The holidays were hectic, and bled into January with family arriving to celebrate a third Christmas, followed by preparations for my daughter’s birthday (2/2) and my husband’s birthday (2/14). And then my grandmother died.
It’s become a sort of bleak tradition that I write something when there is a death in the family. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, but my maternal grandfather passed away in 2005, and I wrote something for the priest to read at his memorial. In the blog era, my paternal grandmother died and I wrote a post about her that, unbeknownst to me, was included in her funeral as well.
My maternal grandmother died at the end of February and I couldn’t write a word. Life has continued to get busier as the school fully reopened to parents with extra activities leading up to the end of the year, and I told myself I was just too busy. But I don’t think that’s why. Life has been challenging, and I told my sister the other day that, “things haven’t been great since Grandma died.” The truth is probably closer to, “things haven’t been great because Grandma died.”
When a parent or sibling or best friend dies, the heaviest grief is split between the immediate few. When a grandparent dies, the pain is spread out and trickling down from her sibling (who just celebrated his 90th birthday) to her children and on down through the grand- and great-grandkids. I felt like I was claiming too much of the grief for myself and needed to just get over it. People lose their grandparents all the time. Its not normal to get a call from your grandmother on your thirty-sixth birthday. I was lucky to have her in my life for so long, when she was still so mentally sharp and easy to talk to.
I just wanted to keep being that lucky.
Now that school is out, my afternoons are better. I used to call when I was waiting in the pickup line to get my sons, and often she’d be out and wouldn’t call back until I was in the middle of making dinner so we couldn’t connect at all, but I still thought, “I should send her this photo of Mary,” or, “I should ask her why my biscuits won’t rise.” It was hard to sit in that line and know I couldn’t even catch her answering machine just to say hi.
There are two main reasons I think the grief is weighing so heavily on me.
The first is that I felt like I had more to learn from her. She lived in Austin, and for the last five years I’ve lived in El Paso, so if I’m in town it’s usually for a big family event, like a wedding, bridal shower, or baptism. That means when I would get the chance to see Grandma it was with ten other people, and the chatter and commotion would wear her out. There was no time to pull her aside and ask her about the rationing of panty hose during WWII or how she felt about my mom’s long straight hippy hair in high school.
I did call her, exhausted one day, and ask her how she did it. She had three kids close in age. I have three kids close in age. How on earth did she do it? “We did it because we had to do it. There was no other option. We just worked very hard, and eventually it got easier.” This is succinct and probably accurate, but I was really hoping for actual logistical tips for when your children outnumber your hands.
I think the other reason I feel so hollowed out by her death is that my brain is skipping ahead. Through some miracle of timing and good fortune I was able to drive all night to Austin when my grandma’s heart started failing and she was transitioned to hospice. I was able to hold her small hand and say goodbye, and to tell her what she had meant to me, and how much I’d miss her. But I was also there to see my mom and aunt say goodbye, and it was something I’ll never forget. To lose a parent, even one that had lived a good long ninety-five years and was absolutely ready to go, is a singular pain.
My therapist noticed that I wall off things I have decided will ruin me. Things I fear I can’t come back from. The death of a child, tragedy befalling an immediate family member, my husband suffering a debilitating illness, or any other horror-fiction my brain can muster. Losing a parent is one of those things. In the months following grandma’s death, I’d sit and think, “this feels so terrible. What will happen when it’s my own mother?” and then my brain walls that off because it’s clearly something from which I could never return whole.
My grandfather died of a heart attack. We got the call to hurry to my uncle’s house and then caravan down to Houston from Austin together. By the time we reached my uncle’s, he had died. There was certainly a boatload of grief, but it was mixed with shock. For grandma, we’ve known this day would eventually come. She has been in relatively good health, took very few medications, but once you live past ninety, everyone around you is sort of expecting that call. Logically, most people who smoked (possibly before we knew it was deadly), drank martinis, and ate a lot of butter will probably die before the age of a hundred. People who eat nothing but kale and drink only rainwater also die before they get to a hundred! So for grandma, it wasn’t a surprise to hear that her heart was giving out.
There is some closure available for the loved ones of people who don’t die suddenly. You can be extra careful not to pick a fight, for who knows if that will be the last conversation you have with your mom, whereas if you thought you had all the time in the world, you might be critical or sarcastic knowing you can repair the damage another day. Really though, you won’t feel like you’ve said the right things no matter how clear the final moments are. Did she hear me? Does she know it’s me? Did she understand what I meant?
I didn’t want everything to be so serious. So final. I didn’t want to watch my beloved grandmother die. So before I had to leave and drive home, I made a joke, and she laughed gently and squeezed my hand. And then I left, because I had to, and because I felt like that was a good moment to savor. I made the choice to say goodbye when I could have just recalled the memories of her laughing and talking and raising a glass at cocktail hour, but I chose to see her in the end (truly a fortuitous happenstance that I could get away those few days which would not have been possible had she died at any other time this year). She was in and out of consciousness and it wasn’t clear she knew who she was talking to most of the time, but just in case she was still in there, aware of her surroundings, I wanted to be there. Of course, when she laughed and acknowledged who I was, that was maybe a “rally,” where a person at the end of life seems to briefly improve before dying, and she died about a twenty-four hours later, so I also sometimes wonder if my dumb joked killed my grandmother.
She died while my family was standing around her, singing Amazing Grace. It sounds like a movie scene, but it’s true. A few days before, when she could still speak, she chatted with my grandfather in the empty space above her bed. That’s how everyone knew it was time. My mom and aunt had to tell her it was okay to go see Grandpa, and we would all be fine. That’s a strength I don’t think I’ll ever have. I’ll be selfishly telling my mother she can never leave, because we still haven’t perfected the cryogenic freezing process and I need to be able to defrost her to ask about mustard stains on school uniforms and whether or not I should store apples in the fridge. Assuming she is a hundred and ten, and I’m still calling her every day with incessant questions and complaints about motherhood, she will also be thoroughly ready to go.