The Word Among Us

September 2008 Issue

Saying Good-bye to Grandma Grace

I was privileged to witness my grandmother's "deathbed conversion."

By: Janet Hatfield

Saying Good-bye to Grandma Grace: I was privileged to witness my grandmother's "deathbed conversion." by Janet Hatfield

My mother called with the news one cold October night. "Hello, Janet? I just wanted you to know that Grandma Grace is dying." She continued with details of how Grandma had begun refusing food two days before.

How strange, I thought. On the same day my grandmother stopped eating, I had begun a novena to the North American Martyrs. My intention: Grandma's salvation. I hadn't started the novena because I knew much about these saints or felt especially inspired—it simply seemed like a good thing to do.

"We don't expect you to make the trip," my mother continued. "You were just here in August, and with your little ones. . ." Her voice trailed off. But my thoughts were already bridging the nine hundred miles between my home in Georgia and New York, where Grandma was. I longed to be near her.

"Oh, I'll be there," I assured Mom. "Somehow, I'll be there in a couple of days."

Grandma's Pet. My Grandma Grace was very special to me. We were special to each other. She had rejoiced in the births of her two sons and then her two grandsons, my brothers. But I was the first girl—and as it turned out, the last—to come along in two generations.

While my parents were careful not to pamper their girl into a spoiled brat, Grandma indulged me in all sorts of ways. I guess we spoiled each other. She and Grandpa divorced the year I was born, so I was the perfect medicine for her broken heart. As for me, tomboy though I was, Grandma made me feel special to be a girl. She was my hero.

I hung up the phone, trying to absorb this devastating news. And I prayed that God would remember something I had asked him for two years earlier: "That I be holding Grandma's hand as she passes into glory." What a bold prayer, I thought. It wasn't only the distance and my busy life that posed a problem. The big obstacle was that Grandma didn't have any relationship with Jesus and had never been open to discussing it.

Still, I clung to that prayer as I went to find my husband. Good man that he is, he made arrangements so that I could leave right away.

Spiritual Combat. Grandma was already asleep when I arrived at the nursing home. I spent the night by her side, praying more fervently than ever. "Make me bold," I begged God, knowing my tendency to speak tentatively. "Use me to bring Grandma to yourself. Show me what to say."

And I asked for something more as well: "Please, Jesus, give me some kind of sign to assure me that Grandma really is with you. Don't let me go back home wondering about her salvation."

When morning came, Grandma looked at me and smiled her beautiful smile. "I love you, Grandma." She squeezed my hands and nodded, unable to form the words "I love you, too." Her beaming face sent the message.

The moment of truth had come. I murmured a quick prayer and went on, "Jesus loves you too, Grandma." All my tentativeness had suddenly disappeared. I was totally focused, as if God had pulled a privacy curtain around the two of us.

But in that moment, too, Grandma's countenance changed. Her smile faded, and her eyes narrowed. Her breathing became labored. I felt I was watching some kind of spiritual combat.

"Did you hear me, Grandma?" I asked. "Jesus loves you, too." But she did not hear me—it was as though she had fallen into a deep sleep. I sensed, though, that she was not at peace. Urgently, I began asking Jesus to free her from any evil spiritual influences that might be harassing her.

"Jesus, don't let anything separate Grandma from you. I pray, in your name, that you would deliver her from evil at this time of her death. Protect her against every work of Satan and save her, Lord. Bring her into your freedom, so that she can praise you with your saints for all eternity."

I must have prayed this way for an hour. During the whole time, four words kept popping into my head: "holy water" and "baptismal vows."

A Time to Be Born. The next morning, Grandma was her usual self—smiling and happy to see me. But I knew there was some unfinished business, and I had come prepared.

"Good morning, Grandma," I smiled back. "I have something to ask you." She leaned in to hear the question.

"I know your parents had you baptized as a child," I began. I had discovered this not long before, when my uncle found her baptismal certificate in the attic. "And so I brought some blessed water to help you renew your baptismal vows. Would you like to do that?"

Grandma had not been baptized in the Catholic Church and had not been to any church for so long: Has she ever even heard these vows? I wondered. Still, I decided to forge ahead, trusting God to bridge any gaps.

Yes, Grandma nodded. She wanted me to continue. I started in, reading the baptismal vows slowly and deliberately, letting her savor every word. I gave the responses in her place, since she was not able to speak. When I read the closing prayer—about new birth in Christ—she grew radiant and gave a deep and peaceful sigh. I could almost see her resting in the arms of Jesus.

Heavenly Realities. That was the last time I was able to communicate with my grandmother. After that morning, she fell into a confused state and never recognized anyone again. I continued my bedside vigil, praying rosary after rosary for her soul.

The end came four days later. I was holding Grandma's hand, listening to her breathing grow more and more shallow. It was the strangest experience—something like watching a baby being born. I couldn't take my eyes off her.

Only my uncle and aunt were with us, but the room seemed full to bursting with Grandma's heavenly family. I could feel the presence of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, and, of course, St. Isaac Jogues and the other North American martyrs I had been asking to intercede for her. Though I couldn't see it with my eyes, my spiritual sense told me that heaven and earth had come together in that room.

As Grandma breathed her last, I was overcome with joy and gratitude. God had answered my deepest prayer: Grandma, I was sure, was on her way to glory, and she had died as I held her hand.

And my sign? God provided that, too. I hadn't known it when I started my novena nine days earlier, but the feast of the North American Martyrs is October 19. That was the very day of Grandma's death. God had allowed me to play a part in his plan of love for Grandma by calling on those martyrs. Now I was certain they were leading her home.

Janet Hatfield and her family live in Augusta, Georgia.