The Meaning of It All

© 2015 (all rights reserved)

An article from the February 2015 issue of THE STAR BEACON.

Pecking Away at the Membrane

      The cruel world is back again.
Why do I always have to embarrass myself? There isn’t an hour at school when I’m not embarrassed.
     Sometimes I really wonder what I’m doing there. I look around me in my seat and I suddenly have this craving to escape. I’m afraid that one of these days I’m going to yell, “Lemme go!! Get me out of here!!”
                                             -- Wednesday, January 3, 1968

          Forty-seven years ago, a 15-year-old girl penned those words in her diary. It was winter in Wisconsin and she struggled to manage her issues of insecurity, feeling overwhelmed with the problems of adolescence and particularly how others saw her.
          Her creative juices were brewing, waiting for expression, but too young and too fragile to survive on her own in a turbulent world that is remembered for its rebellious youth, war protests, changing racial and sexual views, and the feminist movement.
          That girl in 1968 was ... me.
          Since I am writing this in January, I can't help but reflect on an important January in my past -- the time of my grandmother's passing:

Grandma Clara's Passing
          The hospital room was dim. A dark, faint, orange light came from a nearby lamp. An oxygen bottle fed a clear plastic tube from its place on the wall to a mask that covered the mouth and nose of the woman lying in the bed, unaware of our presence.
          I stood near the foot of my grandmother's deathbed, in shock. How could this be the woman I knew as my Grandma Clara? This woman was shriveled and pale, her eyes closed. Did she even know I was standing here with my mom -- her oldest daughter?
          For a fearful moment, I looked over at my mom with a question in my eyes. Was she ...?
          My mother edged closer to the bedridden woman and stretched out her hand to Grandma's. My mom sighed with relief, but I noticed the worry on her face, the hopelessness she felt, as did I.
          Grandma moaned a little, but she didn't open her eyes. Mom tried to talk to her -- to let her know that we were there. Grandma Clara did not respond. I think she wanted to. I believe she knew we had come. But she was too exhausted to respond to anything around her. It didn't matter to her that it was Wednesday, January 10, or even 7:05 PM. For her, the long, lingering road was finally coming to an end.
          Grandma Clara Hughes had been in the hospital since New Year's Eve. She had pneumonia and had asked Grandpa to take her. She had suffered for a decade with Lou Gehrig's Disease. I had grown up mostly knowing a grandmother who was unable to use her arms or hands, who eventually could not walk or hold up her head. As her muscles deteriorated, she depended on everyone else for her basic needs. It was extremely sad and she suffered as her life dwindled down to the final days.
          My mother dropped me off at home around 8:30 after our visit to the hospital. She had to go to a church meeting, and my dad was at a library board meeting. My brother Paul had gone ice skating.
          My sisters, Laurie Beth and Alice, appeared unusually glad to see me when I stepped through the front door. The neighbor girl, Teresa Kudrna, was at our house, and all three of them wore frightened faces.
          "What's wrong?" I asked as I took off my jacket and gloves, and hung them in the coat closet.
          Alice, who was 7, began to tell the story. "About 7:05, I was watching TV in the family room," she told me. "Laurie was in the kitchen, feeding the cats at the stove."
          "That's when I heard your typewriter clicking away like mad downstairs in the basement," Laurie broke in. "I thought that was odd, because I knew you weren't home."
          "We were scared," resumed Alice. "No one was supposed to be here except the two of us."
          "Go on," I urged.
          "Well," said Laurie, who would turn 11 in a couple of months, "I approached the basement stairs real loud ... I figured it would alert anyone who was down there."
          I felt a shiver up my spine. "Then what happened?" Laurie's eyes grew wide. "Well, the typing stopped, so I called your name ..."
          "And then we went down together," said Alice.
          "The television was on," cried Laurie. "After you and Mom left to go to the hospital, I made sure to turn it off. But it was on ... and it was blaring!"
          "And all the lights were on in the basement," said Alice.
          "No one was in sight," said Laurie. "I went over to your typing chair and felt it ... and it was warm!" Then she added, "And the keys were wet!"
          "So we called Kudrnas'," said Alice, "and Teresa came over, and we sat and watched TV upstairs until you came home."
          I thought a moment as I puzzled over their story. "Well ... what about Toto? Did she react to any of this?" Certainly if an intruder had gotten into our house, the dog would have known.
          The girls insisted that Toto had not barked or acted as if anything strange was going on. "But it really did happen, Ann. You've got to believe us!"
          I did believe them. It was very disturbing, for sure, and I puzzled over it. Other strange things had happened that we couldn't explain. I don't recall whether we told our parents or not. One thing I did do, however, was record the incident in my diary, noting in particular the time -- 7:05.

          What I can't understand is my mother. She's always scampering around, fussing over the funeral plans, and what's going to be done with all my grandmother's possessions and what will happen to Lady, my grandma's dog.
                                                  -- Wednesday, January 10, 1968

          Every time my mother left the house for some reason, she would say to me, "If the call should come ..."

