Remembering Grandma Smith

My maternal grandmother, Geniece Andrus Smith, passed away a few days ago on June 9.  It wasn’t a surprise… but then again there’s always a little shock when you finally hear the news that a loved one has died. As a write this, I’m hopeful, but still unsure that I’ll be able to attend her funeral. I’m a continent away and have been on an extended trip since May 30th. I’m grateful in my heart that I saw her the day before I left and I have hope I’ll make it back in time for her services.

I called Grandma the morning of May 29th and spoke to her for a few minutes. Her voice was strong and upbeat… she sounded great. I told her that I wanted to bring my kids up to see her… she cheerfully encouraged us to come visit. By the time we arrived in Idaho Falls a few hours later her condition had deteriorated. Grandma was lying on the sofa in her family room. She was frail and weak, but conscious and clear-minded enough for a quick visit. We spoke for about 15 minutes and each of my kids gave her a hug.  Each except my youngest son, Milo, who is named after Milo Andrus, the pioneer ancestor who is the patriarch of Grandma Smith’s family. Little Milo is just four years old… he’s a bit shy in some settings. Perhaps the moment was a bit awkward for him, or maybe he sensed some significance – I can’t be sure. When Grandma reached to hug him he squint his eyes and smiled before putting his hands over his face. At first I was a bit sad that Milo was too shy to hug grandma. Then all of the sudden I had an overwhelming feeling (for the first time) this would be the last time we would see Grandma. The moment was fleeting and it soon passed as we went back to the hotel. Surely there would be another time to visit Grandma, maybe July 4th, maybe later in the fall. This wasn’t the end, after all, she had cheated death so many times before…

Grandma and Milo in 2015

Sometime in the later part of 1985, my Mom pulled me (along with my younger sister Melanie) into a room to tell us something important. Mom explained to us that it would be the last Thanksgiving and Christmas we would have with Grandma Smith because she had cancer and it had spread throughout her body. I was nine years old, Mom was 31, Grandma was 51.  Just a few months earlier we had been to the funeral for Grandma’s mom – Great Grandma Andrus. Even though I was just a child, I knew Grandma Smith was way too young to die. You’re not supposed to die 1 year after your own parent (any nine year old can tell you that).

Grandma didn’t die that year… she fought the cancer with a vengeance. Years later I asked her how she cheated death. Grandma told me she had surgery and the doctors couldn’t get all the cancer. The oncologist gave her just a few months to live and she started on chemotherapy. The early chemo treatments didn’t work and things were going downhill… but Grandma fought on. Somewhere along the way she educated herself on some alternative medicine treatments that might help save her life. After months of downhill and bad news, finally something (probably a combination of the alternative medicine and chemotherapy) jump started her immune system. At one point the “months” grandma was expected to live turned into “weeks”… but then, almost out of nowhere, the cancer stopped growing. Everyone was a bit surprised, doctors were astounded. The cancer ultimately went into remission, Grandma lived on. During the time she was fighting cancer she made friends with another lady in town that was also fighting the disease and undergoing chemotherapy at the same time. They were both not expected to survive. As Grandma recalled to me, that lady died sometime around 1987. When I think about that… I get a little teary eyed. I think about what Grandma did with those extra 30 years. Had she died back then, so much would have been missed by so many people. I would have had distant memories, and possibly my younger sister Melanie and my cousin Janelle… but none of the other 16 grand kids would have known her. None of the 33 great-grandchildren. That’s not counting the dozens of neighbors, friends, and others who she has served or befriended in the last 30 years.

The ten years from 1985 until I left on my LDS mission in 1995 are my greatest memories of Grandma. There was a trip to Lake Powell, multiple trips to Henry’s Lake / Jackson Hole / Yellowstone. There was even a rock concert in 1992 (about the time the picture below was taken)… yes… it was just Neil Diamond… but still, how many kids can say they’ve been to a real concert with their grandparents?  Our family would frequently go up to Idaho several times each year. The Thanksgiving dinners were always memorable, but the best (particularly as a kid) was the 2nd week of July when the Andrus family reunion was held each year. Yes, the Andrus family reunion was one of the highlights of the summer – it’s tough to top camping with your first and second cousins in the mountains! One year we beat a pinata to smithereens so badly that there wasn’t one piece of candy left intact… only dust.

With Grandpa and Grandma in 1992

I learned a lot of lessons from Grandma. I saw her from a unique perspective – perhaps from being the oldest grandchild – considerably older than most of my cousins on that side of my family. One thing I appreciated about Grandma is the relationship she had with her own siblings. There are many scholarly articles written that suggest the relationship you have with your own brothers and sisters (as an adult) will greatly contribute to your own happiness. I saw this up close with Grandma, she stayed in close contact with her siblings throughout her entire life. The Andrus family was always close… always looking out for each other. This is something I admire and something I can learn from. I may have lifestyle, parenting, and political differences from my own brothers and sisters, but we have a shared history and a family bond. We should support and appreciate each other and forgive when necessary. As I’ve gotten older, I realized that extended family cohesiveness is more difficult and rare than I thought. The two families I’ve seen do this best, the Reed Andrus family, and the Frank Creer family (my wife’s family) really have something special.

In early 2015 Grandma was again diagnosed with cancer. Again she was given just a few months to live. Three times over the last year I packed the kids into the car and we drove up to visit grandma. They were all short trips… long car ride, cramped hotel room. All were worth it to see Grandma and Grandpa and visit for a little while. During one visit last year, before her health started to decline, Grandma made dinner for my little family. The moment was too good not to capture it on camera. The photo is one of my favorites and it will forever have a place on the Ball family picture wall.

Dinner with Grandma and Grandpa in 2015

Once again Grandma beat the odds… the “months” she was given turned into over a year. In December she decided to refuse additional treatments and go out on her own terms. In January the doctors gave her 2-3 weeks. She lived 5 months.

This last week as I’ve read tributes online from my extended family, I’ve wondered how I would sum up Grandma. What is her legacy (in my mind). Yes, like many grandmothers she was warm, caring, and giving. She and grandpa were a delightful couple… my father-in-law (who only met them once) called them one of the best looking and most distinguished older couples that he ever met. Yes, grandma was a great cook, always had treats in her cupboard, was always caring, always willing to give a hug. All of these things are true. But when I think of Grandma, I see her as a fighter. She fought cancer, she fought for what she believed was right, she fought for her family, she fought for her church, she fought for her grand kids. She was a fighter who knew how to love.  I will forever miss her.