My grandma is dying. Undetected cancer is now ravaging her body and even though it will only take me four hours to drive to the hospital, I’m not sure that she’ll still recognize me by the time I get there. I’ve spent all day struggling to wrap my mind around this. I went to church this morning and prayed for guidance and strength. This afternoon, I cried and remembered her quietly and then I cried some more. I know that death is inevitable. I also know that at the age of 90, my grandma has lived a long life. Somehow, that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to accept that her life is nearing its conclusion. In order to cope, I started thinking about how — in her own way — my grandma made me a better finance professor.
The only thing that seems to make sense to me now is how illogical it would be to feel sorry for myself right now. My grandmother is, was and always will be a phenomenal woman. She raised five children single-handedly after her husband died at a young age. She moved her children from public housing to a single-family home that she bought with her own money. She earned that money by working full-time as a bank teller while still remaining very involved in the lives of her children. As far back as I remember, I always had a special bond with my grandma. She called me her “Princess Bright Eyes” and I absolutely adored her. Throughout her life, my grandma proved that with hard work, anyone could do anything — even a poor, single mother, living in the South with only a high school education. In recent years, I’ve tried to honor her by tracing her family tree and committing her life story to paper. Those exercises drew me even closer to a woman who taught me so much.
I give speeches from time to time and I often talk about my family. The reason for that is that much of what I do and how I do it is based on my value system and I believe that system has served me well. So often, we find ourselves in unusual situations with little available guidance but our own moral compass. It’s that compass — my value system – that makes me who I am. My value system has been instilled in me by my family, so telling folks about the special people in my life helps me to explain my perspective on the world. As an example, I remember once that I gave a speech to prospective PhD students by simply passing along advice that my grandmother gave me. In honor of her, I thought it might be appropriate to repeat the key points from that speech.
- “Don’t sweat the small stuff — and remember that it’s ALL small stuff.” In other words, don’t worry. Grandma had a way of making you feel that everything was going to be OK. She reminded us that sometimes we get so caught up with worrying about such trivial things that we lose sight of the things that really matter. She always told us to ‘live right’ and ‘do right’ and the rest will take care of itself. Therefore, there was never any need to worry.
- “Absence makes the heart go yonder.” In other words, be faithful. Grandma didn’t believe in long-distance relationships. More importantly, she believed in letting special people know just how special they are. She remembered every birthday and everyone’s favorite things. In fact, until recently, there was never a time that my husband and I would visit without her baking my husband his favorite cake. She reminded us in her actions what it meant to be truly faithful to one another.
- “You don’t believe that fat meat is greasy!” In other words, listen. This is one from my childhood. It kind of went hand in hand with “A hard head makes a soft behind.” Grandma didn’t like to have to say things twice. Sometimes, we would fail to listen or would simply break the rules. This would upset her because she wanted more than anything for us to be happy, healthy and safe. Why couldn’t we do just do as we were told? Kids will be kids, I guess. Eventually, I learned to listen to her and appreciate her wisdom. Over my lifetime there were so many things that I sought her advice on — from cooking to gardening to parenting she was a fountain of information.
- “Rome was not built in a day.” In other words, be patient. I’ve never been a patient person, but my grandma always had a calming influence on me. Even 10 days ago when I stopped by to see her, it was so relaxing to be with her. I knew that she wasn’t well, but even then, she put my scattered mind at ease. I remember visiting just the month before that and after spending all day in meetings, I couldn’t wait to get back to her apartment, curl up on the couch and flip through Matlock reruns together. My world moves at lightning speed. My grandma had a way of reminding me to take time to enjoy it and all of the special people in it.
- “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” In other words, don’t judge. My grandma was always a very spiritual woman and believed that only God had the right to judge others. To make her point, she often explained to us that we never really know what goes on in the lives (and hearts) of others that may drive them to do the things that they do. She urged us to focus on our own choices and not condemning others for theirs.
Forever in My Heart, My Words and My Deeds
My grandmother taught me how to be a good person. By being a good person, I am able to be a better finance professor. The values she taught me allow me to live a life of which I can be proud. I am fiercely loyal to my friends and my family and do all I can to let them know how special they are. I teach with passion. I teach my students (and my blog readers) about finance not because it is my job but because I want their lives to be enriched. When I was younger, I thought that I needed to make a big splash in order to leave my mark on the world. Now I know that I leave my mark every day. I leave my mark when I produce research that can lead to policies that make people better off, when I explain the relevance of finance beyond what will be on the next test, when I work with my student athletes, guide honors projects, write letters of recommendation, give hugs and words of encouragement, I am patiently teaching and guiding and nurturing — just like my grandma did for me.
I suppose I could write about all of the personal finance implications as well. I could talk about how she went from public assistance and handouts to homeownership to a fixed income. I could talk about Medicare and life insurance and all of the other things we should be thinking about as our loved ones age. Those are all relavent and important topics. However, they are topics for another day. Today I’m holding her in my heart and building my strength in order to prepare to address those other things. Gosh, just 18 months ago I faced another end-of-life scenario. Somehow, it never gets easier. I guess that means I’m human.