Grandma JoAnn: The Very First Gibby Girl

Why is it that Grandma’s always get so little when they get old? It’s like they become these precious tiny glass ornaments.  Maybe it’s so that we treat them delicately and cherish them.  Hold them gently, look at them fondly-admire them often.

And why does cancer suck so much?

I left for this journey four weeks ago today. My grandma was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer less than three weeks ago. She passed away this morning around 2 am.

I got the news from my dad early this morning, I woke up at 4 to start rowing.  I set out my water and supplies for the day, got the oars in place and was about to push off when I just burst into tears.  I don’t want to be brave today. I just want to be sad.

The truth is- I’ve been spending a lot of time mourning my grandma’s death-even before she died.  When I found out about her diagnosis (knowing it’s a very fatal form of cancer with no cure), I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see her at the end of my journey.  I remember one morning last week-I had perfect conditions, plenty to be happy about-but I just sobbed as I rowed.  I cried until I had no tears. In the sun and in the silence…with no one for miles to hear or see me I just let everything out.  I talked to her and thanked her for everything she taught me-and the memories she’s given my family.  I cried because I knew she would never be at my wedding or hold my children in her arms. I realized those were selfish thoughts…things I couldn’t hold on to because she was in so much pain.

I wanted her around because my grandma was the best. I mean, I know everyone probably says that about their grandma…but really, she was.

She started a tradition with the girl cousins in my family that is called “Gibby Girls”. As kids we would spend a week with her in South Haven doing typical “girl” things. For Grandma, she was teaching us how to be “ladies”.  Baking pies, quilting, fake nail gluing, sand castles by Lake Michigan…all intertwined with stories about our dads and uncles as kids, her divorce…memories that were painful but meant to share.  Life lessons, happy stories, sad stories.

As we’ve all gotten older the tradition has changed-soon it became the “Gibby Girl Weekend”.  We would change the location and venues-but it always included the same stories, the same sharing-time together as women and part of a family that loves each other.  My brother got married-we added my sister in law to the tradition after her official initiation (I would tell you the process but I’d have to kill you).  My cousin Joel got married-and the group grew. It was fun to hear the newbies talk about how they were so excited to join “Gibby Girls”. It was like a special society they heard rumors about…and they were lucky enough to marry in. Over the years we’ve added margaritas. A cousin had a baby, and the concept of “pumping and dumping” breast milk became the humor for one weekend. Our stories about our dads have changed as we watch them get older-helping each other cope with the concept of our parents not always being around. I’m one of the only cousins that isn’t a teacher-so I hear stories about kids and school administration and parents and smile and nod, trying to relate as a rowing coach. They always apologize when they get into it but I love how they all relate. I don’t mind at all. We talk about marriage and relationships and balancing life as a full time mom, wife, teacher, daughter, grandchild. There’s no judgement. We tell happy stories, sad stories, we lean on each other and grow through each other’s experiences.

Yes, we have matching “Gibby Girl” t-shirts (be jealous).

I am willing to bet my grandma had the most hopeful intentions when she started Gibby Girls-but had no idea it would blossom into something so beautiful. And I am so thankful, so lucky, and so honored to be a part of my family for many reasons-but this one hits the top. I’m so proud to be a Gibby Girl.

When I heard about her passing and learned about the funeral-I was faced with a tough decision.  Stop the trip and attend the funeral, or keep going. I thought I had already made my mind up. My parents and I had talked a few weeks ago about how I would continue on the trip, that nothing would skip a beat.  But when I got the news and I tried to row this morning-I had to let myself process the news differently than I had hoped.  My dad offered to drive to Menomonee to pick me up and bring me back after the funeral. I got an email from a ROW member that said, “Remember that there is no right or wrong way to deal with grief.  Grief is beyond judgment.  Be gentle with yourself.”  I called my dad back and took him up on his offer for a ride to the funeral. I know my grandma would be fine with me making peace however I decided-but this is what I wanted. I want to be with my family-and the Lake isn’t going anywhere.

So now I’m here in Liv, waiting for my dad. Looking through old photos on my computer-this one I found from May of this year.  The last time we spent the afternoon together.

My Grandma had this beautiful zest and energy for life. I’m sure you can see it in her smile (so I thought I better write about that too).  We wrote each other letters every week. We wrote each other at MSU, while I was working in DC, and the letters continued for years as I’ve lived in Chicago. I told her about the good and bad jobs, boyfriends, decisions. I would get so excited to get her letters in the mail-full of words of wisdom and advice-gentle grandmotherly suggestions and uplifting guidance.

She loved to laugh and have fun-but had a serious side as well.  Serious- in the sense that she always wanted us grandkids to be happy-and do what we wanted. To find happiness-whether that was as a brain surgeon or a sanitary worker. She never wanted anyone to talk down to or badly about each other. She wanted our family to be a family-to love each other and support each other. To be good brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins to each other.  And we have, and we will this weekend as we mourn her death and celebrate her life.

This break to attend the funeral does change my itinerary a bit. Liv and I want to stay on track with our stops-so I may have to make up miles and alter the trip a bit. I hate the idea of changing things but have to accept that life happens and I know that everyone will be supportive. The idea is to raise awareness and funds-and we’re doing both well. The trip has certainly had its ups and downs and has been far from perfect. But so is life-and I think that by sharing with you honestly and being vulnerable in this sense is a strength-so I will continue to share (while it is not always easy).

I like the idea of having a memorial bike ride for the miles I miss due to the funeral service-and making it a memorial Gibby Girl bike trip in her honor in the fall.

But that’s just me-always planning an adventure. :)


Thank you for your continued support of ROW and this trip. Please consider sponsoring a mile of this adventure for $100 or making a donation online.


4 comments on “Grandma JoAnn: The Very First Gibby Girl

  1. Jenn,

    My prayers are with you and your family as you celebrate the life of your Grandmother. Yes, Grandmothers are very special. I had a great one, but did not realize it until much later in life. Thank you for your openness in discussing your feelings. What you decide is the right decision, and she is proud of you. Not only for the woman you have become, but for the efforts you are making to change peoples lives. God Bless You.

    Your cause has been brought close to home as my wife was diagnosed with DCIS Dec 20 last year, my birthday! She had double mastectomy Jan 23rd and completed her reconstruction 2 weeks ago. We have been blessed with early diagnosis and great Dr.s. I know there are those that have had a much more difficult time and they are in my prayers.

    We will support you, pray for your safe completion of this journey and will be sending a check. I will also like to join you in your biking event to kick cancer’s ass, and to celebrate the original Gibby Girl. You are blessed to have her in your life.

    God Bless and safe travels,

    David Jennings
    847 571-2513

  2. You are such an amazing woman. This story brought tears to my eyes, and they weren’t all from sadness. The joy your family shared is priceless and your strength is inspiring. I can’t imagine bringing myself to write something so beautiful, when fatigued from rowing and grief, but the “Gibby Girls” are remarkable, and I guess you just have a pool of strength beyond what most can comprehend.

    You are right, the lake will be there waiting, as will your fans.

  3. We saw your boat in the Menominee Marina yesterday while at dinner downtown. Didn’t know the details, but imagined that it was to raise awareness/funds for a cause. Found your website. Very touching story about your Grandmother. Thank you for sharing. Good luck with the rest of your journey. Would that we all had your strength, courage and conviction…