Catholic Herald reporter Jenny Snarski poses with her grandmother in Rhode Island days before her death. She, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was 95 years old. (Submitted photo)
Writer’s note: My grandma, Joyce Hale Robertson, after living with her oldest daughter (my mom, Cathy) for five years in Michigan, moved to Rhode Island in October, where my Aunt Lisa and Uncle Mark took over her caregiving. They had a Christmas trip planned that couldn’t be changed, and my mom was unavailable; I was able to fly out and stay with her. Having turned 95 on Nov. 27, Grandma was not terminally ill but had recently started hospice care. While she was mentally lucid, her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder increasingly affected her later years.
Almost two years ago, a tribute article for the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was put on my list of upcoming stories. I have thought about what to write several times, but I could never have known that reflecting on his legacy would coincide with that of my last living grandparent.
Joseph Ratzinger was born in May 1927 in a small town in Germany. Joyce (Hale) Robertson was born in November 1927 near Flint, Michigan.
Both were raised by simple and hardworking parents. Both faced real challenges during their young adult years that most of us couldn’t imagine; and for both, their adult lives and vocations took them places and gave them responsibilities for which they never asked. They both spent their final years with much prayer, trust in God’s mercy, an appreciation for relationships and still enjoying the companionship of music and cats.
When Benedict XVI died on Dec. 31, I had just said goodbye to my Grandma Joyce for what we both knew would be the last time this side of eternity. It wouldn’t be until Jan. 5, the day she passed in the early morning hours, that I would realize eight of her last best days had been spent with me.
From these two lives and two deaths, the one lesson I have received and would like to share is, simply put: Love Jesus. Whether you are a world-renowned theologian and former pope or an unknown nurse, housewife and mother, love Jesus and have hope because you believe in him. Share that love with others and know that it will come full-circle in this life and the next.
One night, my Grandma was upset, feeling that she hadn’t been able to really prepare for Christmas as Jesus’ birthday. As her health declined, going to church wasn’t possible and she didn’t even have energy to read her beloved devotionals. She loved the Christmas lights and decorations around the house, but she missed the focus being more on Jesus.
“I’m so glad you’re here for me to share these things with,” she said to me after recounting her life’s resume of Christian church membership – different states, different denominations but the same Jesus.
She told me how she and my grandfather started going to church regularly at the encouragement of his boss after the birth of their first child; the boss’ wife then invited her to a Bible study. This would be the beginning of her personal journey as a committed Christian – the only one in her immediate family.
She was emotional, wondering if she had done enough to pass her faith along to her children – two daughters, born almost 10 years apart – both believers and spiritual women, but neither having the same level of religious commitment she lived.
It was a Pope Benedict story I shared that seemed to comfort her.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, called “God’s Rottweiler” for his defense of Catholic teachings, was interviewed by Peter Seewald, a German journalist who would publish their interview as the book “Salt of the Earth” in 1996.
In Seewald’s foreword, he recounted, “At one point I asked him how many ways to God there were … The Cardinal didn’t take long to answer: ‘As many, he said, as there are people.’”
Using the “German Shepherd’s” words, I tried to show the ways her daughters did believe in God and were living that faith and showing Christian love through the years of attentive caregiving they’d provided for her and my grandfather. How they had been able to help her reconcile with challenges she had faced in her life and marriage and find peace of heart and forgiveness; how they participated in her devotions and her growing relationship with Mary. I connected the suffering she and my grandfather had lived through in their well-intentioned but ill-equipped marriage and the fruits it was bearing in the solid marriage relationships her daughters both relish.
I also assured her that I would carry the torch of religious practice – she often expressed her gratitude for the Catholic family I was raised in, living with my Dad and other Mom – in who I am, my marriage and family and the traditional values and sacramental life that are part of my family’s daily life.
On Christmas Eve day, Grandma and I read through Luke, chapter 1 and parts of John, chapter 1. It took a little patience on my part to sit for as long as it took us to read, but when I looked over at her, I was filled with respect, even reverence.
