Recently, I was honored to spend time with my paternal grandmother as she died and with my father’s sister and brother as they provided care. Relatively speaking, she passed away quickly, after a short kidney illness, and peacefully, having had an incredibly sound health care directive in place. I was surprised to be tasked with giving Jeri Christianson’s eulogy: it was overwhelming to absorb the enormity of standing in for my father, of crystallizing a life, of leading my family through a life course transition in a way that would recognize the process of grief and change is both individual and social. Here’s what I wrote:
There’s nothing particularly surprising about the peaceful death of a 96-year-old woman. Geraldine Christianson was fiercely independent until the very end. She died with her family at her side and an incredible Palliative Care team to watch over her. I suppose it only feels surprising that my grandma Jeri has died because she was a surprising woman. By the time she rounded 90, maybe we all thought she’d outlive us. Or maybe we’d just turn around and she’d be gone one day. Now she is, and we miss her.
Grandma was fortunate to live a long, adventurous life. She wasn’t embarrassed to be an amateur, afraid to mess up, or even scared when most reasonable people might be. When she asked, incredulously, “Am I dying?” she was at least a little satisfied with my aunt Sonja’s answer: “Not today.” Later, in the hospital, Sonja, my uncle Chris, and I talked about the things about Jeri that would surprise people. She’d grown up playing basketball with her sisters–apparently she had a height advantage. She’d met her husband because he was the best jitter-bugger on the floor. She’d worked directly toward the end of the war with Japan in 1945, bookended the baby boom with her oldest and youngest child, outlived or outwitted four kinds of cancer, and learned to drive at age 72. She got applause in the DMV waiting room when she passed the test. While maintaining a reputation for being strict, grandma Jeri laughingly let us kids get away with anything, from drawing flowers all over her white pants to being exactly who we were in every way. She was quietly brave and tenacious from the first to the last, and she has left an enormous legacy in the form of many adventurous young women and men who will continue to look to her as an example.And that’s the thing. A life isn’t an assemblage of dates and relations. It isn’t a list of facts. The truth is different than the facts. The truth of Jeri’s life, of my grandma’s life, wasn’t made in who she leaves behind, but in that she showed us all how to be honest and brave. Once, in her 90s, she saw a little boy scared to go off the diving board. She clambered up to show him how it was done. In my head, it was the high dive. My grandmother was the kind of woman who would stop in her tracks, inviting everyone to look at something we normally passed by. She simply didn’t care if anyone thought she was a rube. The world was as surprising and beautiful to her as she was surprising and beautiful to us.
In appreciation of this life well-lived, I invite all of you, all of us, to do the things that put butterflies in our stomachs. Say what we believe and remain quiet when our words aren’t needed. Be steadfast and loving and firm and silly. Be a little scandalous, but always reliable. Be an amateur with all the love you’ve got.
–Letta Page, June 28, 2014