Sunflowers for Mimi

I am writing this for one of my biggest fans. She wasn’t a sports fan, and she probably did not read much of my stat analysis, nor care for my historical looks at NFL players. Nevertheless, she would tell everyone she met about me. Her favorites were posts like this one, where I got a little more personal.

Well, except she wouldn’t like getting personal in this one, because it is about her.

Monica Elaine Smith wasn’t born in 2007, but it was the year she got a new chance on life. That year, she almost died when we were returning from a family trip to Sanibel Island. The doctors say that if the plane had landed just a few minutes later, she probably would not have made it. She was diagnosed then with something called ARVD. She had an ICD inserted, nicknamed “Sparky”, which would shock her heart back into rhythm if it could not pace her.

For some, that would have been a prison. For my mother-in-law, it was a revelation. We often say that we need to savor every moment, appreciate what we have. It’s hard to remember to do that, though, unless you have received a shock to the system. While we worried about her overdoing things and ending up in the hospital, she worried she would miss something.

She rarely did. Mimi–as she has come to be known in the under ten crowd–has ten grandchildren, seven more arriving after that fateful day in 2007. She was there with donuts and balloons on special occasions like the first day of school. She was there for every play and ceremony and party, always taking pictures, always making her grandchildren feel special. She was at virtually every kids’ sporting event, even when we begged her to stay home because it was too hot, or too cold, or the walk was too long out to the field. For this past Christmas, she spent countless hours sewing different colored sock monkeys for each of the grandchildren.

That spirit carried over everywhere. She made everyone feel like they were special. Mother-in-laws have a stereotype to live up to. She failed, alas, in that regard. Would I be here today without her support and behind the scenes encouragement to my wife? I doubt it. That may not seem like much, but how many mother-in-laws would be supportive when the guy that married their daughter wanted to stop being a lawyer and write about sports on the internet? Not many.

When she went into the hospital for a heart transplant in early March, we were hopeful that she would be able to take those long walks to the football fields and go to the zoo, that she could regain a large chunk of life that was becoming difficult with each passing day. An hour after she came out of surgery, the right ventricle of the new heart stopped. For what seemed like the tenth time, we thought we were losing her. She fought back, and miraculously, that heart started working when at one point, we were told there was no chance. We were with her on a mental, physical and spiritual roller coaster for 96 days in the hospital. One could, I suppose, question why this happened. Why did the heart come back only for her body to be overcome by sepsis, for the rest to fail? Why did the new heart fail in the first place? We were told after she had been in the hospital and her original heart removed, that she actually had Cardiac Sarcoidosis. Would it have made a difference in treatment, or would she have been on a progressive path to transplant regardless over the last six years?

Of course, when we ask those questions, we must also ask, “why did she survive in 2007?” I choose–though in individual moments we can certainly feel differently and question those things–to view her as the luckiest woman for getting to see and influence her loved ones for almost six more years, rather than the unluckiest for the final three months of that time. Those final three months had there own small blessings through rough seas as well. We got to see her indomitable spirit, driven to come back through each setback, motivated by love and the pictures of her grandchildren that she would gaze upon. I will forever cherish the late nights spent in her room. We got to each talk to her and say goodbye, to tell her we loved her.

Whether feared or caught unaware, drawn out or sudden, old or young, death is not easy. In just the time that Mimi was in the hospital, we have seen a very public bombing in Boston, a tragic explosion in West, Texas, tornadoes in Oklahoma City, and people both famous and infamous pass away. Perhaps you know someone and have been grieving a very private grief as well. All we can do, really, is live our lives as well as we can each day, and cherish what we have while we have it.

Mimi understood that, it was the greatest gift that she gave us and her grandchildren. For the second time in eighteen months, we have had to hug our children tight and tell them about the death of a grandparent. It will surely be a life-shaping and molding event in their lives, just as she was around to mold them for six more years. I hope the shaping is not one of negative thoughts, but this:

You cannot control the length of your life as much you might think. Control the depth.

[artwork by Ainslee Lisk]

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