A Life in Full

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Most of us, at one time or another, have pondered what we would do if we were told we had a specific short time to live. Usually, the proffered answers involve traveling, living it up, smelling the roses – stuff like that. It’s a fun intellectual exercise. Unless, of course, it’s for real.

I knew someone who dealt with this exact dilemma, for real.

About five years ago, my sister-in-law Ronnie received a devastating diagnosis. The asthma she had dealt with all her life was not asthma at all. She had a previously undetected heart defect, and the symptoms of this affliction mimicked asthma, and that’s how she was diagnosed as a child. Forty years later, the real cause was discovered, and the prognosis was grim. Her heart had been severely damaged over the years, and was liable to fail at any time.

The doctors proscribed some radical drug therapies, but warned Ronnie that it would probably only prolong her life for maybe six months. Heart transplant was not an option – she wasn’t well enough to survive the surgery. What would you do, faced with this situation? Let me tell you what Ronnie did.

Ronnie, who had two children and several very young toddler-age grandchildren, asked my wife, a child development professional, “How old do my grandkids have to be to have memories of me?” My wife replied, “They would need to be about 7 to have lasting memories of you.” So Ronnie set out to live her remaining time in a way to ensure she would be a lasting part of the lives of her family.

She endured some radical drug therapies that left her too sick to move for weeks at a time, and when those therapies stopped working, she submitted to others, just as difficult. She needed to have pure oxygen at all times, but rather than have a tube up her nose, she had a line installed into a hole in her neck, and trailed an oxygen line to a tank or an oxygen generator every minute of the day.

And she lived. I mean really lived. She played with her grandkids, enjoyed her children, and was the absolute life of the party. She went on a cruise to Mexico, and danced in the disco, oxygen tank and all. She had a wicked sense of humor, and laughed easily and often. She did scrapbooks of memories with her grandkids, as they grew older. She got married, and the Blue Moon Brothers played bluegrass at her wedding. Charlie Waller’s song “Lady with the Flower in Her Hair” was her favorite song at the wedding.

Ronnie’s six month “life limit” came and went. She had a one year wedding anniversary, and then a second, and a third. And her grandkids went from toddlers to school age children, and she became a big part of their lives. From time to time, therapies would cease to become effective, and she would be in critical condition while doctors scrambled to try something else, and when they found something that seemed to help, she would spring back, and the good times, and the jokes and the laughter returned again.

But each critical episode took something out of her, and she gradually got sicker. Finally, last week, she deteriorated to the point where she needed to be airlifted to the hospital, and doctors told her, as gently as they could, she would not be leaving. And this time, they were right. Ronnie passed away last Saturday night, with her sister, her daughter, and best friend at her bedside. The doctors gave her months to live, but through force of will, she took years – she would not be denied the chance to impact her grandhildren’s memories.

Ronnie’s bravery and spirit were an inspiration while she was alive – to the point where we all sort of thought she might actually never die. When we heard she was near the end, it was unbelievable, and shocking, like a fairy tale revealed to be untrue. My wife said she took the inevitability of her impending passing with the same bravery she exhibited since her illness was first discovered, and she died with dignity.

We are so blessed to have known someone like her – I would hope I could show the same courage and cheerful spirit if I were presented with the same circumstances. But I doubt it. She was special. Next weekend, we will sing “Lady with the Flower in Her Hair” at her memorial. Rest in peace, Ronnie, your friends and family (including your grandkids!) will never forget you!


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