My maternal grandmother died yesterday morning. She was 94. I wasn’t going to write about it here, but as I was thinking about her throughout the day, I remembered how much her life influenced my ideals of what it is to be healthy.
From my grandmother, I inherited my love of sewing, thrifting, reading and vegetable gardening. I’m pretty sure it’s because of her that my favorite way to see a new city is on foot. When I would visit her San Francisco bay area home as a child, she would just about walk my legs off. Last time I visited San Francisco, I walked my own legs off. Her car rarely left her garage; mine rarely leaves my driveway.
She introduced me to the joys of mass transit (BART) and National Public Radio. I thought her vegetable garden, with its intricate network of paths and beds and mini “greenhouses” improvised out of used milk jugs and the like was the most amazing and wonderful place. I still think that vegetable gardens are more interesting than ornamental ones.
As a child in the 1970s, my family ate fairly healthy, in part because there weren’t as many processed foods as there are today. But my grandmother ate even healthier…there was no junk food to be had in her house. Portions were small (read: appropriate), vegetables were ever present, and dessert was generally something like homemade tapioca pudding with slices of fresh nectarine. Add “love of tapioca and nectarines” to the list of what I inherited from her.
With all her healthy eating and walking instead of driving, my grandmother remained active and engaged in life as the decades passed. When I thought about how I wanted my old age to be, I thought of her. She was my role model, and still is. Unfortunately, her life took an unexpected turn a few years ago, when she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. While a healthy lifestyle can protect against blocked arteries, which cause most strokes, you can’t really prevent a blood vessel from bursting in the brain, nor can you predict when or if it will happen. She recovered her mental faculties, but not her physical ones. While undergoing rehabilitation, she fell and broke a hip. From there, it was a steady slide toward life in a long-term care facility.
It’s easy to think, “What’s the point of practicing healthy habits now, if they may not pay off later?” Well, my grandmother had 90 good years, and that’s pretty amazing. I would much rather that she had the type of death that I envisioned for her (and she probably envisioned for herself): quietly and unexpectedly in the night, or while happily occupied in her vegetable beds or at her sewing machine. Alas, that was not to be. But she never had diabetes or heart disease or cancer, or any one of the chronic diseases that don’t even wait for “old age” anymore. If she had been sedentary or relied on processed convenience foods, the story may have been different, and the ending may have come decades sooner.
For all I know, I may get hit by a bus tomorrow. Freak things can always happen. But I’m still banking on a big payoff from eating my vegetables and staying physically active…a payoff beyond the rewards I receive every day from treating my body right so I feel my best. Just like my grandmother did.