A Life Well Lived

When I was pregnant with my firstborn, a friend of my mom’s asked her if she was going to be “one of those crazy grandparents,” who couldn’t stop gushing over her grandchildren.

“No,” my mom said. “I won’t be one of THOSE grandparents.”

Ah, but she was wrong. When Mitchell was born in 2004 my parents lived in Indiana, but my mom came and spent the summer with us.

For the first time in my life, her attention was focused on a child that wasn’t me. Now I know what it feels like to have a sibling, I thought! But this was my child, and my mom was devoted to him.

And thus, the unique grandparent/grandchild relationship between my parents and children began. It only intensified (in a good way) when my parents retired and moved here five years later.

In a sense, it’s completely different from the relationship I had with my grandparents, in that they always lived 100-1000 miles away. But in another sense, it’s not so different, in that my grandparents were devoted to my cousins and me.

My dad’s dad (Grandpa McKenzie) was particularly special to us. To all who knew him, this man was known for his incredible patience and gentleness. He was born in Canada in 1918 and immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler. His father was Scottish and his mother Canadian.  He graduated from Ohio State at a time when it wasn’t so common to attend college. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought in Germany during World War II. He worked as an industrial engineer for years and sent three children to college in the 1960s and 70s.

By the time I was born in 1975, my grandpa had already defied death several times. In addition to putting his life on the line in the war, he also had two heart attacks in his late 40s and early 50s.

What I remember him for is the endless time he spent with me.  One of my earliest memories of him includes riding in the backseat of a car driving to Florida while he read old Christmas cards to me and let me comb his greasy gray hair over and over with his small black pocket comb.

He and my grandma retired to Florida when I was seven. My family stayed in the Midwest, but the distance didn’t matter. We traveled to Florida at least once a year, and they visited us. In fourth grade, my parents put me on my first plane ride alone to spend my spring break with them.

As I grew up, my grandparents continued to show up for every milestone in my life no matter how far away they were.  They were there for my high school tennis matches, prom, and high school and college graduations.

In 1996, my grandpa was diagnosed with kidney and colon cancer. He lived through it, long enough to see me and three more of my cousins get married and meet four great-grandchildren.

In 2006, the renal cancer that hit him in the 90s spread to his lungs. Ever the optimist, he entered a clinical trial.  The trial gave him a few more years of life until he started heading downhill again. In early 2008, both he and my grandma were admitted into Hospice.  She passed away in January.

Greg and I flew to Indiana for the funeral, knowing that it would probably be the last time we would see him. The funeral and family gathering were bittersweet as we remembered my grandma and said our goodbyes. Within the next three weeks, three of my cousins and I decided to travel one more time to see our grandpa before he passed. Of the four of us, my visit was last.

A few days before we were scheduled to arrive, my aunt told my grandpa, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, that Mitchell and I were coming that weekend.

“Well, I need to make it until then,” he said.

And he did. He was almost unconscious when we arrived, but when I held his hand and told him we were there, his eyes opened and he looked my way. A few hours later, surrounded by his family, he died.

Almost eight years have passed since then, but his legacy is still with us. I see his endless patience and dedication in my dad, who spends hours with my kids and makes it a priority to attend their sporting events. I see it in my aunt, uncle, and cousins.

Unlike him, I do not have endless patience, and I’m not always so laid back. But I think the attribute I admired the most about him was that he appreciated every day and moment with those he loved. Even during the years when he was sick, he never stopped loving life. I am only hopeful I can do the same.

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My grandpa, cousin, and I in 1983.

Community

A few years ago I attended a memorial service for a friend’s mom.  One of her friends who gave a eulogy talked about what a wonderful, fun, and loyal friend this woman was. She talked about their long-term friendship and how they traveled together, supported each other through difficult times, and laughed together.

I left that service thinking, “That is what I want someone to say about me at my memorial service.”

Because, friends have always been extremely important to me. Maybe it had to do with growing up as an only child, where there were no siblings to play with.  I had cousins, but none lived close by. My neighbors and school friends were my support system. And I saw it modeled in my parents’ lives as well. Never living near family, they relied on their friends – neighbors, colleagues, and church members – for their network of support.

That is why the years of 1998 through 2004 were some of the most difficult for me so far. Some say one’s twenties should be the best years of his or her life. But for me, who met my soul mate at age 19, they were lonely years of adjusting to a new community and a new environment.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved being married to Greg, but I had a tough adjustment to Lancaster County and farm living.

Adding to my loneliness was the fact that my first job in Pennsylvania was in downtown Harrisburg in an office where I was the only employee. I enjoyed my job, but I was simply isolated a lot of the time. Greg was a farmer, which meant that he worked long hours seven days a week.

My life improved when I found a new job in Lancaster. There I found friends and a community, albeit not the community where I lived. I still lacked a meaningful connection to the small town of Elizabethtown (pop. 11,545).

In 2009 circumstances in our lives changed, and I made the decision to quit my job to become a stay-at-home mom, something I never thought I would do. It was then that developing strong friendships in Elizabethtown finally took precedence.

I joined a mom’s group, where I met friends who, like me, had moved into the area. I became more active in my church and deepened friendships there. Once my children started school and got involved in activities, I met friends that way. I prioritized inviting friends to my home for meals and coffee.

After 17 years, now I have lived in Elizabethtown longer than I have lived anywhere else. The reasons I liked the area to begin with (proximity to Baltimore, Philly, DC, NY, and ocean; natural beauty; lack of traffic; prevalence of locally-grown food) still apply, but now I am tethered to the people, too.  And incredibly thankful that life has brought me to this place.

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Some of my wonderful friends