Monday, April 4, 2016

Resolution Reflections: On Living for 98 Years

My Oma died two months ago tomorrow. Her passing, as most do, gave me a chance to look back on all the years she had lived and the great achievements of her life. She survived Nazi-occupied Holland during the second World War. She hid young boys from the Germans and would go months without seeing her husband who fought the Germans in secret with the Dutch resistance. She volunteered in the nursing home that later cared for her. She buried three Johns - her husband, an infant son, and an adult son - my father.


My Oma's later years, however, took a more simple form. She spent the last few years in a nursing home. She woke up every morning with the help of nurses, went to the dining room for breakfast, drank coffee, napped, went to the dining room for lunch, drank coffee, napped, and did it all over again. On really special days she'd get a visit from her family. She'd struggle to remember our names, where we lived, worked, and the names of our partners or children. She was, very simply, alive.

Visits with my Oma in the last year were also pretty basic. After feeling frustrated with circular conversations that repeated details, I learned to just sit with her. We watched the news of her nursing home scroll by the local channel, she read the paper, sometimes I sat on my phone and caught up on my own news, and at the last visit, I cut and filed her nails for her. Because she asked.

These were the best visits. At the last one, Oma piped up sporadically with a memory. In her broken English covered with a thick Dutch accent, she said: "My hands, Stephie - they just don't work like they used to. I used to knit, knit, knit, knit. I could knit a whole sweater!" As she said this, she'd show me with her hands the movement of knitting, obviously longing to feel the satisfaction of a hard-earned accomplishment.

My Oma had in her mind and in her existence a repository of over 98 years of memories and experiences. And sitting next her during those visits brought out the most mundane moments. Memories of my dad as a young boy would surface. She remembered the bike he used to ride when they lived in Holland. But she didn't say "bike," she said "fiets". In her old age she was integrating Dutch words with English. I understood it. I spent months in Holland and had acquired a bit of Dutch myself and felt lucky to understand her even though her brain was slowing down.

In between these mundane memories, she would often offer me something more profound. We remembered my father at our last visit. We both teared up at her memory of him as a young boy who dreamed of one day being a truck driver. She threw up her hands and told me as she always did: “But we must go on, Stephie! We just keep going.”

This reminded me of an article I had recently read on how to survive suicidal thoughts, where the author states: "your only job is to stay alive."

I have focused a lot through 100 Resolutions on living purposefully and meaningfully. But maybe I don't have to work so hard at it. My Oma told me in one of our last visits that she still had so much living left to do. Because even at 98, she wasn't bored or disappointed or dissatisfied with what everyday had to offer her. She was eager and hungry for more.

My Oma and the life she lived remind me that we are required to do nothing more in this life but to wake up and face another day. Even when things are unbearably, unimaginably hard. Sure, purpose and meaning may exist. But maybe it isn't our responsibility to find it.

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