10/3/97) KYTYK _ Annie, 88 years. Grandmother, mother, sister, wise woman. Born Annie Peidwerbeski near Borden, Saskatchewan a lifetime ago, she grew up poor on the prairies. The eldest of many children, Annie left school at an early age to support her family and eventually fall in love. She married Peter Belyk and together they had three children, Sophie Anne, Nestor and Andrew. Annie survived the Depression and the tragic death of her first husband and second child. She later married Nick Kytyk and moved from full-time farming, eventually retiring to Saskatoon. She took great pleasure in gardening and always gave thanks for small miracles like rain and sunshine. Annie is survived by her daughter Sophie Anne; her son Andrew Peter; grandchildren, Melodie Anne, Kirk, Kerrie, and Merrin; brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, and nephews. We will miss shelling peas with her, the taste of summer borscht, gazing in amazement at her wonderful garden and the sparkle of her eyes…windows to a soul who knew much pain in this life, but gave great joy. Plant a tree, a bulb, a seed in memory of Annie Kytyk.

I wrote this obituary for my grandmother in 1997. When I submitted it to our local newspaper, the sales woman strongly recommended a different kind of obituary; more factual, less emotional. “An obituary has to be written a certain way,” she explained. I didn’t know it at the time, but this marked the beginning of my exploration into how to prepare for the end of life.

When someone we love dies, our hearts are cracked wide open. Grief, if allowed to flow, will heal us. It’s the opposite of “putting on a brave face”, which is what many of us are taught to do. In my culture, it’s all about stuffing down emotions, being strong and not making others uncomfortable with your feelings.

I had experienced death before, including my father’s, but when my Grandma died, grief kneecapped me.

Her funeral was organized by the Spiritual Counsellor at the facility where she had been living, in very ill health, for years. Although well intentioned, the on-call Counsellor could not possibly have known the woman Grandma had been before her stroke. He did not experience her power in its prime, he had never heard her speak.

No one could have known the kind of funeral she might have wanted because, when she was healthy, no one had asked her. I suspect that, if Grandma had wanted to talk about her end of life, we would have brushed her words away and accused her of being morbid. It’s what we said when she told us she wanted her body donated to science. She was very clear about that.

So, there would be no body. But what would there be?

Our Grandmother had given up attending church years ago; she preferred a more one on one relationship with God. So, there was no church tradition to call upon. That her memorial service would be a humble and understated affair was understood, but could we play music? Did we tell stories? In a family where shining the spotlight on oneself was deeply discouraged, what did we do? It was if we were suddenly thrust on stage without a script, in the most painful improvisation of a funeral.

The well-meaning facilitator greeted the family as we entered the bare conference room. My sister and I had driven the 8 hours together, and had talked about playing a song at the service. We had decided Sarah McLaughlin’s “In the Arms of an Angel” had resonance, but were discouraged by our shy uncle. In hindsight we might have thought about music she would have be familiar with and loved, but we didn’t know what that might be.
Awkwardly, we took our seats beside her neighbours and friends and waited.
The Spiritual Counsellor finished his pragmatic observations on a life well lived, and asked if anyone wanted to tell a story about Annie. Like guilty students who avoided the gaze of a disappointed teacher, our eyes locked to the floor. After a very long and uncomfortable pause, throats were cleared, deep breaths taken, and a few brave souls made the dutiful walk to the microphone. My brother was one of them.

He spoke of our Grandmother’s unconditional, unending, at times unrelenting love. She was a constant in the darkness of our family, an anchor we would have been lost without. His voice broke as he recounted how, bending in half at the waist while weeding her garden, she would offer a handful of the summer’s first peas or raspberries. He smiled recalling her initial encouragement and later, impatience as she taught her city grandchildren to bait a hook and lake fish. He sighed as he imagined inhaling the comforting warmth of her Noxzema scented hugs.

The whole-heartedness of his story, laced with emotion and honesty, cast a soft light and connected the listeners. It prepared the ground for others, mostly men, and seeded courage for them to speak staccato thoughts as they described this iconic prairie woman: kind, generous, hardworking, rebellious. Their words built to a crescendo, with a story told by Mr. N, the farmer whose family had worked the land adjacent to Granny’s for a generation or more. Although we had heard his name spoken often, we had never really met him.

Mr. N, I imagined more accustomed to wearing suspenders than a belt, tugged at the waist of his pants and planted his feet at the microphone. He began by saying the reason he had the courage to speak at all was because, with Annie gone, he was the only person left who knew this story.

We held our breath as he lifted us up to reveal the fading warmth of a late Saskatchewan Sunday night 60 years ago. The orange September moon hung low in the sky, lighting the neighbours as they worked to harvest the wheat. Everyone helped everyone as it was a make-or-break race to get the crops off before the weather turned. An ancient combine moved slowly forward, creating a thick cloud of deep brown dust in its wake. Blades spun as it threshed and winnowed, the machine-gun hum filling the cooling night air. As the combine turned to reap another row, the hum suddenly stopped, and the combine whirred into stillness. The men gathered around, curious and nervous. Delays during harvest were never good, as the cash value decreased the longer a crop was left on. Mr. N saw the rubber belt that turned the pickup wheels was missing, and without it, knew continuing would be impossible. Farming offered little margin for error, and a new backup belt was at least a day away.

Mr. N described a growing heaviness and the smell of gasoline, dirt and defeat.

