Lessons from Grandma Ruth at 101: Asking the Right Question & "Being"

 Jesse and Ruth at her home in 2014

Jesse and Ruth at her home in 2014

I journeyed to my hometown in rural Colorado to spend New Year's with my Grandmother Ruth who is approaching 101. It’s amazing that she is still alive. In fact, this is probably at least my 10th annual “last time to ever see Ruth trip” trip. My uncle David moved in a while ago to help her with the last few months of her life. That was 2 and half years ago.

I came bearing the weight of the perhaps crass question on most everyone's mind: Why is Ruth still alive? She lived to see her eldest son, my father, pass on, and none of us thought she’d make it through that. We’ve been wondering; ”What is she waiting for?” Is there some convergence of family constellations she’s waiting for? Something left unsaid, some experience left un-had that would set her spirit at ease.  As someone who feels called to help people in the death and dying process, I’ve been wondering for years “Is there something I can do, or should be doing? Is there some way I’m hanging on or some mystical pathway I am supposed to open up for her, so she can pass on?”

To be quite blunt, Ruth is withering away, she almost doesn’t eat, she’s sleeping 18-20 hours a day.  The passionate conversationalist and worldly political pundit reduced to repeating the same 3 questions about my son’s age, my partner’s name, and what exactly it is that I do, over and over again (the last one is understandable, I’m a leadership coach, what exactly is that anyways?:).

Ruth is a shell of her former self. She was a charter member of the Hemlock society and if the Ruth of 20 years ago was observing the Ruth of today,  all who have known her would agree she’d say “I don’t want to live like that.”  I spoke with my brother, the medical doctor and he wondered aloud “ is there some beauty in this end of life process, that I’m not seeing?” My answer, after days of sitting uncomfortably with the once brilliant and fierce Ruth was “no, not that I can see it’s just awkward.”

And then I spoke with Ruth. I was trying to find just the right way to ask why she was still alive. Here is how our conversation went:

“Grandma, how does it feel to have lived so long?”

Ruth: “It’s the pits.” And “I’m still here.”

So I’m thinking hmmm, that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it, so I tried again:

“Grandma, is the anything left you have to say or do, anything you want to experience before you die?”

Ruth: ”No. I have no special wisdom to impart.”

So I got quiet, the answers to my deeper question not having been broached and so I prayed for the right question:

Grandma what do you enjoy about your life right now?”

Ruth: “Being Alive."

She continued,  "I’m incredibly well taken care of in my old age. I love Sandy and Helene (her two long term caregivers), Joel (an old family friend) comes to see me every day, and it’s nice to have Dave(her son) here.”

Her response landed like a ton of bricks in the empty space of my mind: Holy Mackerel, we’ve been asking the wrong question for years. All of us.

It’s not “why aren’t you dead yet?” The right question is “What are you living for?”  Ruth is living for relationship, for the simple pleasures of connecting, both giving and receiving from people who care about her and whose life she makes better just by being alive. Her heart is still beating, her mind is still clear on good days, and she still enjoys simply “being alive.” Her circle of connection has shrunk, her capacity for action remarkable circumscribed, but she wants to be alive. It’s that simple.

I am aghast at my own arrogance—my assumptions and judgments about what another human would or would not find valuable about their own life. I’m shocked at my inability to recognize that someone might find value in their own life, because me, now in my present state, I imagine I wouldn’t want to live in that condition or that she doesn’t. I’m astonished that my viewpoint and lack of understanding was normal, accepted, and shared amongst most family and friends who have known Ruth. 

We have all been asking the wrong questions, refusing to simply sit and be with what is, and in doing so kept ourselves from having to feel the discomfort of simply “being” with someone who has absolutely nothing left to “do”, the awkwardness of connecting with someone whose life and usefulness we judge as being “complete” regardless of their perspective. And I’m embarrassed at the end result: Ruth is in far greater isolation than necessary. Not because her life is smaller, but because we don’t know how to “be” with what her life actually is.

This is the cost of our cultural insanity around doing, achieving, and striving. Our culture is terrified of both death and simply being. We have no idea how to understand those who have outlived there doing-ness, our perception of their “usefulness” and so we miss out on the simple but extraordinary presence our ancient living ones bring to Life.

Who am I to say what’s valuable? What defines a life worth living? How do I know what someone else’s experience is? Particularly if I don’t ask.  Now I’ve asked, and now I know.

There is nothing for me to do, there is no experience Ruth is waiting for, She is simply “being” enjoying her life as it comes to her in her mechanized blue recliner with loving help around.

Ruth never was one to make others comfortable as anyone who put on a few post holiday pounds would surely remember her greetings of “Oh you’ve gotten fat.” And she has stayed true to form. It’s not her job to make us comfortable by dying because we can’t see the value or joy in her life. Thank God.

I’ve been integrating the power of this simple and potent exchange for days. How does this relate to my people, to high impact leaders who are dealing with huge life transitions? Amongst many learnings this exchange highlighted the unusual power that lies in asking the right questions. And that the impact of that question, the right question, is often on us, the asker. Thank you for your wisdom, Ruth.

Just like my dad, Ruth, in her own way is dying a good death by being fully alive.  Ruth remains imparting wisdom to those who have ears to hear. 

Thank you Grandma,

Love you. Jess

Jesse and Ruth at Wedding
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