Dealing with death has never been easy for me. When my aunt died, I was 14 and we were on vacation in Tennessee. Due to a series of events, I never attended any of her viewings before the funeral. For years, around the anniversary of her death, I would have dreams where she and I would talk. I don’t have those dreams anymore. I’m afraid that, like my dreams and memories of my aunt, my memories of my grandmother’s life will fade, replaced by the memories of her passing and funeral. I’m afraid I won’t have dreams where we talk.
A day before the two-month anniversary of Ma’s passing, I finally sat down to read the article “Death and dying in literature” by John Skelton. It was state testing week at my school. I had a small group of five students, which allowed for a modicum of “freedom” while proctoring. I didn’t have to pace constantly. I could wander, sit, read; the combination, I would find, was a bit dangerous. I figured enough time had passed, that I would be able to read the article in a very detached, literary, clinical way. Instead I had to constantly force back tears.
The first point that caught my attention was, “One of the most central things of which literature can make us more aware is that death means different things at different times.” Yes. When Aunt Elease passed away, it was so abstract to me. I was a teenager, and we were on vacation in another state. She died in her sleep, and because I never went to a viewing, it was easy to trick myself into believing that she was just somewhere “else.” I convinced myself that everyone was playing a trick on me, even though I witnessed first-hand my mother’s earth shattering cry of pain when we returned to my grandmother’s house after hearing the news. I will never forget that moment. I still see my mother, barely out of the truck, bent in half, broken in her pain. I hurt, too, but on a different level. I loved Aunt Elease – she was the cornerstone of our family, the accepted matriarch; she owned her own business. She was smart, savvy, and well-spoken. She constantly corrected my and my sister’s grammar and speech and it drove us nuts. I thank her to this day, and now I correct the speech of my own daughter, and of course my students.
Aunt Elease’s death was different for me than Ma’s. At the age of 14, I had no concept of mortality, no idea of how lasting the effects of a family member’s death could be. Nor did I understand that, 20 years later, Ma’s death would affect me in a vastly different way, as I mourned in many ways, not the least of which over the fact that I realized my own children would experience that pain too. And so, Skelton is right: death means different things at different times.
The next point of Skelton’s I noted is how we use “writing…to structure and order our experience of death.” I suppose that’s what I’m doing here. I never wrote about Aunt Elease’s death, nor did I talk much about it with people at the time. I still don’t. I figured, really, why bother? I dealt with it then, I don’t need to mine that buried part of my life. Except I didn’t deal with it. I pushed it away, just like, for two months, I pushed Ma’s death away. I refused it. I said no. Sometimes I still refuse it. Even when she was in the hospital, I clung to the hope that she would pull through, as she always had before. I clung to my stepfather’s words, “That woman’s going to outlive me.” I clung to my wall that I hide everything behind. I didn’t want to make sense of my experience of death. I wanted to not experience it. But, I realized when I read that sentence, I had to do this, even as I wrote, in the margins, “I can’t do this.”
Because, nerd that I am, I attempted to use literature to help me process my grandmother’s death, I found Skelton’s next quote especially meaningful:
One of the central tasks of literature is to impose a structure on life and death, giving meaning to both. Indeed, literature as a discipline aims just as certainly as science does to understand the world in which we live and to interpret our own role as participants in the human condition.”
The subtitle of the section in which the above quote appears is “Making sense of death.” To quote my teacher self, “What does that even mean?” How do we make sense of death? Oxford says “make sense” means, “be intelligible, justifiable, or practicable.” Given that context, both Aunt Elease’s and Ma’s death “make sense.” Aunt Elease suffered a massive heart attack in her sleep. As a result, she passed away. Ma, though spry into her 90s, had severe aortic stenosis, and we knew that her valve would eventually close completely. Her initial fall could have been caused by dizziness resulting from limited blood flow. Due to complications from the series of events, and her stenosis, my grandmother passed away.
