My grandmother died on May 31, 2009. I last spoke to her a few days before she slipped into the coma she never came out of. I was sitting at her bedside and I looked over to see her eyes were open. Her hands were in the air all the time then, like she was playing the piano. They drifted up and down, back and forth, with no real rhyme or reason, just a constant unwavering motion. When I saw she was looking at me, I took one of her hands from the air and smiled. I asked her how she was feeling.
She said she was on a motorcycle. She was with someone and she didn’t know where she was going, but she didn’t like it. I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled again and told her it would probably be a great adventure. Maybe, she said. Her eyes shifted away and I knew I wasn’t there for her anymore. I kept holding her hand anyway. “Maybe,” is the last thing I ever heard her say.
The last time I spoke to her when she was lucid, it was Memorial Day weekend. I didn’t and still don’t handle intensely emotional situations well. I run away. I always run away. So I got it into my head that even with Hospice hovering around her house, I needed to go away. I planned to take a long car trip and when I come back, I’d be able to handle it. We said our goodbyes, crying and hugging – my leaning over her bed so I could hug her, because she was too weak to sit up by this point, – we said we loved each other and I left.
I made it to the edge of the peninsula before I had to pull over, because I couldn’t stop crying. So I went back. However strong I wasn’t, I couldn’t be anywhere else.
When I got back, she was sleeping and when she woke up, I was sitting next to her, watching TV and resting my hand on her wrist as gently as I could so I wouldn’t wake her up. She asked me why I came back and I told her there were a lot of cops on the road and it seemed like a bad omen. We watched Kung-Fu Panda and I never let go of her.
For those of you who are both poor and lucky and have yet to be initiated in the process of death and grieving, I should tell you – the vigil is not about witnessing. It’s not even about making peace. At least, for me, it was about greedily hoarding every last minute I would be allowed. It’s like saving up pennies. One may not mean much, but hundreds and thousands make up a whole lot of something.
It’s five years later and I still cry when I think about her. The pain still takes my breath away.
There are days when I wake up and my first thought is how much I still miss her. That this isn’t a thing that goes away; it sits, waiting for a weak moment or a stressful day and then it reminds me in my vulnerable state that I also don’t have one of the most important people in my life within arm’s reach anymore. I think how I would give my eyeteeth just to be able to sit down and talk to her again. Maybe say goodbye in a way that I could understand and accept as goodbye. Because now, still, my grief eats me whole. I brush against it and it sticks to me like molasses and it deadens the nerve endings in my skin. I can’t – I haven’t – allowed myself to tumble down that rabbit hole. I don’t know where the bottom is and that scares me. It feels endless.
This is the closest I will get to goodbye, though I know I will never really say it or mean it. These are the things that hang at the edges of my grief. In my own way, this is the eulogy come five years late and it’s still not enough to honor her.
Many people will sit in the pantheon of the most important influences and relationships in my life, but she will sit in the front and center. She was my first and best friend, my confidante, my biggest supporter, the one person I felt completely accepted by even as a child, an exceptional role model who taught me kindness, compassion and generosity through example, and to my eternal gratitude, the woman I was lucky enough to have as my grandmother. She believed in me when I didn’t yet know how to believe in myself and no matter what bewildering plan I was contemplating (of which I always have many), she was the first to sign on. She lives in my heart. She is always with me. It’s not the same, but it has to be enough. The woman I am today would not – could not – exist without her.
I grew up on the same land as my grandmother lived, in the house next to hers, in the room she grew up in herself. Every memory I have of my childhood is wrapped up in her.
We used to play cards and talk for hours, often about nothing in particular, in her kitchen. We would start playing early in the evening and call it done when the sky was fully black. Our favorite games were Rummy and King’s Corners.
I would take her to run errands when I was on school breaks and when I worked the night shift. I still have a strong aversion to Costco, though I continue to pay for the yearly membership.
She taught me how to drive, and strangely still got back into the car with me, even after I confused left and right at a stop sign.
I’d help her pick out the yearly Christmas ornaments that all the grandkids got, which is when the blue fish motif started (I’m now in possession of two blue fish ornaments, a blue fish wind chime and a black rock paperweight painted with blue fish – the last two gifts I gave to her that I inherited back).