          The call! That's why everybody tenses up every time the telephone rings.

          To be truthful, I was not worried about Grandma Clara dying. I knew that when she passed on to the next level, she would be so happy to be free of her body.

          She will feel no more sickness and agony, and she'll be able to watch her funeral and see all her friends and loved one who come to pay their respects.

          I didn't understand why people had to be sad at funerals. I could see that it would be sad to have lost someone that you love ... but it wasn't permanent. Even at age 15, I believed that the person is just as much alive as when he or she was in the flesh.
          I had been reading Ruth Montgomery's books. A Search For the Truth, her first book on her experiences with automatic writing, impressed me, especially with the philosophy that I could start each day of my life with a "clean page."

          Imagine trying to live one day without blemishing it with hatred, lies, gossip and cheating, as if each day were a fresh page in the book of your life on Earth, and what you say and do is typed on it.
          When you press the wrong key in making a wrong decision, or you forget to space, like going by another person who needs help, you have destroyed a perfect page of paper.

          Then I felt let down.

          I really believe I almost had a perfect day without saying one unkind word or thinking one selfish thought.
          Then I came home from school, and my sisters and my brother were fighting and I screamed at them to shut up. Then I cussed at the cat, who scampered up my basement steps after emptying his bowels in my bedroom.
          Then I uttered nasty things about my father when he came home in his usual bad mood, and I thought only of myself when my mother asked for help with the supper and I was too busy preparing for my piano lesson.

          I had scarred another clean page in my life.

          Is it really possible for one person to live one perfect day? I think it is, and I'm going to try again tomorrow. If I fail again, then I'll try the next day, until I'm able to smile up at Christ without shame.

          I never saw my grandmother alive again. She passed on to the next world the evening of Wednesday, January 17, at exactly 7:05 PM. The scenario turned out to have an interesting twist.
          I was writing up my book report for English. While doing my homework, I had one of my favorite TV shows, Lost in Space, on the TV in the basement. At 7:15, Alice yelled down to me from upstairs, tears choking her voice, "Ann ... did you know Grandma died ten minutes ago?"
          I stared into space, open mouthed. The phone had been ringing once every two minutes, it seemed, since the supper hour. I wasn't that tensed up every time I heard it ring, so the news momentarily startled me.

          I didn't cry one bit. I didn't even feel sad at all. I was happy. So very happy that she had finally been relieved of her suffering, and I imagine she must really have received a warm welcome in the life hereafter.

          I don't recall exactly when it dawned on me, but at some point I remembered the strange incident that had happened with my sisters.
It had been one week -- to the exact hour and minute -- and I had been standing over my grandmother's hospital bed while my sisters had heard the typing coming from my room in the basement, with the television blaring and all the lights on.
          That was just what I had been doing at the time of Grandma Clara's moment of release!

          And doggone if I didn't think it would happen yesterday or today. I even told Kathy yesterday morning. I said, "Kathy, Grandma's gonna die either the 17th or the 18th."

* * *

          Sadly, a few days ago, I learned that my aunt passed. She died on January 20, just three days after the anniversary of Grandma Clara's passing.
          Aunt Hazel Breitenbach was my grandmother's youngest daughter and the last older relative left on my mother's side of the family. Aunt Hazel was 90, active and healthy -- she even still drove herself around in her hometown of Columbia, Mo. She was a "believer," who supported my writing, always buying my books when they came out, as well as subscribing to The Star Beacon all these years.
          On the day she passed, I found in my home mailbox a letter from her. She had written a few days before, thanking me for her gift subscription to Wisp. The unexpected gesture made me cry.
          The episode that occurred at the time Grandma Clara passed had its own meaning. I believe it was a sign, confirming to me that life continues. I feel the timeliness of Aunt Hazel's letter was also confirmation of this. And so was the "blue light" signal on the Directv receiver the night in Ohio, in 2008, when my late husband, Ethan, passed.
          My aunt suffered a sudden aortic aneurysm the day before. She died peacefully in her sleep after saying goodbye to her children, all three of whom lived in different states. No suffering, no fuss ... it was the way she wanted, and deserved, to go.
          This winter I've seen a number of loved ones cross over to the Other Side, including my sister-in-law in early December, my brother-in-law the day after Christmas, and my uncle on my dad's side, who landed on the beach of Normandy in 1944.
          Although I feel sad when I first hear the news, I then envision how happy they are on the Other Side. When it gets to be our time -- each of us -- it will be a wonderful reunion seeing those loved ones again.
          My memoir, Stepping Forth, An American Girl Coming of Age in the '60s (from which this chapter is included), is still in production, but should be out within a couple of months. You can read excerpts that I am continually putting up on my Author Web site at


      Ann Ulrich Miller, editor and publisher of The Star Beacon, also writes fiction, both romantic suspense and young adult, and is currently at work on her memoir, Stepping Forth, An American Girl Coming of Age in the 60s.





This page updated February 2, 2015


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