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Lahey: Endings And Beginnings

The phone doesn’t usually ring before six o’clock in the morning, so I knew before I answered it that my grandmother had died. She was in her nineties, and had been in a slow decline for months. Family had gathered by her bedside, and to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, she’d willed away what portions of her were assignable, and our eyes were long since wrung dry

I told my boys about her passing over breakfast, and I told them that we needed to create something new, a beginning to honor her ending. My ten-year-old, Finn, had already planned to head out into the woods to search for owl pellets, but evidence of digested and regurgitated rodents hardly seemed appropriate for a memorial. My older son, Ben, proposed that we could all share the beginning of the new Hobbit movie, conveniently playing at 11:45 at a theater near you.

I sighed. My boys hadn’t known my grandmother well, and despite their empathy for my loss, the conversation went rapidly downhill from there. I left the room disappointed - and determined to come up with something on my own, a meaningful memorial to honor all those years and all that life.

Ben didn’t even bother to look up from his piano practice as I left, and Finn swash buckled around the living room, waving a plastic sword he’d just received for Christmas.

As I paced around the house, I thought about the things my grandmother had done in her life, and the people she’d influenced. She’d outlived her husband and almost all of her friends, but thanks to her daughters, she’d never been alone. She lived with one of my aunts, and her other two daughters visited and spent as much time with her as they could, but they didn’t often agree, and deep rifts marred their ability to cooperate and communicate. In my grandmother’s final years, her daughters hardly spoke to each other, even as they arranged her travel between their homes.

This November, her kidneys and heart began to fail. The doctors advised us that she was in her final days, but she clearly had other plans. She was determined to see her great-grandchildren at Thanksgiving, and she did.

Then, as December approached, and her strength faded once again, the bonds between her children strengthened. They put aside their pride and dissent in favor of a common goal, and succeeded in filling her last days with love. Together, they managed to give her a death that mirrored her life, one enriched by and dedicated to her family.

And I decided that’s what would define my first day without her. I put aside my frustration and reconsidered my son’s suggestions.

I still wasn’t wild about the quest for owl pellets, but as I settled into my seat at the 11:45 showing of The Hobbit, I knew we’d found our own way to honor her life – a life that had been well-lived, and defined by common goals and the comfort of family.

Jessica Lahey is a teacher, speaker, and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She writes the bi-weekly column The Parent-Teacher Conference at The New York Times and is a contributing writer at the Atlantic. You can find out more about her work at
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