Choices, Lessons and Secret Gardens with My Grandma

I have been lately ruminating on how culture is woven into my life, and pondering deeply about how the choices I make every day are affecting my son. In search of wisdom and guidance about how to execute an upcoming choice, I took out my grandmother’s eulogy from two and half years ago. I wrote these words and delivered them at her funeral. I chose the task of delivering her eulogy because in the last days of her life I was gifted all of her journals, the secret ones that she had written in daily for years… written many things that, as far as I know, she had never shared with anyone in the family. Reading her own words as I sat beside her deathbed, I finally met my own grandmother, and suddenly the many confusing aspects of her life began to make sense. I began to see her clearly, and in so doing to see myself as well. I wished to share these few words about her life, particularly with my friends at Joy Mennonite church as I anticipate that a challenging agenda item during this week’s service may lead me to share a lesson from part of her life, and I wish for full disclosure to make a broader picture of her available here on my blog to anyone who might be interested.
(Of note, my Grandma Fisher was the first to introduce me to Tolkien. She made me watch the early animated version that combined The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It scared me to death! I had nightmares for weeks and poked the eyeballs out of my brother’s stuffed frog that reminded me of Gollum. Perhaps she should have waited until I was a tad older.)

Today, in the middle of 2011, I find it amazing to recall that my grandmother was born in the early years of the last century in a backwoods farmhouse with no electricity or indoor plumbing and amazingly lived a life that spanned a world war, a space race, the civil rights era, and a technological revolution. As a child she traveled around the farm on horseback and learned her letters by the fireplace and as a woman she flew in jet airplanes to the farthest reaches of the world and surfed the internet. How do you sum up such a massive life in a few short minutes?

When I think about my grandmother, I find myself coming back over and over to two words, Choices and Lessons. Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the choices Lois Fisher made that shaped her life and the lessons that she held dear. This task was made easier for me by the fact that five years ago when she realized she was beginning to suffer from memory loss, grandma passed on to her family a series of journals of recollections of her life so that today we can all hear some of her own words.

Grandma Fisher wrote about many typical childhood memories of eating butter and sugar sandwiches or licking ice from the ice box, playing with her brother and helping with chores. But through all these typical memories, I see threads of differences that hint at the fact that she grew up in a different culture and society than I have ever known. Her entire world was really just a tiny piece of Louisiana. This was the deep south, a place of segregation, separation, sexism and social control. It was a time when children were taught to speak only when they were spoken to and women were kept in their place Yet into this world of rigidness and rules was born a little girl with a secret itch to break them all.
Little Lois was a bright, intelligent child full of passion and spirit. She must have been the smartest girl any of her family and community had ever met.

She had a passion from the earliest age to learn. She wished she could read all day. She wrote that she was “so excited about scholarship that I can hardly restrain myself. I want to read everything that has ever been written about everything!” What a passion for education!

She had a passion to travel the world. She dreamed of far away places that her eyes had not yet seen. She dreamed of visiting Britain, the land of her ancestors, of “the green meadows, hedgerows, and forests of England… where the waves of the North Sea beat on the rocks and spray high… into the sun and the wind and the cold of the air.” She had a passion to feel the sort of cold air that would just never blow in southern Louisiana.

She had a passion for nature, to learn and experience all the wonders of creation. Animals were her friends and her fascination. About her time spent in the woods she would write, “I saw and heard the aliveness of another world.” She would remember the smallest details of a yellow-throated bird “stretching his neck as he whistled his ownership song.” “I think they are cave swallows and that they have a nest under the bridge. If I see them again, I’ll investigate.” She had a curiosity that knew no bounds.

Little Lois was from the start a passionate, intelligent dreamer, and yet she was born in the twenties in the deep south. What a time and what a place for such a unique child. She was pressed about on all sides by the need to conform, and she was smart enough to learn the rules, and people-pleasing enough to obey them, but there was a stubborn streak in her a mile wide. When her parents would lock her in a dark closet as a punishment, she would emerge thinking, Well “I don’t remember why I was put in there or what it taught me. I wasn’t afraid of it.” She was determined to learn things for herself. As the youngest of four children, she always felt as if she was being “bested by my elders.” “But my spirit wouldn’t quite let me give up, and so I fought ferociously.” This quietly passionate girl had to learn to be tough to survive.

