my grandmother’s legacy

Last Friday, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled unanimously to legalize doctor-assisted suicide.

“We do not agree that the existential formulation of the right to life requires an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying, or that individuals cannot ‘waive’ their right to life. This would create a ‘duty to live,’” says the ruling, as quoted by The Globe and Mail.

The right to end one’s own life is one of the biggest conversations of our time. Before anyone goes into a rampage about this on my blog, I feel that we need to remember that we are all human beings, regardless which side of the argument we take. The people on the opposition are also husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and friends, just like us. We all have our own experiences of pain; we all will one day face death. Regardless of how we each respond to suffering, these things underline the universal human experience. These things hold us all together. We must reflect on these facets of our humanity and remind ourselves not to point the finger, not to judge, not to jump to conclusions. The conversation is hard enough without us turning on each other. So before we default to the toxic, divisive, even hate-filled reactions too often brandished online and in social media, I think we all need to put ourselves in our neighbors’ shoes and remember that, like it or not, we are in this together.

That being said, I’m not going to comment on the ruling, whether I think it’s wrong or right. There are enough people with opinions about this, so I’m going to leave that to someone who has more education, more information, or more motivation than me. What I wanted to share is a story that came to my mind when I found out about this ruling, and that is the story of my grandmother, Concha. I used to call her “Nanay”, which in my native tongue translates to mother.

Nanay was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was in my early 20’s. My parents have always been really good at sheltering me from bad news until it was absolutely necessary, so I’m not even sure when exactly they found out that she was sick. All I remember is that in 2001, she came to live with us in Vancouver because she had started receiving radiation treatments. The full gravity of her sickness never really sank in until I came home from work one day and found her in the living room. She was folding clothes and singing, which was not at all unusual – my grandmother was fastidiously neat and was always singing church hymns – but what struck me was that she was doing this on her knees.

“How come you’re on your knees, Nanay?” I said.

She laughed and said casually, “Oh, because it hurts to sit.” She smiled and resumed folding clothes. She continued to sing.

She continued in this way through the year. Sometimes she felt strong, and would walk around the house in her quiet way, doing “exercises” that comprised of gentle air punches and windmills, smiling demurely. Other times she grew very wan and small, when she needed my mother to help her in the bathroom, and when the shadow of cancer hung heavy and dark over her like a big grey boulder on her feather-boned shoulders.

No matter how she felt, she always sang.

In the spring of 2002, I was accepted into business school. I shared the news excitedly with her. After celebrating for a few moments, a joyful silence came over the both of us. Then she said, “I think I can make it. I think I can make it to see you graduate.”

Later that spring, her condition worsened so that she needed to be transferred into full-time palliative care. It was a beautiful facility overlooking the water and the majestic mountains of North Vancouver. Whenever I visited, she always had a happy smile on her face. Her favorite part of the week was Wednesdays when the music therapist came to play music. Still, she would say, I sang better than the music therapist, so I could never get away without singing at least once for her.

“Can you sing for me? I’d love to hear you sing Here I Am, Lord. It’s one of my favorites,” she would say.

I would oblige, in the back of my mind always wondering if this would be the last time. She clutched her rosary in one hand. Her eyes would be closed, and she would smile while my voice filled the room.

On June 21st that summer, the doctors called my family to say that my grandmother was not doing well. It was well past visiting hours and I wasn’t used to being there at night, so the fluorescent lights seemed too bright and glaring. For the first time, I got a look at her countenance without the softening effect of the sunshine and I saw the reality of her disease and how it had wracked her body. Her skin clung to her bones, her lips were parched and cracked, her hair brittle and nearly transparent. She had an ice cube in her mouth; it was all she’d had to eat or drink in nearly two days.

Her eyes opened. She smiled. I sat next to her on the bed and she held my hand.

“Sing for me,” she said.

I tried to sing. I tried my best.

I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry; all who dwell in dark and sin, my Hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright; who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?

I don’t think it mattered to her that I couldn’t get my voice in control, or that the words were barely discernible as they left my lips. She just kept smiling and closed her eyes, letting the song wash over her like sunshine in the fluorescent-lit room.

Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, where You lead me; I will hold Your people in my heart.

In the early light of the next morning, surrounded by her sister, children, and grandchildren, she passed away in peace.

I don’t know what it is to suffer like she did, but thanks to her, I know what strength looks like. I know what grace looks like. I know what courage looks like. Strength is able to find joy in the midst of the pain. Grace is able to live life even through the suffering. And courage is able to face death and not protest, not cower, not hide…but sing.

One ruling was written on Friday, but the ruling in my heart was written long ago at my grandmother’s side on a summer evening. This is her legacy in me, and it is one that I hope to be worthy of, one that I hope live out in myself, and one that I hope to pass along to my own children and grandchildren, to my family, to my friends, and to all who come to know me. This is the legacy of strength, grace, and courage.

It is as much a commission as it is a promise. It is the reward of a life lived with love and faith. It is the fortification of character that can come by allowing oneself to be part of a greater whole. Most importantly, it is a gift that we give to ourselves and to each other as husbands and wives, sons and daughters, family and friends, sufferers and caregivers, all of us co-authors of one interconnected existence.

My grandmother suffered, and needed us. But through her suffering, she gave me what I could not have known that I needed.

Pain, suffering, and death are inextricable from life, but because of my grandmother I know that I will always have the power to choose joy, to live life, to sing. My grandmother chose, and her choice has forever empowered me with a hope that cannot be put out, that cannot be hidden, that cannot be stolen away. I don’t claim to be so brave as to invite suffering upon myself, and I wish that no one should ever have to go through such deep and prolonged pain. However, if I should suffer, I will forever be grateful to have her countenance in my mind. I will be thankful to have her voice in my heart. And her last words to me will continue to ring out in the most difficult of moments, as it did that summer night.

“Sing for me,” were her last words.

Even in the clutches of pain, sing.

Even in the depths of suffering, sing.

Even in the face of death, sing.