At 95, she knew she had lived longer than many people ever hope to. Over the years, I’d learned more specifics about the real, daily mental health challenges she struggled with her entire life. I’d seen firsthand many of the difficulties in her marriage and family life.
My grandfather was a very good man – one of those larger-than-life people whose own childhood tragedies formed his innate sense of showing love by providing security and opportunity – but his climbing the corporate ladder meant he wasn’t emotionally or even often physically present at home.
I had witnessed her consternation during my grandpa’s passing and funeral. The deep loss, which felt like an injustice of God, for never having had the chance to process and reconcile their relationship because of the dementia in his last years.
Here was this woman – so much more than the meek and mild Grandma I remembered as a child – with her deep-set wrinkles and clear misty eyes, poring over the pages of her Bible, fingering the pages back and forth, rereading lines as if to impress them deeper into her mind.
My own eyes dampened between those pages, and between the many intimate moments we shared during those days. I held her hand as she cried for things she wished she had done differently, for things she’d never had the courage or chance to say. We shared laughter and smiles of good memories, peace, of healing, gratitude knowing God had forgiven her for all her sins and mistakes. We shared embraces of hope in the forgiving of self-acceptance and unconditional love of family.
Christmas Day was a tough one for her physically. When I was able to improvise a nativity scene with Christmas cards, she lit up. Later, when I surprised her with the crèche atop the piano (thanks to my uncle saving his late mother’s set in their garage), her eyes were bright, even though there wasn’t energy in her lungs to sing Christmas carols we’d talked about just a few days before.
She wanted to continue reading from Luke 2 and then the nativity passages from Matthew on the day after Christmas; my heart melted at the tenderness with which she talked about Mary and Joseph. We contemplated what their feelings and frustrations must have been under the circumstances. Her intense desire to stay so focused on Jesus’ coming made me wonder how many people had even remembered Jesus on Christmas Day but come Dec. 26 had moved on to the secular holiday celebrations.
In a phone conversation Grandma and I had with my husband on the night of the 27th, she again told Denny just how grateful she was that I had been there to help her “really celebrate what Christmas is about.” She said how much it meant to her that we read from the Bible and added that she could read the nativity story every day and never tire of it.
The morning I said good-bye, we talked openly (as we had a few other times that week) about death – she reminded me that she was not afraid to die, she knew who was waiting for her and she wanted to enter those embraces. I chuckled when she did admit her worry about not making it to the potty chair – a lesson in itself – that she had the big things in order but still had basic needs and misgivings.
“Spe Salvi” (Saved in Hope) was Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical letter. He begins quoting Romans 8:24, “In hope we were saved.”
Redemption, or salvation, he writes, “Is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads toward a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the journey.”
He goes on to speak about the interchangeability of faith and hope. How a characteristic of Christians is knowing that life will not end in emptiness. “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well … The one who has hope lives differently,” the pope says.
Of the many lessons I have learned from my grandma, the real legacy she has left her whole family is love. The love she longed to give her loved ones but wasn’t always able to express in the ways they needed or hoped for. The love she kept trying to give and receive from Jesus. The love that her two daughters lived out during almost two decades of caregiving for their parents in one form or another.
Love that has been shared and witnessed to in good times and bad, in sickness and in health; love that has become respect, making hard choices and coming together despite strong differences. Love that has never given up, and though hard fought has showed up strongest when it was most needed. Love that was built on faith and hope and I know will continue growing as such.
In “Salt of the Earth,” the very last question Seewald asks Ratzinger is, “What does God really want from us?”
“That we become loving persons,” Ratzinger responds. “For then we are his images. For he is, as St. John tells us, love itself.” He says that God wants there to be creatures who are similar to him; who, “Out of the freedom of their own loving, become like him and belong in his company.” By this, he concludes, we collaborate in spreading the radiance that is God’s.
My conclusion from reflecting on these two lives, two deaths and their one lesson of love is that we seek out opportunities to give and receive love with our elder family members and friends. So often we only see their frailty and need, forgetting that they still have much to offer. In fact, the wisdom they share in word and being is likely what we need most in the younger years.