Ettie never told me that “My mission in life is not merely to survive; but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.” (Maya Angelou). But she had lived this… She thrived.
Now her life was about waiting. She had grown more patient with age.
The piquant aroma wafted down the hallway, rising from the kitchen stove where a pot of soup was being stirred while Ettie and I were quietly talking in her room. I had become accustomed now to the coming and going of neighbors and family members who would peek their heads around the corner to check in, and usually head for the kitchen to taste the always ample supply of something savory. Ettie was surrounded in her little bedroom by pictures that told stories of both dead and living family members and photos taken in her younger years (she was such a fashion statement with a huge grin like a “cat that ate the canary” that showed how vitally she lived her life!) At the bedside table was a bouquet of flowers that her daughter made sure were fresh from the flower garden out front of the old bungalow. She hadn’t eaten much these past few days, and her loving daughter was trying to tempt her with all the best family recipes, while sharing secrets of seafood gumbo with me. Ettie was diminished to an emaciated 87 pounds; her huge dark eyes sunk deep into her wrinkled, smiling face, with a shock of dark corkscrew curls tinged with grey that belied the fact that she was nearly 90 years old.
I had not felt completely comfortable at first, appearing an oddity in a neighborhood where my ethnicity was noticed as I carried my nursing bag into their multi-generational home. But Ettie set me immediately at ease, with her southern drawl and hospitality, making me feel as though I was many miles away on a porch swing sipping sweet tea. I was also welcomed by her daughter who shared the cancer story with hints of anger at the medical system: “Mom’s doctor wasn’t really paying attention to an old woman with aches and pains, not giving her any treatment” until her disease was very advanced and then being told “there was nothing more they could do”. Her daughter was overwhelmed with the coming and going of life; in the midst of the “sandwich generation”, trying to juggle her work with the care of her mother (which was daily becoming more burdensome) and her own daughter who was now hugely pregnant. Everyone was visibly harried, readying for a new baby shortly to enter their household and an ancient matriarch soon to leave this life: frantic preparations, doctor appointments, family coming and going at all hours.
Except Ettie, who seemed the very picture of serene repose. She patiently lay in her bed, and relished the anticipation that exuded from every crevice of their home, and was excited without being nervous about the things awaiting their family. There were frequent jokes about her queenliness, as she ordered the family around and made sure her recipes were followed; the supervision was gladly tolerated. She told me she had “tried a lot of things to stay a little longer”, but was ready now to “go be with Jesus”.
But not quite yet. “I’m gonna have to hold that baby first.”
I heard many stories about her growing up years in Louisiana, the youngest daughter in a sharecropper’s family of 9, and how she got out of the generational poverty when she moved to the northwest, went to college, and became one of the first “Black women to graduate from the university”, along with her older sister. I could visualize her momentous achievement punctuated with that huge smile that lit up her beautiful face.
“Overcomer” is the word that comes to my mind. Overcome the naysayers, who believe you cannot jump out of the mold you were born into; overcome the constraints of poverty and prejudice; overcome the self-doubt, and become a person who can look back on their life and be proud at the obstacles surmounted, the accomplishments attained, and the loving family that surrounds your bed as you are exiting this life.
Ettie had told me her plans to last until she got to hold her first great grandchild in her arms. No surprise, the woman who had overcome so much in the prior decades, she even overcame a body riddled with cancer just a little longer. She did indeed survive just long enough to smile that contagious smile while holding a new little great granddaughter who battled her way into the family, and they took pictures to last past a lifetime with all four generations of overcomers.