vancouver Island to living with us. During that time she witnessed two major world wars, the great depression and subsequent recessions, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the space race, the arms race, conquered diseases, and several more triumphs and tragedies endured by the human race. My grandma had lived through them all and stayed the same person inside and out. She was always my grandma.

As a child I couldn’t relate to the stories I read where kids made a big deal about packing up their stuff to “go and visit the grandparents”. I lived in a house with one Grandma, and spent a lot of time at my other Grandma and Grandpa’s place. Of all the grandkids, I was fortunate to have my grandparents look after me while my parents worked. At lunch we feasted on bacon, eggs, Kraft dinner, and fruit salad, and watched soap operas and the news. Then I’d go back to school to finish the afternoon, play with my friends in the playground, and return to the apartment to do my homework. My parents joined us for dinner after work, socialized for a bit, then head home to rest so that we could repeat the process in the morning.

I started reflecting on some things that death teaches us about life when we took Grandma to the hospital. When I spoke this message, I didn’t label the sections, but as I write them down I feel the headings keep me organized.

Get to know what you’re good at

My grandma knew that she could do some things well, and focused her energy into those things. She didn’t know how to use a computer, didn’t own a VCR, and didn’t own any property. However, she always considered her appearance, and the appearance of her home, and in the home she excelled. I remember how she would spend the afternoons vacuuming the carpet, sweeping my food crumbs off the floor, cleaning the windows, cooking the meals, washing and hanging the laundry. She was everywhere at one time.

She spent a lot of time at home, and to that end she created a pleasant environment that made her happy. And she loved to entertain. My grandfather also was an amazing Chinese chef and the two of them worked in the kitchen to prepare dinner for family occasions.

Value relationships over possessions

My grandparents’ accommodations were well-kept, but very modest. Rather than buying the latest, greatest things, they chose to entertain people and build their friendships. My grandma had a few very close friends, most of whom have already gone on before her, and she would socialize with them on a daily basis. If we have but two really close friends who know us as well as her friends knew her, we’d be truly rich indeed.

When grandma moved into my parents’ home, she grew attached to my sons. I have photographs of her playing hockey in the kitchen with my eldest, and video of her singing Christmas carols and show tunes as she rocked my youngest. These memories bring me great joy.

She was always asking the whereabouts of the members of the family who were at school, work, meetings, or whatever. There were times I walked by her room and heard her speak the names of everyone in our family and social circle. She was thinking about them, and probably wondering how they were doing. I heard that she had some medical problems that required surgery that the doctors considered too much of a risk at her age. Instead of wallowing in pain and despair, she thought about those she cared about.

Be aware of the events around you

Being born of hearty stock, she was always up for a good discussion, bordering on debate. She listened to talk radio in between soap operas and the news. When she lived on her own, my wife and I often picked her up on the way to family gatherings. During the ride she would share what the radio personalities discussed, and struck both chords and nerves. It made the ride shorter, more vibrant, and exciting, all at the same time.

She listened to the radio until she had problems hearing. She read the paper until she could no longer see clearly. But she was always up to discussing things. I know she made her home care workers very happy by keeping them occupied.

Remember your roots

I am especially grateful that my grandma lived to experience the joy great-grandchildren can bring. We feel that living under the same roof with them is probably what kept her alive so long. While she was in the hospital, she kept asking, “Where’s the little one?”

It also helped that she lived an active life growing up on a farm. When I was a kid she often spoke of feeding the chickens, riding the horses, and walking to school 20 miles in the snow, uphill both ways.  She biked everywhere. She was strong. She beat up the boys who picked on her brothers and sisters. It was because of her I developed a fondness for spinach.

I overheard her more than a few times as she sat at the table after lunch, singing the entire song,  “Jesus Loves Me This I Know”. She must have learned this in her childhood; it’s not a song we sang very often.

Take care of what’s entrusted to you

We owe it to my grandma’s memory to consider the time we spend “in the dash”. My grandma was close to all her children, especially her own daughters, and daughters-in-law. I know she was grateful for my mom, who looked after her daily after my grandpa died almost twenty years ago. I know she was happy to live in the same home with us to be around our active life.

To maintain privacy, I have deliberately avoided mentioning any specific names. On behalf of my family, we thank you for your caring and compassion, and for checking in on my grandma so often during her life. You enriched her life by including her in yours. You also came through for us when she was hospitalized. In honour of my grandma’s memory, let’s make it a point to continue on this path, and nurture the relationships we encounter along this journey.

3 thoughts on “Some things death teaches us about life

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