Her passions and dreams and abilities were so far beyond what was proper for a good southern girl that Lois felt she never quite fit. Her love of letters and words and knowledge didn’t fit her for a farm life and so she looked around for a role model and found it in her town’s English teacher, a mentor she was very close to and who she describes as a woman who had “style – and education.”” If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be writing this now, I suppose.” “Somehow people stood in awe of her. “ yet “she was gracious – the the real meaning of the term. She made folks feel like they were somebody just to get to sit on the side porch with her. Her speech was crisp…but what she had to say wasn’t trivial.” This was little Lois’ ideal the kind of person she would always aspire to be. For all of her life she would strive to become an educator who was anything but trivial.
Choices and lessons.

Like all of us the choices the young woman Lois made shaped her life. She finished what schooling she had access to. She married young, and she had two beautiful rough-and-tumble boys, and she settled into a life on a farm. But a part of her was never really settled. She conformed to the pattern that was expected of her and tried hard to follow the rules, but all the dreams were still inside her and that stubbornly independent little girl in her heart just had to learn life’s lessons her own way.

So one day, she made a choice to dramatically change her life. She made a choice to leave her home and to follow her dreams. We could debate the merits and consequences of that choice, but one thing about it is beyond questioning. It was a brave choice, a bold decision. She left behind the only home she had ever known, every familiar face and comfortable place, her culture and community, and she drove off alone into a big wide world.

If you understand nothing else about Lois Fisher, understand this, she was a brave woman. Her choices led her off in search of her dreams. And perhaps not amazingly for such a uniquely talented person, she made all those dreams come true. She longed for education and she went out and got one. She achieved her master’s degree in English and became a college professor of English Literature and Mythology. She longed to read and by the end of her life, her own personal library numbered at more than 500 books. She wanted to travel, to see the world, and oh did she see it! Along with her dear friend, Maurene Stuckey, Lois Fisher explored the entire world. There were few places on this planet where her feet did not step, few wonders that her eyes did not see. She wanted to be an educator, to teach, to share lessons, to make an influence on her world and for more than 36 years she did just that. She taught and taught and taught and when she retired, the lessons didn’t cease as she continued teaching Bible classes and traveling the world to teach English.

Lois Fisher made a bold choice to chase her dreams and caught them. I see in the rest of her family how this lesson, rarely spoken of, has yet been learned. I see her son Warren, who after a career of service in the Navy made a bold choice to pursue his doctorate. I see her son Cary who in his thirties dreamed of going to medical school and made those dreams come true. Is it any wonder that this woman, who was passionate about learning, lived to see every one of her children and grandchildren earn their college degrees? Is it any wonder that this master educator lived to see every one of her children and grandchildren become, each in their own unique ways, educators themselves. A family legacy of bold, brave, brilliant dreamers. One woman’s choice that grew to become a family lesson well learned.

But, to a good teacher, every choice can have more than one lesson. In her middle years, Lois Fisher struggled with the consequences of that one choice. She wrote volumes of poems, stories and journals that all grappled with feelings of guilt and regrets over the choices she had made and confusions over the lessons of her own life. Many people during these years might have looked at Lois and seen only a proper Southern Baptist college professor. But her beautiful writings show what a free thinker she was with a hidden wild streak still left from her girlhood and a stubborn independence to always exercise her right to her own opinion.

As a child growing up and seeing her during those middle years, my grandmother seemed rather aloof to me. She was slow to hug, slow to say “I love you,” rare to express feelings of pride to my face, if all I knew of her were those childhood memories, I would be making a much shorter speech today. But she was able to write what she could not say, and because of that I could stand here all day long and quote her beautiful words.

