I have never before written as a method of healing. Well, unless you count the “poetry” I wrote as a young teenager, which at this point I wouldn’t, even if André Maurois says it is a way to “give expression in the written word to emotions or the ideas which people and things have aroused in” me. I suppose I’ve always thought it best to maintain a safe distance from what I feel rather than share it in a way that makes it permanent. I’ve avoided journaling for the same reason. Withholding feelings from paper, rejecting their permanence, is safer. At least that’s what I thought.
Two months and six days ago, my maternal grandmother passed away. Before she fell and broke her hip in December, she was as healthy as she could be for a woman of 91 living with severe aortic stenosis. My mother guessed, when she fell, that it was a result of the stenosis and the valve closing. Mom called me on the 29th of December to tell me Ma had fallen, hit her head, and broken her hip, and so my mother was flying back to Baltimore to be with her.
My first thought was, “I forgot to call her on Christmas, and it was her last one.”
My second thought was, “Wait, who am I kidding, Ma is strong, she’ll recover and be fine.”
My third thought was, “Oh, shit. No.”
Then I hated distance. I hated being 1800 miles away from my grandmother, from the rest of my family. I hated being the only one of my siblings in Colorado. I hated that I had ever moved to Colorado. In the hospital, my grandmother endured surgery to repair her hip. She did well. The doctor said her prognosis was good. She sat up in her bed the day following the surgery, and asked when “somebody” could walk again. I talked to her a handful of times while she was in the hospital. The first time, I asked her what she was doing falling down and breaking her hip. She replied, in her slow Tennessee style, “Well, I don’t know.” I told her she needed to get well so we could all see her when we visited Maryland over the summer. She gave a short laugh and said she would try.
Either from the stress of the surgery, or her slowly closing valve, she had a heart attack and developed atrial fibrillation, which the doctors attempted to control with medication. The medication worked, and my mother and aunt looked for rehabilitation facilities where my grandmother could learn to walk again. My grandmother, though, slowly stopped eating. She would eat some oatmeal, share some of my sister’s scone, drink juice, but not enough to provide her the required nutrition.
The second time I talked to Ma, I scolded her for not eating, because my mother asked me to. I said, “Juanita! You need to eat more than a few bites of oatmeal.” She said, “Aahhh!” when I used her name, and then told me that she just wasn’t all that hungry.
She developed jaundice. Instead of rehab, my mother and aunt began to sort out Ma’s hospice care. The last time I talked to her, my mother was afraid she wouldn’t know who I was. But I had to tell her it was ok. I had to tell her not to wait, that she could go, that I loved her and I missed her and I was sorry I wasn’t there. At first it seemed she didn’t know who I was. She did. She told my mother, “She’s got that little one to take care of, you know.” She knew it was me.
Ma was able to receive hospice care in her own room at her assisted living facility, so she had her pictures of her family and friends. She had all of her things, and her vase of flowers that of course included lilacs. My mother returned from Baltimore once my grandmother was situated in her room, but my sister, father, aunt, cousins, and family friends sat with my grandmother constantly. They updated me via texts and emails. On the morning of the 15th of January, after my aunt sent an email letting us know that, per the hospice nurse, Ma was in no distress but was in the phase of “actively dying,” I made a request of my older sister, who sat with my grandmother: “Can I send you something to read to her?” My sister read my grandmother a nonfiction piece I’d written about her and said, “That’s a cool story.”
“Thank you. I wanted her to know.”
I’ll never know if Ma was still there to hear it, or if her soul had gone on already, but her body finally gave out within an hour of my sister reading to her. The rest of the day is a haze, but these things I remember:
Then the waiting. My mother left for Baltimore that night, but I would only be able to go out for Ma’s viewing and funeral.
So I waited. And thought. I came to the conclusion that grieving at a distance – away from family – is impossible. I looked for ways to cope, in the in-between time, with this new emptiness in my life. In my head, my grandmother would always be – still was – there. The anguish in my mother’s and sister’s voices convinced me, but only partly.
I needed to see Ma.
Because I am a literature nerd, and understand that the human experience is one big ball of connectedness expressed through literature, I printed a few articles regarding death and dying in literature so I could read them on the plane to Baltimore. Thanks to a Bloody Mary and general inability to focus (were the two related? possibly.), I didn’t read the articles. I vaguely remember the flight, but I do remember being thankful for the sound of the thrust reverser camouflaging my sobs, and that the two strangers either side of me left me mercifully alone.
Then I was there. My father and sister picked me up from the airport, and we were at the funeral home within ten minutes. Not nearly enough time. I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t do this in front of so many people. I waited until the first viewing was over and for all of the people (welcome distractions, people I’d not seen in years) to leave before I went into the viewing room. As I waited I kept remembering what someone told me: “This isn’t for her. It’s for you. It’s for us.”
Good thing, too. It wasn’t her. She had on her watch, her glasses, and an outfit with a pink sweater my mother had bought her for Christmas. Her hair, though, had been “gussied up,” as she would have called it, and they’d put lipstick on her. My grandmother never, in my lifetime, wore lipstick. The worst part, for me, was her hands. They were completely still. I had never seen them still. Even if she sat watching television, her hands were always working – purposefully or aimlessly – at a piece of fabric, her shirt, her pants, a wadded up paper towel, a napkin. I still see her hands. It happens when I’m getting ready for bed at night, or ready for work in the morning. When I’m picking my son up from daycare and thinking how much she would have loved him. When I see my daughter unable to hold her own hands still because she, too, is a worrier. When I look at my mother’s hands.
I was surrounded by noise. The room was hushed now that everyone had left, but my head reverberated with the emptiness I felt, accompanied by my mother’s whispers as she fluttered around me: “She needed a haircut, that’s why her hair looks like that…her watch stopped right around the time that she passed…she looks good, doesn’t she?” My mother couldn’t stand still. I felt lost. I was rooted to the spot, but for the first time in my life I felt completely rootless. There was nothing grounding me anymore. First they’d demolished my grandmother’s house, my childhood home, and now here she was, but here she was not. I’d never felt so adrift and incapable. Even with my mother, father, step-father, and sister around me, I’d never felt more alone; yet, I wanted to be left alone.
My short time in Maryland passed in a blur. We had the viewing, then dinner at my aunt’s house, then another viewing, and then I spent the night at my father’s house. The morning of the funeral, as predicted, it snowed. Ma hated snow. She loved to look at it from inside the house, but to have to deal with it otherwise? No. The world was colorless, bland, even more so to me because she was gone. I kept thinking, on the drive to the church for the funeral and then to the cemetery, “Ma’s pissed it’s snowing like this.” Then, “Ma would be pissed it’s snowing like this.”
Her burial site was a disaster of snow, ice, and cold, cutting wind. Huddled together under a tent that did next to nothing to shelter us, my family shivered as my uncle, a pastor, read the customary passage from the Bible – I don’t even remember what it was – and the funeral director hurried through what she had prepared. There was a poem about a tree, and a small silver token. I have them. It occurred to me as I stood there, staring at my grandmother’s casket – made of a deep, brown-colored wood, in honor of my carpenter grandfather – and the snow continued to leave white and clear spatter marks on its smooth surface, that I was likely standing on the grave of my Aunt Elease, for whom my daughter is named. I said so to my mother, and she said, “Well, it can’t be helped.”
After the burial, my dad drove me straight to the airport. It was good to be alone.