My grandmother died on January 1, 2007. She was my last living grandparent. Her name was Joy. She was 86.
The funeral was in a small Wisconsin town about two hours from Milwaukee. I debated about going - I live near Boston and it felt like a long flight and long drive. I'd miss being with my son for the weekend. Traveling to the funeral would jam up my work week. I knew I didn't need to go for my own closure.
There was one reason to head to the airport: It would mean a lot to my Dad. So I booked my flight, rearranged schedules with my son's father, told the people who needed to be told, located the appropriate clothing and packed my bag.
I expected the visitation and funeral would a sad and uncomfortable experience to simply endure. Yet instead I discovered moments of unexpected beauty. Her community of children, friends and grandchildren gathered to mourn and celebrate her life. The flowers perfectly reflected my grandmother's love of the natural world. The minister's eulogy captured my grandmother's essence; her spirit pervaded the room. I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it. The poignancy seemed to bring all of us into the present moment. My grandmother would have loved it.
There were other moments of unexpected beauty:
My grandmother's life was not perfect; she was not perfect. She experienced hard times, she suffered and was, in many ways, trapped in her times. And she was human with the usual host of faults and frailties.
But she saw the best in people. She searched for beauty and noted it as much as she could. She was unfailingly optimistic. She embraced unconventional thinking and she took risks. She was passionate about her causes and she stood up for them.
My grandmother nursed a lifelong passion for animals, especially dogs. She was the co-founder of an animal shelter that serves three counties. She also loved people - she participated as an elected member of both the town council and historical society. When a family member or friend needed a place to stay, they knew her door was always open. She was a longtime advocate of healthy eating and worked for several years in the local health food store.
It's the essence of Joy that strikes me now - the full force living, the optimistic viewpoint, the passion and zeal, and the ability to embrace the best in people. People liked having her around. What bigger compliment can there be?
After the funeral, my immediate family went to help clean out her room in the nursing home. At the bottom of a box, my aunt found one of my grandmother's rings. This one was classic Joy: a southwestern style silver ring set with an inch long turquoise stone. I remember her wearing this ring and others like it. I remember from childhood visits to her house - long before I knew what was important to remember, important to file away for future reference.
I wear this ring now. I like its boldness and color. I like that it's a bit too big for my hand. I like that it's not "proper."
True to form, my grandmother died on the first day of a new year instead of the last day of the old. I think she chose this day in her usual optimistic way. The beginning of a new year, fresh and unblemished.
While I believe that my grandmother was in many ways a complicated person, her optimism, compassion and ability to see the best were not complicated. They were simply expressed for the rest of us to enjoy and experience. This is her legacy.
What's your legacy? What calls to you? When you're 86 years old, what will people remember about you?
We each have a purpose. Find yours. Live it!