One of my favorite things to do still is to gossip endlessly about whomever or whatever. She enjoyed watching Nancy Grace. That is the first and last time I will ever write a sentence like that.
Up through my teenage years, I would sit on her back patio with her and shuck corn or snap peas fresh from the garden.
During the summers, around the time the garden planting was going on, the grandchildren would be sent out, en masse, to pick blackberries from the bushes in the orchard so she could make jam preserves. Blackberry jam is still my favorite (but only with seeds). Incidentally, we always had way too much grape jelly, but I don’t remember her ever making it. We had green grapes on the property and they always seemed sour and unripe.
She had a green stone attached to a penny by a small chain. It was her pendulum. She used to test her new medications by holding her pendulum over them and letting the way it swung tell her whether or not she should take it. It is the most Her thing that isn’t physically her. I wore it around my neck everyday for the first three years after her death. It’s too precious to me to wear everyday now – I worry about losing it or someone taking it. I only wear it on her days – her birthday or her rememberance day – or on days I need her close.
One of my very favorite memories of her though is from a camping trip. I don’t remember where we are or where we were going or how old I was other than “young,” but I do remember we were sleeping in the loft bed in the old motorhome we’d go for trips in throughout my childhood. I was awake, because when I was very young, I had trouble sleeping in places I wasn’t familiar with and I was scared of the dark (I’m still a little scared of the dark, truth be told). Gram was fast asleep.
And as I lay there in the dark, unable to sleep, I noticed something moving over my eyes. I pulled back the curtain on the window to let some light in and saw it was a spider. I don’t mind spiders out in nature, I will not abide them in my home and I cannot handle one that close to my face, no matter what age.
So I very quietly, I thought, whispered to my grandmother in the darkness and shook her. I must have sounded panicked, because she jerked straight up out of her sleep and slammed her head against the roof of the motorhome. I don’t remember if she swore or not, but it would have definitely been warranted.
Holding her head in both hands, she asked me what was wrong. I very meekly pointed at the spider that had almost made it to the wall I was laying near and said, “spider.” She sighed, smacked the spider with her hand, slid her hand across the ceiling and wiped its body on the top of the comforter. “Thank you,” I said, still meekly. The conversation followed-
Gram: Why are you awake?
Me: I couldn’t sleep.
Gram: You know, that little spider wouldn’t have hurt you. He was on his way home to his little spider wife and his little spider children and now they won’t know where he is and they’ll never see him again. Isn’t that sad? Don’t you feel bad? If you’d been asleep, he would be home with his family now.
At the time, I was cowed and a little sorry. Now I think it’s hilarious.
One of Gram’s best memories, I think, was when she was traveling alone. She and Papa had already been married for years, and she was taking a solo trip up north, though I don’t remember why (and I feel sorry for that). She had a CB radio in the car, because my grandparents were both volunteer firefighters and went on long road trips. She was listening to it when she heard two truck drivers talk to each other. One’s brakes had gone out and they were coming down a hill near where my grandmother was driving. The truck with brakes was trying to help slow the other one down. How they were doing this, I do not know.
But my grandmother, being my grandmother and being the wonderful person she was, found the two drivers, threw her hazard lights on and followed behind them down the hill until they were able to pull off at a safe place. She continued on her way and as she drove off, they both blew their horns at her – in thanks, I have no doubt.
Because that’s who my grandmother was. It wasn’t ever about what you could do for her, but what she could do for you. How could she make your life better? Her time? Her energy? Her affection? Her advice? Her ear? Her money? It didn’t matter. If you just needed to be mad, she let you be mad. If you needed a friend, she would write you letters and call you and make sure you knew someone cared. If you needed someone to sell tickets or make a dessert for a fundraiser or teach children about growing plants, she would be there.
And that’s who my grandmother was to me. She was always there, in the best possible way, loving you for exactly the person you were, but rooting for you to find the way to the incredible person she knew you could be. She always had an incomprehensible amount of faith in others. It didn’t matter how many times she had been burned by that faith, she continued to believe in the best versions of others.
For the uninitiated, you poor and lucky people, you should know this too – you never miss someone less, not someone you truly love. It just stops surprising you so badly that you have to now.
Thank you, Gram.
I love you.