My loving and adorable Gramma left us before dawn, this morning at the age of 95. I don’t believe she is actually gone, of course. We just can’t see her or hear her in the same way. But there is still an emptiness in our family, and I wanted to share her story from the perspective of aging purposefully.
Her name was Helen Tesora Givens. She hated her middle name, but I never understood why. Tesora means treasure and she was absolutely a treasure. She was a homemaker for most of her life and she was great at it. I had the privilege of living with her and my late granddad in college. I learned a lot from her, and I gained much more than the “freshman 15” at her house. When I moved in, they had been empty nesters for many years and my grandmother was already in the process of reinventing her purpose in life. She often lamented that she had never had a career and wondered what she could have been and done. But Helen Givens worked a great deal in the second half of her life, and it was completely powerful. She volunteered with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and then moved on to raising money for her local YMCA, some of her biggest work. She was tireless and she was rightfully honored for her dedication.
About two decades ago, my grandparents decided to move closer to the majority of their children and grandchildren. Relocating in retirement is always a risky decision because people leave behind their social networks and their familiar surroundings. It is a stressful situation and some people don’t thrive in their new environment. People have to work hard to build a new life and it takes time. But they did. While my grandfather continued to consult in his long-time line of work, my Gramma reinvented herself again. She made friends in her condominium complex and became heavily involved with her local city government. She put tremendous effort into gaining support for a new fire station. Every time I see that beautiful building, I feel so proud. She must have felt the same.
You don’t have to have held a conventional job to be able to enjoy a retirement phase of life, a reinvention phase. Helen Givens was proof of that. She didn’t sit around doing nothing. She made herself a reason to get out of bed every day, to be needed.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, no one can outrun age forever. We aren’t supposed to. We are supposed to live in a body for roughly 100 years and then we are supposed to step out and move along. And I guess I do mean roughly. It isn't an easy road for any of us.
We will have learned the lessons we came to learn and then we need a breather. My grandmother understood that. Macular degeneration and severe back pain made it too difficult to continue her volunteer work a few years ago. Whether she was whining on the inside, I don’t know. But on the outside, she always stated she accepted her physical changes and felt she had been lucky to have had fairly good health her whole life. She knew that physical challenges could be expected in her 90’s yet she was still an incredibly grateful woman. It was hard for her to accept that she was not able to be as independent as she wanted to be, but she knew she was blessed with two loving daughters to help her daily. At this point her purpose had changed to being a quiet teacher of her family. It’s not an easy job being the “cared for” instead of the caregiver although it is as impactful to others as any other work. She was truly a treasure and role-model for how to age well. I will miss her.