In 1986, my grandmother knew her physical death was imminent. Her kidneys had stopped functioning. She had a fever, loss of appetite and said she was "ready to go." I told her she wasn't going anywhere, as if I could will it. She was dying in her room at home with me, my husband and my two children.
One morning, I sat on her bed and she asked me to keep her wedding rings after she died. I said, "I have my own wedding rings, what would I do with another set?" She pragmatically replied, "Papa would not want them cremated with me." Then tearfully, she said, "Promise me you will keep them, maybe you will want them someday." Unconvincingly, I promised.
My wise and frank friend, Mary Jo, told me, "You probably hurt your grandmother's feelings. Your grandmother wants to know that the most valuable thing she has goes to the most valuable person to her. She wants a piece of her to live on with you." Mary Jo grew up with the importance of family and generational meaning. My mother and father died years before, leaving me with a few photographs and a trunk full of painful memories. I really didn't understand at the time, but I knew Mary Jo was right.
Fortunately, I apologized to my grandmother for my initial hesitation and told her that I would always wear her rings to remind me that she was always with me. The first few years of wearing them brought floods of tears. Now, dozens of times a day, I look at her rings and simply and lovingly remember her.
In 1995, my son wanted to get engaged. I asked him if he would like to have a ring made with the center diamond from his great-grandmother's ring and I would replace it with the center stone from my engagement ring. I could merge my set with my grandmother's for my hand. My sentimental son loved the idea. I believe my daughter-in-law wears that diamond with love and respect and an indirect attachment to my grandmother.
Rings and other things accumulate over a lifetime. Who might want what we have to give? Rare is the person who detects the hidden value of the gift. The giver remembers the photos that sat on the table or bookcase, where the family sat on well-used chairs, the guests who ate off the dishes and favorite meals cooked with the utensils.
The giver may be at a stage in life where he or she asks, "What was my life worth?" If the giver is elderly and ill, he may feel less useful or needed. I heard these feelings expressed dozens of times when I worked as a chaplain at Roswell Park and Buffalo General.
Children and friends promise not to forget the dying loved one. It may be painful to accept treasured belongings while the giver is still alive. Maybe our loved one won't die. My grandmother knew better.
She had always lived in a small apartment and retained few possessions. When you have little space, you have to carefully choose what to keep. Days before dying she firmly directed me: "Whatever you do, don't sell the mother-of-pearl tea set that your grandfather spent a whole paycheck to buy for an anniversary present for me. Give the desk to Aunt Dolly. Keep my earrings and wear them when you go out. Keep the five dollar bill in the prayer card -- never spend it, and you will never be broke. Put the St. Jude medal in your purse and you will never lose your purse. Promise me!"
The value of my grandmother's gifts has surpassed expectation. Her story lives on with every gift.