My grandmother passed away peacefully on the morning of November 19, 2016, six days after being moved to a hospice home. She was 79 years old. Friends, colleauges, and caregivers have reached out to me and my extended family, reminding us how she has made such a powerful impact on their lives. Slightly before she said goodbye to this earth 61 bisons passed by the big window overlooking the prairie; my aunt says that this is nature’s way of thanking her for living. I am proud to be the granddaughter of someone who made the world around her a happier place.
Growing up, one of the highlights of my summer was going to visit my grandparents' house in northwest Illinois, which sits on 56 acres of prairie restored in part by the Nature Conservancy.
My grandmother used to take me and my cousins out on their golf cart and drive us around on the mowed paths and show us the prairie plants. She knew - and still knows - the names of every flower, grass, shrub, and animal on the prairie inside and out, showing us animal tracks, having us plant seeds, and - once we got older, of course - bringing us out to assist with controlled burns.
"Burning the prairie gets rid of the alien plants that we brought over from Europe," she would say with a little too much excitement.
But my grandma taught me about more than prairie life.
Her health began to decline when I was just 7. A spinal fracture was the first sign that her bones were deteriorating due to osteoporosis, which stems from calcium and vitamin deficiencies. Seeing her lose more than six inches of height over the following years made me want to take my own health more seriously - first with the help of my mom, and now on my own, I make sure I take calcium supplements, eat plenty of spinach and fish (since I don't drink milk), and lift weights regularly to help me maintain my bone mass when I'm older. She encouraged this behavior.
"Keep up the good work," she would say. "Don't let your bones get like mine."
She has been an example of persistence for me. For the next decade, she didn't let her bone disease hinder her, using wooden walking sticks that my grandpa made for her to get around the prairie. Two titanium rods in her back and thick leather shoe inserts acted as bones to help her stand. She had to use a chair lift to get up and down the stairs, but she remained active despite her limited mobility - the last thing she wanted was to have to be taken care of.
Unfortunately, in 2014, that's exactly what happened when she fell ill with encephalitis.
The disease that could end the life of a seventy-something left her very much alive, but after three weeks in the ICU and two more months in a rehabilitation center, she could no longer walk without someone assisting her on each side. The havoc the disease wreaked on her body and brain took away much of her short-term memory, but she was still able to talk about prairie plants with me and my cousins and the CNAs that my grandpa hired to help her.
At first, she tried to return to her old ways - my grandpa and the CNAs would help her with physical therapy, which consisted of riding an exercise bike. Sometimes she would turn to one of them while sitting at the kitchen table in her wheelchair and say, "I want to walk to the sink," and they'd stand her up, place her hands on her walker, and hold her arms while she did just that.
But as 2015 passed into 2016, that became less and less possible as more health issues ensued.
Stomach problems. A fall resulting in a minor concussion. A mini-stroke. By spring of 2016, my grandpa had bought her a power chair because he knew she would never be able to walk again.
That reality destroyed her. The once active, passionate woman was now stuck in a chair, and she was bored out of her mind, even when I would visit and take her on mini adventures around the house, getting her to whiz around at some impressive speeds. My grandpa began emailing my mom and her siblings, asking them to find time to entertain her with a phone call or send her books or puzzles to work on because she was taking her frustration out on him and he didn't know what to do.
And here is where her third and final lesson reached me.
Last month she was hospitalized with what they thought at first was pneumonia. After a weeks' stay in the hospital in Rockford, my grandpa granted my grandma's final wish - to give her a comfortable bed by the big window overlooking the prairie, where she could live out the rest of her life in peace.
They sold their land to the conservancy, which is now inhabited by a herd of bison. My grandma looks forward to watching the herd stroll over the hill in the afternoons. My mom began writing stories for her and sending recipes to the caregivers so they could cook both my grandparents' favorite foods for them. My aunt and uncle drove out from Cincinnati to visit her this week. Just the other day, my grandpa sent an email out to all the kids and grandkids that she has been able to crack a smile again.
So while my grandmother taught me everything she knew about the prairie, the 3 other P's were what I really learned from her: prevention, persistence, and peace. I heeded her advice on doing what I can to keep my body free from osteoporosis. I watched her fight to stay active as long as she could. And now, I'm watching her, and the rest of my family, accept with grace the harsh reality that this is her life now.I'll carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life - I can work to keep tough times at bay, I can fight them off when they come, and, if I know a situation cannot be changed, I can simply accept it and make the most of every day.