I have not yet attended a funeral. When my mother’s mother died, not only had she been in an advanced state of Parkinson’s disease for most of my life. I was in the middle of school, and since I wasn’t particularly close to her, I ended up not attending the funeral. I didn’t have many memories with her, mostly around Christmas when we would go and visit California, and she would sometimes speak, shakily, quietly. I’m not sad that I wasn’t able to attend her funeral, I’m sad that I wasn’t able to get to know her better while she was able-minded.
My father’s mother, Lila Rhen, was much closer to me. She lived with us in San Jose – which I have very few memories of, but I’ve heard the stories many times. Myself as a very young child, walking along with my grandmother, and all of the cats and dogs coming up to me so that I could pet them.
She lived with us again in Niwot, Colorado. Both of my parents were working, and Lila helped take care of my sister and me. My memories of the time are few and far between, but I do remember that she had the room right next to mine, always with candy, bad TV shows, and, perhaps most stereotypically, the kind-old-lady smell: pleasant and soft.
My most vivid memories of the time are watching some sort of crime show with her and being very scared; playing StarCraft: Brood War and running around the house while she laughed kindly at me and asked me how my game was going. I explained that my main base had been destroyed and I was mining minerals from the adjacent one. She probably had no idea what I was on about, but she smiled at me and let me run around the house some more. As someone who now works with electronic media every day, I’m glad that she was supportive of my childhood shenanigans.
She volunteered at my school for a while – she had always been a teacher, and I think she enjoyed working with the precocious kids at the private school I attended. Her work earlier in life had been working with the mentally and physically handicapped, no easy feat, especially in the unsure era of the ‘50s.
When she got much older, that is to say, for the past few years, she was restricted from living at high altitudes without supplemental oxygen, which she refused to do. So, off to Minnesota with her. It worked out well for everyone except her – there was a lot of family within flying or driving distance, but she couldn’t live alone due to her memory problems, and the assisted living places were not good for making friends.
The last two times I visited her were very different. The first time was for her 90th birthday. Lots of family, food, reminiscing. She was bright and active, wearing a birthday tiara and opening presents. I’ve never learned a lot about my family on either side, and so to spend an evening talking with aunts and uncles and learning about Lila – her family, her trials, her history – was fascinating. Her career and life amaze and inspire me.
The second time I visited her was in, essentially, hospice care. She could no longer speak, and her memory was nearly gone. I cried a lot that trip. The thing that I really venerated her for was her stories, and those had been taken by age and disease. Lila the storyteller had already passed on then, and I sat and held her hand and cried.
I told her my secrets. I told her that I was going to marry Greta – only one or two other people knew this at the time. I told her that it was her who had inspired my life’s path of teaching, learning, and writing. I read her a story I had written and been commended for. She couldn’t speak, but I know she understood me because when Greta and Kristen rejoined us, she laughed and smiled and said, “mustn’t tell sweetheart.”
Lila Emma Maria Rhen passed away at around 5:30 this morning, Central Time, surrounded by family and friends.
When someone passes away, it’s possible to step back for a moment and examine their entire life. More importantly, perhaps, it’s possible to see the brief mark they left on the universe – everyone leaves one. For a small slice of time, they were here to talk and interact and create stories of their own. Lila left a lot of things with us, and comparatively few of them are material. She taught and raised children who now have children of their own. She worked hard to serve a country during wartime. I’ll always associate Australia and Sweden with her stories and pictures of those places. She instilled in many of us a love of story, teaching, learning, and critical thinking.
Thank you, Grandma Lila. I love you.