On Immortality

Lisa Otten

July 1, 2003

One of the smartest things I have ever done, I did this past summer. On a hot Sunday afternoon full of the deep brightness of mid-June sunshine, I walked with my father into the cool flat light of the Cleveland Clinic ICU ward. My tanned skin and easy movements were out of place in that world of white sheets on wheeled cots, and a hesitant hope wrestled with the first wave of loss that tightened my throat and made my eyes prickle. We were there to visit my grandmother, who had been admitted due to the presence of an aneurysm deep in her brain. It was expanding, and it was leaking, and they were telling us to brace ourselves.

My grandmother’s name is Arlene. She is the daughter of Charles and Mabel Lee. Her father was a traveling minister in the hills of Pennsylvania and passed on his notebook of pre-sermon jottings to his grandson, my father. In it, he suggests that there is a burden on parents to take seriously the responsibility of bringing their children up well so as to give them the greatest possible chance at good character development. He speaks of how the voices of those killed in the World War call to us from Flanders Field across the Atlantic Ocean, asking us why they died, begging us not to let it happen again. He compares evil to a snake in life’s woodpile – sometimes hiding and striking suddenly. Her mother was a strong woman who ran the household and was full of practical proverbs such as, “Take all you want, but eat all you take”. She supported her husband and raised three children: Eva Mae, Chester and Arlene.

Walking into the ICU ward, I looked for her. In a little room off to my right, an old man lay unmoving, hooked up to machines and surrounded by his family. They didn’t look at each other and they were not speaking. They were watching him breathe. Across the wall in front of me were cots full of unmoving people, each partitioned off from the other by a long white curtain. Each was accompanied by family members on folding chairs, cups of water on rollaway tables, and machines and tubes and tiny windows and little screens testifying to the fact that these people were, in fact, still alive. For some, like the person in the far right corner, it was only because of those little screens with the jagged heartbeat lines that you could tell they were alive at all. It was to that person in the far right corner that my father led me.

I hardly knew my great-grandparents, but from what I understand, they were deeply good people. Their youngest daughter is a woman that would make them proud beyond words. When I think of my grandmother, only the most excellent adjectives spring to mind. She is graceful. She is intelligent and has used it well for the benefit of those around her. She married my grandfather shortly after the end of the Second World War, and in the fifty-some years that have passed since she made those vows, she has raised two children and touched countless other lives through her work as a volunteer. There is a sweet dignity to her that comes from a life of loving deeply and serving well. She is one of those women of whom it can truly be said that to know her is to love her.

It was this incredible woman who was lying unmoving and silent in the far right hand corner of the room. In that twilight zone of midnight light and noontime shadows, I suddenly came face to face with the reality that paces hospital halls: there is not an endless supply of sand in the hourglasses of our lives. I will never forget the moment that I realized that she was old. Thankfully, she was awake, and as we sat there, my father, my grandfather, my grandmother, and I, we chatted about such things as how hot it was outside, and how only two days had passed since she was admitted. I watched her smile and pat my grandfather’s cheek as he shyly handed a fragrant rose to “his bride.” Before we left, I leaned over and kissed her cheek and said, “I love you.” I don’t know if she heard my voice crack, but I do know that she smiled back and said, “I love you too, sweetie.”

My grandmother survived the operation that followed and has very few of the possible effects all the doctors warned us of. Throughout those weeks of not-knowing as I wrestled with the mortality of one of the human pillars of my own life, I came to better understand my own mortality. If the sun rises, it must set, and I saw clearly that living walks hand-in-hand with dying. I am alive, but just like my great grandparents, and someday my grandparents and parents, I will die. However, my great-grandfather’s sermon notes sit in small black notebooks and water-stained file folders, and live even still. His words on proper childrearing yielding good characters are underlined in the lives of his children and their children. My great-grandmother’s wise lessons on things such as not being wasteful were learned well by her daughters and will be passed on to mine. I have seen my grandmother’s life of quiet dignity, selfless service and devoted love, and though her body will someday give out, the spirit that drove her need not. True, human beings do not live forever. The good news is that the excellence of the excellent among us is immortal.

Lisa Otten is a junior from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, majoring in Religion and Philosophy.