This post is by Chris Billey. Chris and Tammie Billey are portrait and wedding photographers from the Phoenix, Arizona area. With a combined experience of 18+ years of photography, their philosophy is to capture life through the way they feel it. They have two incredible sons who they love to spend time with.
A little over a year ago, I lost the most influential and prominent woman in my life – my grandmother. My grandmother raised me beginning when I was very young. She instilled in me her wisdom. She shared her home and life – every step of the way guiding me as a mother and a teacher. She eventually became disconnected from this world, but she still was able to teach me to be a man.
A little history about my grandmother.
Grandmother was born on the Navajo reservation and raised by her grandmother. She became part of the government’s attempt to “assimilate the savage.” She was moved from her home and sent to a boarding school. There she was forced to speak English and eat “American” food.
She eventually ran away to live a traditional Navajo life. When she was 13 she developed an infection on her ovaries, and doctors made the decision to do a hysterectomy. Decades later she met my grandfather, who at the time was a single parent raising his 3 children.
My grandmother adopted and raised my father.
I enter the picture
Fast-forward a few decades when my family entered the picture. My single mother was desperately struggling to support 3 growing children. Grandmother stepped in offering to raise me. At the time we lived next door to my grandparents, so my connection to them was already strong
She raised me through high school and watched me join the Navy. After my years of service, I returned home to my grandmother who, along with my mother, urged me to continue my education. I left again.
Years passed, but I kept in touch with Grandmother. Over the phone, she shared stories of her childhood and filled me in on the local gossip. I listened just to hear her voice. It was when she started telling me of people I knew who passed away that I realized she too would some day pass.
So I made as many trips back as possible to visit. I made it a point to have her teach me our traditions and about her life. I gave her time with my children. I wanted them to know who she was and what she stood for. My children learned her love, her conviction and her compassion.
The end is near.
One morning in October 2011, I received a phone call from my sister. She told me my grandmother was hospitalized with a severe stomach infection. I left that day to check on her. While my sister and I sat by her bedside awaiting the results, we shared stories of my youth. We laughingly relived the stupid and immature things I did.
I also read to her, and we conversed in Navajo. She talked about my grandfather. She recalled how great man he was, and how much she missed him.
When the tests came back, the doctors concluded it was much more than an infection. She was battling an aggressive stomach cancer. The cancer had already grown to the size of a grapefruit. It was quickly spreading. She was terminal.
The doctors advised us to simply make her as comfortable as possible. My grandmother cried a bit when she got the news, but then she sat solemnly. Finally, she looked at us and said, “I’m ready.” My eyes welled up, and my heart sank; it was her time.
The final moments
I cherish the last four days. My brother joined us, and we continued laughing and swapping stories. Grandmother’s health quickly deteriorated, and she no longer was able to move or communicate. I held her hand and gave her water. I did all I could to comfort her. I spent nights sleeping by her side.
Word spread through our community and our family. Many came to visit and pray. She touched and blessed so many lives; it was a beautiful thing watch.
On the morning of November 10, 2011, I awoke early in the morning. My brother sat holding her hand and talking to her. At that moment I had an urge to watch the sunrise as if to fulfill a calling.
After sitting in the hospital for days, it was an inviting idea, so I walked out of the hospital just in time to watch the sun break the horizon. The air was cool and crisp; sunrise was beautiful. As a photographer I relish in the light. I stood for a few minutes enjoying an almost spiritual experience.
My phone rang, waking me from this trance. Answering, I was met with the somber voice of my brother, “She’s gone.” I stood and slowly exhaled. The news stung, and a deep, rumbling pain in my stomach set in.
I was filled with a sense of pride and gratitude. I was so thankful I was there, and I spent those last precious moments with her. In the final days of her life we all knew the end was near, yet she met it head on.
Grandmother was grateful for the life she lived, the children she raised, and the lives she changed. I was a part of that life, and she is a part of mine. She was loved by so many, and she is greatly missed.
We all lose things in life. I’ve learned these losses should never define us. Our losses should help us appreciate the things we have and look forward to the experiences we will create.
In the end no one ever says, “I wish I would have worked more.” We wish for more time. Let’s make we have now count. Too often we overlook what’s important to us – the act of living, sharing our experiences, our lives, our gifts and our hearts.
Time is something once spent you never get back, so spend it wisely and have no regrets.
I do the best I can to be grateful for each day I am allowed on this Earth. Here today, gone tomorrow is a reality for every one of us. When my time comes I will have the experience and the testament to say, “I’m ready.”
Until the next world.