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A rambly post about remembering my grandmother, Parks and Recreation, and Doctor Who (yes, really)

September 17, 2012

It’s been a strange few weeks for me. September is usually one of my favorite months. It’s marked by excitement over school supplies and new books, new students and new opportunities, new challenges and new seasons of my favorite TV shows. I live my life not by the calendar year, but by the academic year. The end of August is when I make my own “new year’s” resolutions and gear myself up for whatever lies ahead. Up until two weeks ago, this was exactly what was happening. I went to The Hague’s Museum Night to encounter some culture, spent a Sunday catching up on TV with a friend, and went to work for my first day of teaching. Then, after my first class, my mother called me and told me that my grandmother, my Oma, had been unexpectedly hospitalized and the doctors said that everyone who wanted to say goodbye to her had to go to the hospital as soon as possible. A helpful coworker cancelled my other class as I grabbed my things and ran off to the train station in the new heels I figured I could easily break in at work because I wouldn’t have to walk much. By the time I got to Amersfoort, where she was hospitalized, I was walking around in stocking-clad but otherwise bare feet because I could no longer feel my toes.

The hospital, meanwhile, had been invaded by my rather large family. One of my aunts counted more that 40 people, all there to see my Oma. Everyone got to spend a few moments with her and the doctors’ warning had not been misplaced, because that night she was put under palliative sedation and she died Tuesday night, the 4th of September. She was 85. It went too fast, it felt too soon, but she left us knowing that she was so very, very loved by her many children, children-in-law, ex-children-in-law, grandchildren, grandchildren-in-law, step-grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I think, in the end, no one can hope for more.

Last Monday we gave her a beautiful send-off. At the funeral, many people talked about my Oma’s amazing ability to accept everyone in her life for who they were. Like any person she had her faults, but that was not one of them. Her many address books were filled with current contact details of ex-husbands, ex-wives, and ex-friends of her children and she (sometimes sneakily) kept in touch with many of them. Once she took you in, she took you in completely, flaws and all. As a person aware of her imperfections, she accepted other people’s imperfections as well.

Last night, after watching two of my very favorite TV shows (Parks and Recreation and Doctor Who), I contemplated how this quality of my gran’s is also one of the main themes in both of these (very different) shows (from here on, there will be potential spoilers for the most recent episodes of these shows). Parks and Recreation is peopled by a cast of flawed but ultimately extremely loving characters. April, who pretends to care about nothing and no one, toward the end of the most recent season admits she cares about her husband, her dog, and her friend’s victory in a local election. Ron, the grouchy  libertarian pur sang, who believes the government should not exist, nevertheless works tirelessly to help Leslie achieve her dream of winning the election for councilwoman. When she worries about losing, she tells Ron, “if I lose, I’ll never forgive myself,” because for 6 months her friends put everything in their lives on hold for her campaign. Ron replies that they didn’t “volunteer to help you because we wanted to wrap ourselves in personal glory. We did it because we care about you. You had a dream and we wanted to support your dream. That’s what you do when you care about someone. You support ’em, win, lose, or draw. ”

Win, lose, or draw: it could have been my Oma’s life philosophy.

Doctor Who has a slightly different take. One of the themes that tends to run through it is that everyone, people great and small (and perhaps the small even more than the great), matters. Everyone is important. Everyone has a great influence on the world around them. When Rose decides to save her father in “Father’s Day” and almost brings about the end of the world in the process, she tells him “but it’s not like I changed history. Not much. I mean, he’s never going to be a world leader.” The Ninth Doctor responds: “Rose, there’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t before. An ordinary man: that’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive!” The Tenth Doctor, too, frequently praises humanity in all its many guises. When a group of people goes to investigate an impossible planet which should be sucked into a black hole, but never is, he says “why did you come here? Why did you do that? Why? I’ll tell you why. Because it was there. Brilliant! […] Just stand there, cos I’m going to hug you.” He revels in the indomitability of the human race even at the end of the universe and, indeed, time itself. And in one of my favorite TV episodes of all time, when Amy despairs at not having helped Vincent van Gogh enough to keep him from killing himself, the Eleventh Doctor speaks to the importance of doing what you can for people by telling her “the way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

This is not to say that the Doctor is perfect. He is frequently disgusted with humanity’s tendency to wage war and enslave others. Every Doctor since the show’s reboot in 2005 has lost his compassion and needed to be reminded of what he stands for and believes in by one of his human companions. Recently, this has happened in the newest season as well. Ten regenerated when he had become god-like, playing with time and people’s lives in a way he never approved of before. Eleven was born from that experience and, in his first seasons, attempted to keep his meddling to a minimum. But in last week’s episode, he actively sent a man to his death which, as far as I can remember, never happened before. And in this week’s episode he tried to do so again, only this time Amy was present. When the townspeople try to kill an alien doctor (Jex), she first asks “when did we start letting people get executed? Did I miss a memo?” As the Doctor gives up the doctor to his cyborg creation, she reminds him “this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. Listen to me, Doctor. We can’t be like him. We have to be better than him.”

The Doctor and his companions live lives in which they constantly have to remind themselves and each other that there is good in all people and even when there doesn’t seem to be, there should be at least a chance of redemption. Doctor Who is a show about reveling in diversity, standing in amazement of people, being the best person you can be for yourself and others, and working hard to add to the pile of good things. Like Parks and Recreation, it is a show about (the importance) kindness and compassion.

My Oma’s life had both a pile of good things and a pile of bad things and in the lives of others, she probably added to both piles. When future Septembers roll around, I will still buy school supplies, plan my classes, meet new students, and watch the leaves fall. But as I watch the return of my favorite TV shows, I will also remember my grandmother. I will remember how, like these shows, she lived a life which took the bad with the good but which never, in the end, let the bad stand in the way of the good. I will remember that she always added to my pile of good things.


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