But does that mean it makes “sense?” Skelton uses a passage from Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and in it, Ralph says, “There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see others die.” How very curious a statement that, I learned, is paradoxically rather true and yet untrue. I never felt more disconnected or disjointed than when my grandmother died. I was rootless and cut off, like Ma’s lilac bush after the construction crew ripped it, unceremoniously, from the ground. Yet, Ma’s death sharply illuminated my own mortality for me, and so in a way I “felt” more “alive.”
My connection with my grandmother was based largely on, well, everything. Even when I moved to Colorado, she was there. Hearing her voice meant the world to me. Knowing she got her first pedicure at the age of 90 filled my day with inexplicable joy. When she sent me a card after the birth of my son, simply signed “Love you,” I cried tears of sadness for missing her so much, yet also joy at seeing those words in her handwriting. She wasn’t effusive. Those words, her handwriting, are special. Every time I talked to her, she never needed me to say, “Ma, it’s Heather.” She always knew my voice, knew it was me. In our recent conversations, she always asked me, “When am I going to get to see that baby?” and told me, “I love you” before we hung up. Her saying that meant the world to me; means the world to me.
So how do I make sense of her passing? Is it something I can make sense of now? Or do I need to wait? Is it something I can ever make sense of?
At her funeral, the lead pastor read something I’d written years ago. My mom asked if she could read it at the funeral, but when neither she nor I could handle the thought of reading it, he said he would. It was, in David Letterman style, the “Top 10 Reasons Why My Ma’s the Best,” plus an update I’d written the morning of her passing – before I knew she had gone on. Here is what he read:
Top 10 Reasons Why My Ma is the Best:
10. The glider on her back porch that even on hot, humid Maryland days was always so appealing.
9. The fact that I never really understood why we went into her house through the back door instead of the front.
8. The musty mothball smell that you would never think was comforting until Ma was your grandma.
7. The unbelievable amount of hours I spent watching Channels 54 and 45 on Saturday and Sunday afternoons when I was little…then she got cable when I stopped watching TV at her house.
6. The incredible backyard she had, full of places in which I always used to hide; the birds and squirrels she fed, and those “hateful things” that dug up her yard. Yes, Ma, the moles.
5. Bean soup, cornbread, and green beans.
4. The old radio in the kitchen she used to listen to WBAL radio every day for as long as I could remember.
3. Biscuits and gravy on Sunday mornings after Easter Sunrise Service…and whenever else she fixed them.
2. The way she was always there to pick me up from the bus stop. Sorry about turning your car radio up, Ma.
1. How she was always there, just when we all needed her to be, and how she will always be our Mom, our Grandmom, our Ma.
Though I wrote this list years ago (during my “I love David Letterman” phase), the reasons still hold true. Ma was always there, a steadfast rock in a sea of constant change. Her house and yard formed an enclave for an idyllic childhood of exploration in every imaginable sense. Her cooking, of course, was amazing to eat, though I’ve spent the better part of my adult life arguing with my thighs about how good it actually was. Her lilacs were always my favorite. They still are. Every year, when the lilacs bloomed in Colorado, I would steal as many as possible from other people’s lilac bushes because I didn’t have one. I sometimes would call Ma and tell her I did, and she would warn me I was going to get in trouble, like the time I pulled over and stole lilacs for her when she lived here with us. Ma loved her lilacs too, and she would constantly prune the bush to help it grow better. She was always good at that, at helping things grow: her lilacs, her garden, her grapevine…her children, grandchildren, great- and great-great-grandchildren. We all owe her so much.
Even if I can’t make sense of her passing, I can make sense of my love for my grandmother. I can make sense of the gratitude I feel toward her. I can make sense of my memories of her.
I think, through this writing, I’ve realized those are the things that matter. Not her death, the memory of the cold stillness of her hands, the fear of seeing and touching that stillness. I will remember her smell, her voice, her cooking, her lilacs; her laugh, her spirit, her feistiness, her spunk; her way of caring, her walk, her absent-minded humming. I will remember her.