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How do you celebrate a life that was not appreciated during its lifetime?

“Oh, the worst of all tragedies is not to die young, but to live until I am seventy-five and yet not ever truly to have lived.”  ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

My Grandma Bessie has been ill for quite some time. She has lived her whole life with epilepsy and for as long as I can remember, she’s been diabetic. Last year she was diagnosed with early-onset of dementia. She  received that diagnosis after prolonged treatment following an epileptic seizure that caused her to fall onto a lit stove the summer prior. No one was home with her at the time, so as she seized, she burned. She’s been disfigured from her burning. Her face is scarred, the tops of her ears burned off, she lost most of an index finger and a thumb, and her scalp was so badly burned that most of her hair will not grow back. During nearly three months in the hospital and rehab during the summer of 2010, she contracted a staph infection and fell deeper into depression. During my autumn 2011 visit, she looked like a wizened caricature of her former self.

All this may sound horrible to you, and truly, my heart aches to think of the pain of my grandmother’s life and to look at how she wears her struggles, but her greatest ailment (in my opinion) is not one of the aforementioned diseases. Her greatest ailment is bitterness. Bitterness has choked out the concepts of joy, appreciation, grace, compassion and love. Her bitterness is rooted so deeply, I don’t think she knows when or where it was first planted. She’s hateful and mean-spirited and has cursed the lives of her children since birth. She doesn’t trust anyone and believes everyone is out to destroy her. Before you assume this is the dementia manifesting, I tell you this has been her personality and demeanor for my lifetime, the lifetime of her children and the lifetime of her marriage.

Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears. ~ Hebrews 12:15-17 NLT

As I write this, I’m on my way to visit her in the hospital after an attempted homicide and suicide. My heart is heavy on this trip because I keep thinking I could be returning for my uncle’s funeral instead of for a visit to my grandmother’s hospital bedside. She attempted to stab her son with a knife she had in her purse after he stopped her from leaving the house for an errand she didn’t need to make on a bustery cold winter day. In his words, “She almost got me, Shawnda.  I didn’t know she had a knife.” After he got the knife from her, she then swallowed handfuls of her medication. I asked him if she said anything to him during this ordeal. All she said was in the ambulance, “I’m ready to go.”

My uncle sounded so broken on the phone, so unsure of what to do and where to go, so bereft of help, that I told him I would be there the next day. His only response was, “Thank you.”

My heart broke for my uncle. How would I feel if my mother had tried to take my life simply because she had no desire to live her own? What a horrible memory to give your child.

My main goal for my visit was to sit and speak with my grandmother. And to pray over her. I wanted to hear in her own words what was going on with her. During the thirty-six hours between hearing of this traumatic incident and getting to her bedside, all I could think of was her life and the very real possibility of her death. What type of eulogy could she honestly receive? My heart grew heavier by the moment, not because of the circumstances leading to her hospital stay this time. No, what weighed on my heart like a  stone and dragged me down into a sadness that was incredibly difficult to face is the knowledge that my Grandma Bessie has not enjoyed her life. There is no joy to be found in her. Every story she tells reminiscing of times gone by ends in a string of accusations and curses of the relationships involved in the story. During one of my prior visits, she told me, while her home was filled with three generations of her seed (children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the ex-husband that contributed to this dynasty) that she “didn’t have shit to appreciate.” It was Mother’s Day.

Her words stunned me then and they continue to stun me when I think of them. My heavy heart comes from knowing that she has never valued her life or the lives of her children. How does a family celebrate a life that was not celebrated during its lifetime?

Personally, I think it would be the height of hypocrisy to celebrate the life of a person who didn’t know enough to appreciate the life that God gave them. Of all the family members I have lost during my lifetime, I’m sure I will mourn for my Grandma Bessie the most (when her time comes to cross the Great Divide) simply because she is a Believer who has chosen to exist and die without true knowledge of God, without learning the character of Christ and without inviting the Holy Spirit to purify and cleanse her.

“When they cry for help, I will not answer. Though they anxiously search for me, they will not find me. For they hated knowledge and chose not to fear the LORD. They rejected my advice and paid no attention when I corrected them. Therefore, they must eat the bitter fruit of living their own way, choking on their own schemes. For simpletons turn away from me—to death. Fools are destroyed by their own complacency. But all who listen to me will live in peace, untroubled by fear of harm.”  ~ Proverbs 1:28-33 NLT