I met Gerry in 1999. I started cleaning her house, which quickly morphed into an overall aide-de-camp, mostly because she is such a beautifully social creature, and I am just an efficient woman who likes to run things. For about 6 years, my children were regular fixtures at her house as I cleaned, organized, gardened, cooked and visited. Gerry and Howard had 3 grown children who I came to view as family, simply because Gerry kept me filled in on their comings and goings with such detail. I knew all about her grandchildren, and watched them grow through the pictures I kept dusted along her walls. I helped hostess her social events, and this 60s and 70s set of women were role models to me: intelligent, successful, articulate, and incredibly philanthropic.
I interviewed Gerry for an oral history assignment once, for a gerontology class. I needed about an hour of tape to come up with enough notes for my paper. I wound up with 8 cassettes worth, well over 15 hours. I’d bring my tape recorder over, and we’d be out in the garden pulling weeds, and I would ask a question, and Gerry would just talk, and talk and talk. She teased me that I would have enough to write a book about her, and we decided we would call it Lessons from Gardening with Gerry. She made me promise then, “You can’t publish it until I die, though. There’s too much scandal!” And amusingly, she’d lived a full and juicy enough life at that point that the tapes just kept rolling, capturing stories from her childhood, her marriage, her childrearing, and her views on life during her elder years. I listened to a few tapes when I first moved to Colorado, in fall 2005, but I will need to dig them back and transcribe them. I know those stories would be a gift to her family.
As I was holding her hand last night while she lay in hospice, there were a few lucid moments, but many in delirium. At one point, she whispered, “I’m so proud of you,” and I just turned my head away to fight from sobbing. She has told me that often over the years, championing women’s educational opportunities through her PEO group (they sponsored me for about 4 years) and claiming each achievement I’d made as a crown to her own glory, and rightfully so. She had full confidence in my ambitions, and after I’d moved away, we touched base every few months, and she’d start each phone call with, “Fill me in on everything.”
I came out last fall to visit, and am grateful that I did. I’ve told Nathan, “You never know how long we have,” and so I tried to keep up with annual visits, despite the hours between us. I was scheduled to stop in next week, on our way to Colorado, but Leslie (my sweet friend who supplanted me as aide-de-camp some 12 years ago), said there would not be that much time when she called yesterday. It was out of the blue – definitely an unexpected call. Gerry and I had spoken about 3 weeks ago, and I wasn’t anticipating this turn. When I first got here Monday night, I had the last 15-20 minutes of clarify with her, before she started drifting off to conversations with her deceased husband and daughter.
I’ve experienced loss before, but never as a tangible thing, never as an active participant. I know the loss of my mother and grandmother made stirs in my life and development, but I was never involved in the process of their dying. These last two days with Gerry, sitting in the chair beside her hospice bed, have been an experience like no other. I’ve been blessed to have conversations with a dozen or more people who come in to say their farewells, listen to their stories of how they knew her, share my own, and watch them leave, a bit lighter from having said their goodbye. When I was in my 20s, I read a lot about the grieving process, and so I have a cognitive understanding of how my actions here, now, with Gerry, can impact my healing. I’ve also had time to muse on family (both hers, and my own) and think about the role I want to play the next time I lose someone. Those who know me will appreciate my utmost admiration for caregivers (because that is NOT a gift I have), and as each hospice worker has sat and helped walk through the process, I am overwhelmed by the strength and fortitude their job must demand.
All in all, it’s been simultaneously one of the best and worst times of my life. I’m losing the woman who was more of a mother figure to me than anyone. I can pinpoint knowledge in my life and how I’ve grown as a friend, as a woman, as a wife, and especially as a mother, and note, “I learned that from Gerry.” If I were to delineate it all here, it would be overwhelming.
Despite the tears, I am so profoundly grateful to God that I have had this time. I’m grateful I could have that last exchange with her. I’m grateful I have Nathan and Becca to look after Miles and Ruthie so I can be here, with Gerry. Being with someone who is dying in front of you provides a clarity to the gratitude, and thus there are yet more lessons I’m learning from Gerry as a result. When she passes, I will know I honored her last request (she didn’t want to be alone when she died) and was able to give back to her in some small part for the abundance she’s given to me. How often we just take our relationships for granted and overlook our blessings. Gerry has been, is, and always will be a phenomenal influence in my life.