In the midst of slumped shoulders and shaking heads, Grandma, then eight months pregnant with her youngest child, our uncle, quietly pulled her moist bare feet from the leather work boots, and walked thoughtfully around the silent combine. She tilted her head as if listening, and began to follow the path back, stepping into the centre of the threshing wake, bare feet sweeping the bristling ground. Under the light of the late harvest moon and unable to accept the bad luck of a broken belt, she shuffled slowly as she flexed her toes into sharp stubble. I imagined the smile on her face as her bare foot nudged up against the hard licorice rubber, wondered at her ability to bend over, heavily pregnant, and lift the belt in her hands. The matter of fact-ness of her voice. “Here, over here.” Perhaps the collective exhale of the men, relieved, and her own husband, his burden temporarily lifted. Certainly, she earned the admiration of her neighbour Mr. N, as he threaded and looped the prize between the take up wheels. The combine again groaned to life and the blades began to spin. Shifted into gear, it moved forward, to complete what had been started before the sun came up the last time. As if the dust of that long ago harvest still scratched the back of his throat, he coughed, “and that’s my story of Annie.”

It’s a story we had not heard before. The story of a brave and resourceful woman who saved the day, a hero’s story. Yet our Grandmother, too modest or imagining herself too small, had never bothered to mention it.

Mr. N gingerly stepped away from the microphone and back to the safety of his folding chair. The energy in the room became quieter, as those gathered looked around for someone else to feed the flame.

But no one else rose. The room cooled. Grieving and uncertain, our words blocked by the lump in our throats, my brother and sisters and I watched the moment dissolve. Released from the spell, people pushed back their chairs and funneled toward the tables at the back of the room.

In their dark church suits, old men drank strong coffee, while wives balanced butter tarts and brownies on paper napkins.

We had nothing to say. Although we visited her farm in the summers, we did not live here, and had no news. Granny had belonged, we did not.

Uncle Bill, a favorite and the family historian, approached as I hung at the back of the room and watched as the strangers slowly filed past.

“You should have said something. You’re a story teller, you should have told a story.”
His words stung.

I should have, but I didn’t know how. We didn’t know what to expect, how to behave, what our Grandmother would have wanted. We knew we loved her deeply, missed her terribly, but had no guidance around what to say and how to say it. We didn’t know what was appropriate, didn’t understand the ritual of a funeral. We didn’t know what to do when someone dies.

So, when my mother moved from her home of 30 years to her new seniors’ residence, it was time for difficult conversations. She barked that I was too nosey, and I accused her of being in denial. I was outraged and she was defensive. It was an old song for us, and we sang it with the usual dissonance. We stopped speaking and called in the cavalry, in the guise of Nan, an elder, wise woman, and lawyer. Turns out she is also a wizard at conflict resolution.

Wills were updated, legal documents signed, and funeral arrangements discussed. I knew what Mom wanted, and had the legal authority to act and ensure her wishes would be honoured, in the event anything should happen.

We had no way of knowing that, in less than a year, she would suffer a profound stroke.

Had we not waded through those difficult conversations about life and death, and worked with a lawyer to make sure everything was in order, the post-stroke reality would have crushed our family. Planning thoughtfully for her end of life, doing the work and communicating this with her children was a watershed moment.
It was uncomfortable, difficult, and filled with emotion- yet it deepened our connection. For the first time, I felt as if we were able to shrug off the hurts and resentments of the past. We were taking care of each other. I’m not talking about obligation or duty, but love.

In the last year, as we’ve come to terms with life-after-stroke in a Supportive Living environment, we’ve also begun work on her official, authorized biography. Her obituary.

It’s taken a few months to get to a more-or-less final version, but we have it. And in the process, I have gotten to know my mother in a different way. Her words are elusive now, but through yes or no answers and her myriad facial expressions, I’ve been able to let go of my idea of what her story is, and truly hear it as she lived it. She has the perspective that comes with age, and reminds me time softens most heartaches. I ask questions, she answers, then I go away and transcribe what I think I’ve heard. We’ve explored the stories that are important to her, and discarded the ones that no longer have meaning.

Communicating in this new, mostly wordless, way is hard work and takes patience, which is not my strong suit. When it works, it works though, and we find ourselves grinning like drunken thieves.

Sometimes, after our writing sessions, her wheelchair tray littered with old photos, we will simply stare at each other. For a very long time. Rather than being sad or maudlin or even cringe worthy, the love I feel as we look at each other honestly and without judgement heals my soul. These strange and wonderful moments help calm the waves of sadness and sorrow that have threatened to drown me.

When we’re finished gazing at each other, she will blink and smile, and we’ll draw an angel card from the purple box on the table. We have both become very curious about what happens next.
(I’ve included some links at the end of this post if you are curious as well.)

Yesterday, as I was leaving my Mom’s home after dropping off laundry, I saw S., the administrator, waiting at the front doors for an ambulance to arrive. She’s got a big heart, this one, and likes to greet new residents, who often arrive by ambulance.

“Is someone coming or going?”, I asked.
“Going.” she replied quietly.
We both knew what that meant.

If you are interested in what happens next, consider booking a session with Sarah Kerr, who uses the power of myth and ritual to help the dying, and their families, grieve and prepare for transition.

Janine Violini and Jamie Whittaker offer hands on, practical advice about what to consider as you prepare for end of life. Their workshop “Getting Your Crows in A Row” is invaluable.