Sarah Klongerbo and Grandma Helen

The Crowd Who Helps Us Run: Reflections from My Grandma’s Funeral

We reach for a star 
Just twice as far
As other dreamers do.
Twice the height 
Of a rocket’s flight
With twice a comet’s view.
Our triumphs do not
Gain us fame
From strangers passing by.
The cheers applauding in our ears
And ringing in the sky —
Come from our friends who understood
How tough the race we won.
The crowd who sings our victory song
Is the crowd who helped us run.

– Author Unknown

I found that poem, scrawled in cursive on a thin ivory paper, tucked inside one of the worn black Bibles in my grandma Helen’s room, Arrowhead Trail 5, at the Avera Prince of Peace Retirement Community in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The memory care unit.

I almost missed the poem. I’d been thumbing through the Bible, trying to find underlines and annotations on the pages themselves — anything to indicate what might have spoken to my grandma once, what might speak to her now.

And then this poem spoke to me.

As I read it aloud to her, holding her hand while she slept, I felt the slow, enlightening dawn of seeing into someone’s soul — of getting a glimpse into what they’re all about. 

My grandma wasn’t “about” too much. She was humble, hard working, hardy. A farm girl at heart, she carried her appreciation for the simple life into marriage, motherhood, and, eventually, grandmotherhood.

Or is that just how I see it? 

Certainly, Helen Munce was dynamic. I’ve experienced her wit. I’ve seen the photos of lipstick and bathing suits. I’ve heard of her adventures, the family vacations she planned. She even took me with her in 2000 to visit her son (my uncle) David in Tucson, Arizona, where — once I recovered from being separated from my parents — I felt nothing but safe and happy under her care. She ushered me through those airports like a pro.

But ultimately, I think, Grandma was a modest woman. One who could socialize at parties, but who would prefer to be at home with family, maybe cooking a meatloaf, or viewing old slides, or singing “Swinging on a Star” to a curly-haired granddaughter on a rickety porch swing.

I can relate. I’m someone who can appear outgoing, but who really cherishes her time alone and with a select few who truly understand me.

Sarah Klongerbo playing cards with her grandma Helen

I never got to know my grandma as an adult. I never got to know any of my grandparents as an adult, actually. As I’ve matured, gotten married, and begun to think about raising my own family, I’ve wondered what my grandparents were like at my age — how they dealt with life’s blows, how they loved and argued and apologized and loved again. Who they spent time with. Who they were outside of being my grandparent.

After all, to a young grandkid, your grandma is just a grandma. 

And when you grow up, and your grandma battles Alzheimer’s for most of your life, it can be easy to forget who she was before all that. 

After all, she did. 

Or did she?

I believe my grandma Helen was blessed with a strong sense of self. And that she let only a select few see it. 

Her husband, Richard. Her children, Julie and David. Her grandchildren, Lauren, Kyle, Sarah, and Matthew — and, later in life, Sullivan, Greta, and Piper. A smattering of other family members and friends. 

When it came down to it . . . it was her core community whom she trusted with her sincerest self, and who, in turn, trusted her.

The crowd who sings our victory song
Is the crowd who helped us run.

Sitting beside my grandma during her final days on earth, I couldn’t help but think of the race she’d run. 

It wasn’t a fast race. She made it to 91, after all.

But during this marathon, she had the wildest fans. Cheering her on, celebrating her life and legacy as she, finally and joyfully, crossed the finish line.

There aren’t too many of us fans left. There weren’t, admittedly, too many of us to begin with. 

But we’re here. And we were there, holding her hands, the night she crossed that finish line. Gathered around Grandma were her son and the four children of her deceased daughter, my mom, whom my dad has always described as “cheering us on” from heaven. 

I hope it was our cheers that helped Grandma join the great crowd of witnesses awaiting her: Mom, Grandpa Dick, her parents, her brother, and so many others.

Helen Munce with her family at her son's wedding

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many “fans” you have. The fans don’t win the race.

But they do help you run. 

So it matters who they are. Whether or not they’re willing to help you train, watch you compete, or hold your hand as you recover from a fall, an injury, a disease.

Because the pain of this life — it doesn’t last.

Relationships do. Faith does. And my grandma had both.

The crowd who sings our victory song
Is the crowd who helped us run.

The Crowd Who Helps Us Run: Reflections from My Grandma’s Funeral

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