Jonah Jeremiah Ghizzoni-Roper is the grandson Audrey Ghizzoni wasn't supposed to see. But when he was born in Florida on May 21, Audrey was there on the Arlington end of the phone to drink in the good news from her daughter, Maura.

The new guy in the family was still making Grandma smile three weeks later.

"He was 9 pounds, 4 ounces," Audrey said. "A big boy. Everybody's fine."

It's the sort of pride that spills from almost every grandmother who has ever laid claim to the title. But Audrey Ghizzoni is well aware that her pride is unusually strong, and unusually well-deserved.

She was supposed to have been dead by now.

Her doctors said so. Her nurses said so. The only person who refused to buy the timetable was the patient herself.

"He's coming up for a visit in August," says Audrey of her new grandson. "And I expect to be around for that, too."

Don't bet against it.

Thirteen months ago, nobody would have bet that Audrey Ghizzoni would make it to Labor Day. She had been accepted as a patient by the Hospice of Northern Virginia. The hospice does not accept patients unless they are in the "terminal stages" of illness.

That normally means that patients have weeks to live -- perhaps a few months if they are lucky. Doctors said at the time that Audrey Ghizzoni, an emphysema patient, might have three months left.

So, in May 1986, I arranged with the Ghizzoni family to visit them from time to time and to report frankly on how a family copes with imminent death. The idea has been to help other families in the same situation.

In an important way, Audrey has proved to be the perfect choice. She is now the second-longest survivor the Hospice of Northern Virginia has ever had, and one of the longest survivors in the history of the U.S. hospice movement.

Audrey loves to tease about that. "You picked a bad one for your column," she says, with a grin. " 'Cause I won't let you finish."

But there is gold in that delay. Like any family members handling terminal illness, Audrey's husband John and her 25-year-old son Jack vacillate between wanting to make Audrey comfortable and wanting her to be out of her misery. The difference for the Ghizzonis is that they have been swinging between these extremes longer than most and therefore with greater intensity.

"So you do feel like a burden," says Audrey, as she sips from a glass of ice water through a blue and white straw.

"I mean, it's awful. It has gone on for so long. And I can't do anything for myself. I can't even get a Kleenex without help, because they're behind me. On the other hand, you feel frightened if they don't answer right away."


"I'm afraid of being alone," says Audrey. "I know it doesn't make an awful lot of sense, because what can anybody really do for me? But I have a fear that I would just not be able to get my breath, and they wouldn't know."

Audrey says her family continues to handle her condition -- and her frankness about it -- in different ways.

"When I say, 'I wish it were over,' Jack says, 'I understand.' But John says, 'Don't say that.'

"It makes me mad when they get irritated about helping me, which of course they do. I'm human. They're human. Like any human being, you get frustrated. We all get frustrated around here.

"But you don't want to be alone, because emotionally, you sink. Most people keep their mood up when they have company." Audrey doesn't finish the thought, but she clearly means that she doesn't want to scare John and Jack away.

Day-to-day life has not changed for Audrey in months, and it almost certainly never will. "I can't stand without help," Audrey says, crisply and matter-of-factly. "I can't get to the bathroom without a walker. I used to be able to. I can't get out of bed at all."

Audrey's political juices have been flowing in recent weeks because of the Iran-contra hearings. She has seen every second of them on television. "Audrey's enjoying the scandals," her husband says.

But she is not really enjoying being alive.

"What's different from a year ago? I have less breathing capacity, and I'm not able to get around at all," she says. "It's just static, you know?"

She sighs. "I go from day to day is what I do," Audrey says.

But somewhere in the huge heap of junk on her bedside table is a photo that does more for Audrey's mood than anything else.

"It's there somewhere," she coaches, as a visitor tries in vain to find it. "Oh, well, don't bother," she finally adds. "But I do think he's cute, if you'll forgive me for saying so."

Who wouldn't forgive a Grandma? Especially one who wasn't supposed to be around to say that, but who is defiantly, doggedly, proudly plugging along.