My family tribe lost our maternal matriarch on August 10th, 2014.
While everyone was grieving, while no one was watching, I witnessed her last breath. There were pauses before this one that made us all think it was over, but then she’d draw another breath and we’d hold ours. I don’t know if it was a reflex in the chest or if it was actually her final breath, but it was incidental in its movement and came within 30 seconds of the last one. Then it was over.
My aunt, who lost a baby when I was a child, asked her mother to look for Jenna Rose when she reached heaven. The idea that my grandma would still have a chance to be a grandmother after leaving all of us will make me smile the rest of my life. I also witnessed my mother ignoring her searing lower back pain in order to lean over her mother and whisper in her ear that it was okay to let go. She touched her mother’s shoulder, then her head, then ran her fingers through the silvery, unkempt hair. All throughout my grandma’s last 45 minutes, my mother was encouraging her mother through tears to embrace the angel who visited my grandma each night.
Oh yes, there was an angel. I believe that wholeheartedly. I didn’t see it, but my grandma told me three days before she died that an angel had been witness to her prayers and her singing each night before she went to sleep. He was more beautiful than she could describe, more colors than she could define, and as she fell asleep, he would wrap his arms and wings around her in an embrace.
In her final 5 seconds of life, she opened her eyes wide and her mouth formed an O-shape. She wasn’t looking at any of us and didn’t even seem to know we were there anymore. Later, John described her expression being like a little kid watching fireworks. Whatever she saw, wherever she was going, she was in awe and wonder when she finally saw it.
To watch another person die is profound. I’ve never had the honor in my 34 years of life but now I have. It is hard to process the experience while grieving. Sometimes the memories bring tears to my eyes and a stabbing pain to my chest and other times I’m able to smile fondly and thank the universe for putting her in my life. We have only been grieving 9 days. It has only been 4 days since we buried her.
Each family member who made it to the hospital had a private moment with her. She slept soundly in-between visits in order to conserve energy for the next person. Each time, we told her that so-and-so was almost there and if she could hold on a bit longer, they would be at her side as quickly as they could. We gathered from California, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Vienna, Austria and stood vigil in the waiting room just down the hall from her room. Because there were so many of us (7 cousins/grandkids, 1 great-grandson, spouses, parents, etc.), we claimed the waiting room as our own and left our belongings there, slept there, and ate meals there. Nurses told us they’d not seen a family like us; most families came for a visit and then departed. We stayed 12-14 hours a day, my grandma knew we were at her fingertips. When she was craving her treat (sherbet and Sprite Zero blended together), we were on it. When she needed ice chips to soothe her throat, one of us had the spoon at hand. When she needed the towel on her forehead re-moistened, we were ready. On her last morning, all she needed to do was tap her mouth and we’d give her water via a small sponge.
Her passing shakes up and redistributes the roles in our family now. My aunt is now the matriarch. My grandpa is now a widower in a big house that was organized and managed by a wife no longer there. My uncle, who flew in from Aigua, Uruguay for the funeral, is conscious of his upcoming role as patriarch which he will attain someday far, far away from the rest of the family. My mom, the youngest of her siblings, is next in line after my aunt. The three of them, along with my grandpa, are now in charge of clothing, memorabilia, canned food items, jewelry, decorations, toiletries, unused medications, kitchen utensils, and potted plants that encompassed the life of a woman now gone.
To see her lipstick in her vanity drawer with the indentations from her lips still on them is unsettling. Her curlers still carry strands of her hair in them and her bedroom lingers with her scent. Most items in the house are inscribed with her handwriting; she left notes telling the short story or history of where these items came from. The necklace I wore to her visitation and her funeral was housed in an envelope saying it was from my Uncle Ryan and his first wife when they lived in Alaska. On the flip side of the envelope, she wrote: “Hope someone takes this”.
Her toiletries tell a story of a woman who did not want to grow old. Not only didn’t want to, but fought it every step of the way. She bought wrinkle eraser creams and oils and anything promising to give you a more youthful glow. I remember her telling me many times that I shouldn’t grow old; that it wasn’t any fun. I would say to her that I didn’t like the alternative and she’d grimace and say, “Wellll, that’s true.” She was incredulous that her body wouldn’t allow her to do everything she could do in her youth and to my knowledge never made peace with the betrayal.
