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How My Grandmother's Long Life With Chronic Illness Gives Me Hope

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Saturday I will be a pall bearer with my two brothers and five cousins for our grandmother’s funeral. She is an amazing woman who lived 89 years in her own home and wore a mask for her respiratory issues, long before we all made them mildly cool. She stayed indoors, rested whenever needed and avoided any air that didn’t suit her at the expense of missing my wedding. When I was young, I remember many even suggesting that she didn’t need it, or that she exaggerated her illness. Like many of us hear regularly.

As I sat with her last week in the hospital knowing she would likely die from the pneumonia taking over her lungs for the final time, she told me with my severe asthma in her sarcastic quick wit as she held my hand and smiled, “Your breathing issues are your inheritance from me.” And we both just cackled, both of us in our masks. I told her she gives me hope, so much hope to live a long, full life.

woman holding her grandmother's hand in the hospital

She fought the chronic illness fight long before all of us. She had her lungs drained for months in the ’70s, wore a mask for decades, avoided smoke, used oxygen, took myriad medications and kept on going. She just did it, because it is what had to be done. She’s a strong farmer and a stronger woman that fought so hard and had to be told it was OK to finally let go by her children after a long and amazing life of three kids, eight grandkids and more than 20 great-grandkids.

I hope this can give us all a bit of hope that maybe we will live long lives. I know I worry about this, especially in my bad phases like now. As I was sitting in the cafeteria at the Mayo Clinic last November, I asked my mom if she noticed people looking at me oddly. She said it is probably because I am the prettiest one in there, because she’s my mom and she always says things like that. However, I looked around and it was more likely my younger age than almost anyone else being treated there. She said something about being there when I’m their age, and I joked, “If I make it that long.” That upset her, because even though my mother won’t be there to see it, every parent wants their kids to live very long lives. That was the first time I realized that I assumed I wouldn’t live that long. I don’t think I will pass soon, my condition isn’t terminal, but my symptoms are often compared to those of someone in their mid to late 60s and I’m 35 years old. I guess if you do the math, I figured the symptoms would be too much at 60 and so on.

Although, over the past month, my grandmother taught me to trust that symptoms are not constant and you can fight your whole life. Literally never give up fighting constantly and do it with a smile on your face and a cat in your lap. To do half of what this woman did would make me proud and happy. I love her and know she is up there telling me to keep fighting.

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Originally published: July 5, 2017
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