My grandmother passed away yesterday. It’s been a weird time warp since Thursday morning, when I learned she’d had a stroke, and now — it was forever and much too fast all at the same time. As much as I’m glad she went peacefully, and that she didn’t linger indefinitely in death’s waiting room, it all seems to be over too soon.
She lived nearly 100 years, but when it comes down to it, there is never enough time.
My grandmother has been there for me since I was born, and I’m not sure how the world works now that she’s no longer in it. Years ago (seven of them, if we’re counting), she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wanted to tell me one on one, because she knew I’d be upset. I took the news okay as she spoke, then I went home and cried for two days. Not because I didn’t believe that she could beat cancer (she did), but because it was the first time in my life that I had to confront the idea that she was mortal after all. It’s hard to learn that your heroes are susceptible to death, and I hadn’t considered the possibility before that she wouldn’t actually be around forever.
Over the past few years, I’ve watched Alzheimer’s change her from the sharp-as-a-tack, memory-like-an-elephant, never-misses-a-trick woman I knew into someone different. The truth is that I have missed her for years now, missed the person that she was, even as I continued to love who she became. The grandma I had known all my life was different, gone in a lot of ways, but sometimes the disease would let her loose long enough for the old her to peek out from the shadows with a joke, with a nagging question about when I was getting married, with a comment about my hair (because my hair was always apparently cause for concern).
I have missed her for years, and at the same time, I didn’t miss her yet. She was still there, still present, still available to be visited on the weekends, to tell stories, to eat chicken strips.
And now she’s not. I spent much of the past few days keeping vigil with my family, but I wasn’t there when she died. I got the call, I left work immediately. Every other truck on I-94 had to pass every other truck on I-94, and I missed her last moments by just a few minutes. This is probably for the best, although I know she went peacefully, and fortunately I had already spent some time the night before sitting with her alone and saying my goodbye, there is still a part of me that thinks, “Thanks 94 for always being the absolute worst.”
What to say? There are so many things. I could write nonstop for days and never get it right. Should I write a funny story? Should I write something else? I don’t know. The world’s a little darker now, and I am a little more rootless.
My grandmother was beautiful. She was stubborn, she was smart, she was opinionated. She could do math IN HER HEAD (so, clearly, she was also a magician). She was not particularly patient. She liked to be on time. She wasn’t good at sitting still. She could grow flowers like mad. She once stabbed a snake hanging from rafters in a barn in the head with a pitchfork, which is — let’s face it — a pretty incredible level of badass. She was a Godly woman who wanted the best for the people in her life.
She was a lot of things, could do a lot of things, but the reason she was so loved by so many was because she loved them back. She wasn’t one for particularly grand gestures or flowery words. Her highest praise took form in phrases like “That’s pretty good,” or “Not too bad,” or “That’s alright.” But she showed love by serving others, by doing. It would frustrate me to no end when I was a kid on spring break and she would call me at 8 a.m. to come over and rake leaves in her yard, because I shouldn’t still be in bed and I shouldn’t spend my time being idle, but now that I’m older, I understand that she would come over early on her day off (if she wasn’t retired before I was born, that is) to do something for me, because doing stuff was how she loved, and doing stuff was how she felt love back.
If I needed help, she was there. If I walked out of school with a group of friends in tow and asked her to give them all rides home, she would do it. If I showed up at her house, she would feed me. If I showed up with anyone else, she would feed them too. She drove me around, she bought me stuff (including pantsuits when I was 15, to which I finally said I was not 80 and didn’t want to dress like I was, so she was going to have to stop buying me clothes). She worried when I traveled, she liked when I called, she said whenever I was ready to leave after a visit, “You hurry back.”
She taught me how to make a pie, how to embroider flowers, how to sew a throw pillow. She was proud of me, and she liked to tell people I was her granddaughter. Her single granddaughter. (She really really wanted me to get married, and used to say she couldn’t die until I did; I apologized to her for never getting there, and promised I’m ok just the same.)
And, in the middle of all this sap, let me take a moment to point out she was also a little weird. She had this hanging in her garage for years:
Later, she embellished it like so:
It took her awhile to realize that her clothespin holder looked like a quilted pair of underpants, but still. That never stopped her from using it, because hey, it worked. Practical. She was always practical.
I loved her for all of these reasons, and for others too. How do you sum up a life? How do you explain why you love someone? It’s a task beyond me and my ability to manipulate words. She was an incredible little powerhouse, and she’s gone. I am glad she no longer has to fight against disease and decline. I am sorry she couldn’t stay forever. I haven’t truly realized yet that I won’t be able to visit anymore and see those beautiful blue eyes of hers sparkle when she said something she thought was terribly clever. I will realize it eventually. I’m not looking forward to it.
The best I can do is remember her, and remember the things she did and said and tell her stories, because telling a person’s stories is how you keep them with you.
And Grandma, I just want you to know I am truly sorry about my hair.