“What I remember most about (Warren’s) teenage years was that he was meticulous. I regret that I missed the years after he was 15 ½ due to divorce.”
“ I pray for Betty this morning Lord.” “Enlighten her life to the riches You have for her to relieve all her burdens.”
“How proud (Cary) is of the new camera – and he has a right to be for a Leicha is the dream of every amateur photographer. I hope he can use it for some good purpose.”
“Terry is so ecstatic about her job. Such warmth and enthusiasm – so refreshing in this age.” “She and Cary went off with their arms around each other, and I was…glad they have each other.”

During these years my grandmother could write all the thoughts and feelings that she could not say out loud. All the grappling with the deep lessons of life was her private devotion. When other people thought that her career as an educator was winding down and she was heading into retirement, Lois Fisher was working harder than ever to come to terms with her past, to learn the lessons she wanted to learn. And slowly gradually the knowledge began to sink in, the prayers for forgiveness, wisdom, enlightenment, understanding and self-acceptance began to be answered, but in a completely surprising way that she probably never would have anticipated. My grandmother, Lois Fisher, developed memory loss that led to a diagnosis of dementia.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Who would ever think that an illness that causes memory loss could be the ultimate teacher? Who would ever think of dementia as an answer to prayer? I’m sure that this illness was never in Lois’s plans, but to a woman passionate for understanding, constantly on the lookout for the deep meaning in every event, for a woman well practiced in making brave choices, the Lord knew just how she would react.

My father recently wrote these words about her illness: “I am reminded of my own mother’s example when she chose to confront Alzheimer’s disease with trust. Mom is a single, retired college professor who has always been independent and self-sufficient, even to the point of being a compulsive “worrier.” Five years ago she began noticing her memory worsening, so she began making arrangements for her future and for ours. She made her own funeral arrangements, set up a trust fund, chose an assisted living center, sold her house and moved there. Now her memory has worsened and she can’t remember making all of those decisions, but she is happy, comfortable, and safe. Her anxiety is gone.”

Lois Fisher made a choice to trust. When faced with an illness that brings many people to their knees, my grandmother instead stood up, stepped forward, and made another brave, bold choice, a choice which in time would come to completely eclipse every other choice from her past, my grandmother chose to be the ultimate follower of Jesus. She chose to lay down all of the regrets of her life at His feet. She chose to learn the hardest lessons of life in humblest of ways. She met Alzheimer’s disease head on because she had her hand in God’s. And like her childhood teacher, she did it with style and graciousness.

In the last years, my family and I watched as a transformation occurred in her life. All the walls of properness melted away, the gates of formality were opened, and the passion in her soul came pouring out. She couldn’t get and give enough hugs and kisses. The “I love you”s flowed from her. She showed us again and again what the most important thing in her life was as she would ask over and over again, “How is the family?” On the day when she could no longer remember that I was doctor or recall any of my past accomplishments, she watched me caring for my son and said with a smile on her face and tears in her eyes, “I’m so proud of you,” and I understood what she had wanted to say all along, when she wrote that, “the closeness of family” is more important than any other “education.”

As her years were drawing to a close, my grandmother wrote, “ I think there is something to be said for a person who keeps his back yard neater and prettier than his front yard.” “More admirable, more humble, perhaps, – to have a beautiful backyard than a conforming front one. Something to do with the beauty for its own sake and not just to show off.” Anyone who ever visited Lois Fisher’s home knows that she lived out that sentiment. Her front yard was always neat and plain and conformed well to the rest of the street, but those privileged to step inside the high walls of her back yard would be greeted with a riot of colorful flowers and rich blooming plants. They would be introduced to the Barbara Bush-bush and be serenaded by the flock of birds that she constantly fed. A few stray cats, lovingly cared for, could be seen lurking in the bushes and a dog would bound up to greet you, and my grandmother would laugh and smile there more than any other place on earth.

At the end of her life, in the midst of what to most is a devastating disease, my grandmother herself became like that garden. She bloomed with all the love and passion of her life. She opened up the gates and let us all past the formal front yard, welcoming us into the beautiful backyard of her heart.