She stubbornly held onto her two story house, long since paid off and way too big for her to maintain properly, because it held memories and allowed for a gathering place for the family even though she eventually had to concede that she wasn’t able to clean it properly anymore and hired one of my cousins to clean for her. My grandpa had long since hired a neighbor kid to do the lawn and the family was in the midst of encouraging them to hire someone to plow their driveway in the upcoming winter.
A year later to the day.
We all remember her from our corners of the world. We reach out to each other via modern technology and spread the love that drew us together a year ago in Indiana. I can’t believe it’s been a year already. It’s felt longer. It’s felt shorter. I see photos of her and I hear her voice immediately. My grandpa has been adjusting to living on his own and I couldn’t be more proud of him for grabbing the life given to him each day and making the most of it. He’s busier than I am most days.
She wasn’t a saint, but she was my grandma. I inherited my control issues and my stubborn streak from her. My forgetfulness, even my restless leg syndrome. I hope I don’t inherit her diabetes. Or her brain aneurysm. Or the seemingly hundreds of illnesses that wore her down in her last couple of decades. She grew bitter at times, resentful that her body had given up on her. She sometimes took that negativity out on those around her.
I get that from her also.
But in sharing the good and the bad, in remembering it also, I hope to present her as a whole person. Someone who lived her life for 85 years and made a mark. If I live to be at least her final age, I have 50 more years to do the same.
Two years to the day…
I’m going to write to you today, Grandma.
The grief isn’t as drowning as it was one year ago, two years ago. That doesn’t mean you aren’t missed.
But please forgive me, there is a different, newer grief that I am cradling and today came as a bit of a surprise when I realized what day it was. In the midst of this personal, newer grief, I still feel the pull to comfort you and others. Don’t worry though; family will always be family.
I was telling a friend yesterday how different life is after you have witnessed death first hand. How less scary and mysterious it can be now. I’m not talking about the actual act of how someone comes to die (you’d be despondent over how much worse and hateful the world has become) but rather the moment after. Regardless of what happens (I tend to lean more toward our energy reincarnating and I know you would gasp at that but I’m telling you; John and I are pretty positive we saw you as a baby at the Chrome Plate Diner two winters ago), the fact that you looked more peaceful than I’d seen you in awhile after your last breath spoke wonders.
So here I am, one of your many descendents, embarking on a new path, another move (I can clearly hear you say, “Ohhhh, Clara”), and hoping to god I catch a glimpse of why I’m here.
Oh, and I still don’t have diabetes. I know you’ll be relieved to hear that. I’m doing my best to honor your memory by taking care of my health. I haven’t done the greatest of jobs lately but it’s one day at a time…
Three years later…
Life keeps moving on. You are remembered, of course. You never enjoyed prolonged attention while you were alive so I imagine you’re settling into a comfortable space where you know that you live omnipresently in our memories and hearts. The grief has settled into a low rumble that roars occasionally but for the most part is content to make way for current grief happening.
I lived in your old house for 10 months this past year. It’s Grandpa’s house now and he’s made it his own. It’s quiet and comfortable in its creakiness and I’ll never forget the soothing sounds of rain hitting the roof mere feet above my head or the scampering of squirrel feet in the snow-covered roof that would wake me with a start in the middle of the night. Having Grandpa as a roommate ended up saving both of our lives both literally and figuratively. It’s a time of my life that will always hold both gratitude and life-changing healing.
I didn’t visit your grave while I lived there. I had other grief that I needed to tend to and even though time has mellowed my sorrow at losing you, I wasn’t entirely sure how or if it would trigger me this time.
I’ve started over (again and again and again but hopefully for the last time) in New York and if you were still here, you’d fret about me being here by myself even though I’m not close to the city. If there’s one thing I wish could have changed about our relationship, it’s this: that you could have been capable of facing the world around you with courage rather than fear. Because that fear controlled a lot of how you interacted with your surroundings and with your loved ones even if you didn’t recognize it as such. I was trapped there for awhile too but I’m learning that just as fear has a place in my life, so too does courage. And for the first time, I’m living my life in order to make me proud first. Everyone else being proud is a bonus.
Anyway, you’ve been on my mind since I woke up and I just wanted to say hello.