She was able to show with all of her actions and expressions the very soul of what she had written years before, “To live, to love, to do, to teach. What more? To capture some beauty – to leave a record of what I have considered beauty. I would like for my sons to look at my work and know what I felt, what I saw in the world that made me proud to live and what made me love.”

In the last days of her illness, my grandmother poured out her love for her sons in every way she knew how. In the midst of pain, her face would light up at the sound of their voices and the mention of their names. It was a full revealing of the passionate love for her sons that had been in her heart all along but was often difficult for her to say.

Lois was divorced far longer than the few years of her marriage. But an interesting thing to note is that none of us are here today talking about Lois Beall, the woman we all knew never hesitated to call herself Lois Fisher. About a year ago, when I had to sign my own divorce papers, I was given a sheet that asked me to write out the last name that I chose for myself. In a heartbeat, with no hesitation, I wrote down my son’s last name. And in that instant, I thought of Grandma Fisher, and learned a lesson that I had never realized she had been trying to teach me. My grandmother to her dying day kept her sons’ name. Dad, Uncle Warren, I hope that you can understand what a profound choice this was. Lois chose to forever connect her own name to the two men that she loved the most. Every time she wrote or said her own name, she was affirming over and over again the identity that she chose for herself. She was, down to the depth of her heart, first and foremost, Lois Fisher, Warren and Cary Fisher’s mother, and she wasn’t about to let anyone forget it.

Choices. Lessons. My grandmother was a planner. Years ago she planned every detail of this funeral from the flowers to the music to the verses read. One of the verses she wrote down was first Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child, but when I became I man I did away with childish things.” This verse brings up two questions to me. The first is, “Why did Grandma choose it?” She didn’t say, but I believe, that this verse was somehow a statement of the greatest lesson in her life. For years she struggled with her own choices, it was not until she faced the greatest battle of her life that she chose to put away all the childish things and grow up graciously with the Lord. The second is, “What lesson would this life-long teacher of my family want me to learn from it today?” It’s just a guess, but I believe, that she would say that it is a statement of permission. In these words I hear her saying to me that it is OK to put away all my childhood perceptions of her and see her adult to adult. I hear the woman who sought her whole life for understanding, asking me to step away from my old notions of who she was so that I can truly understand her. I think that she would choose me to remember her at the end of her life, when God was bringing about His perfect work in her and she was as close to resembling Him as she could ever be, when her heart was no longer fettered by any social conventions and when she overflowed with love for her family. I must say I am thankful for this lesson, thankful to be given this permission.

As a doctor I have seen countless patients with dementia, and I can honestly say that I never saw anyone handle this illness with more grace, faith and trust than Lois Fisher. Growing up, I always believed that for many reasons she was the family member I was most akin to, and I have to admit that this thought did not always make me feel comfortable and I frequently felt that the similarities between us made her uncomfortable too. But now, at the end of her life, at the end of her brave battle with a terrible disease, I see us both with adult eyes, and now I think that if, by the end of my own journey, I have made enough choices and learned enough lessons to resemble her in any way, that I would be proud.

I was proud to be with her in her final days and at her final moment. I was proud to hear her last breath and feel the last beat of her heart and to know without any doubt that at the end her heart was full of nothing else but love for her family. In my 12 years as a doctor, I have had the opportunity to be with hundreds of families as they dealt with the experience of dying. It is a part of my practice I find fulfilling. And when the last breath is taken, and the eyes are closed and death is pronounced, it is my habit to turn to the family and say:
“Thank you for letting me be a part of this moment. Death is a part of life. I am honored to have shared this part of your family’s life. It is my privilege.”

So now, Lois Fisher, my loved one has passed on to her reward and I have been a part of this precious moment of her life, and I find myself a little unsure of exactly who to turn to, who to address. So I will send my familiar words out to us all.

Thank you for Lois Fisher. To the family who loved her. To the friends who loved her. To the God who created her. To life, the universe and everything that shaped her. To the Faith, the Hope, that sustained her in life and sustains her soul still. To anyone who will listen. Thank you. Thank you for letting me be a part of this moment. Death is a part of life. I have been honored to share in Lois Fisher’s life. It indeed is my privilege.

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