Four Years Later

I paused several times before writing this. I worried it would cheapen my grief. I worried it would be an attempt to capitalize on the death of the woman who made me. I didn’t want to manufacture mourning into a narrative in an attempt to be the next Cheryl Strayed or Joan Didion. Not that they did those things, but I know my ambitions, and I worried that in writing this down, I would be indulging those ambitions.

Last year, on the third anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I did nothing. I said nothing. I had told a few close friends it was coming up, but as the date drew closer, I felt as if I could say nothing. My tongue was paralyzed. I didn’t want to seem to be inviting pity or whining for attention. I wanted my grief private because I wanted to honor my grandmother, and my grandmother was a very private person. I worked that day. I’m not certain, but I think that I worked that day. I think that because I work every day. I worked and I was miserable and moody, as I always am in the days up to and including the seventh of December. I worked and I mourned and I drank wine when I got home and I went to bed and the next day it was over. It’s strange how that works. How your body, your emotions, your spirit seems to have an internal funereal clock, ticking down the days until a certain amount of time has passed. It’s probably all psychological.

This year has been the same. But worse. Friends have asked me what was wrong and I have been unable to answer. Not really answer. Because I did not want to cheapen it. Because I did not want to make a show of grief.

However, in the end, I think every writer, every diarist and scribe, every novelist and fanfiction typist hunched over a keyboard, is an exhibitionist. Joan Didion once said she writes in order to understand what it is she is feeling. That is true for me as well. But I need to express it out loud, to someone, to the public. I need to hear my voice echo in order to understand it fully.

It’s been four years. I can’t decide what is harder: the missing her, or the ever-present fear that if she were alive, I would be disappointing her.

I think of how I mark her death. Quietly, to myself, no more drunken posts on Facebook, no more prostrations of grief. Just myself, and my bad moods, and a quiet observation of the day. I think that that is how she would have wanted it.

My grandmother was a humble woman. She was uncomfortable under a lot of attention. She was proud and imperious and sure of herself, but humble, and kind, and retiring. She didn’t like to eat at restaurants, because she did not like to eat in front of people she didn’t know. She was shy. For her birthdays, we never did much. Every once in a while, every couple of years, I would buy her flowers. Or my uncle would throw a party. Or my mother would do something nice. She always said thank you. Always grunted and went along as if she would just as rather not be bothered. She didn’t like the attention. But then I think of how I feel, on the quieter birthdays, how I feel when someone tells me happy birthday. I think of that, and I wish I had done more.

It isn’t regret really. There is no regret in remembering my grandmother. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. Just… longing. To hear that voice again… I would give anything.

The first time she was really sick, the beginning of the changing of our relationship of her as parent and me as child to me as parent, she was thirsty. I can’t remember now… was it a knee surgery? Some sort of surgery. She couldn’t get up easily. And she was thirsty. It was late at night. She had called me several times during the night. I was tired and young (twelve? Thirteen?) and impatient. I was obviously irritated when she called me that last time.

“Are you mad?” she asked, anxiously.

I felt myself taken aback at her tone. Grandma didn’t sound that way. Not often. Not… anxious. Not weak. Not scared. Not vulnerable. Grandma was… Grandma. She was an institution. She was my parent. She was stronger than any mountain.

But still, I was young and ungrateful and tired.

“No, Grandma,” I said, too patiently, with too much exasperation, “I’m not mad. I don’t mind. Really.”

She asked for water. And by water, she meant Diet Pepsi. She loved Diet Pepsi. It was all she ever drank. I encouraged her to drink more water. She never wanted water. She never listened to me. She wanted Diet Pepsi.

She took her first drink out of the cup I had brought her, her eager, thirsty gulping. It was dark. A bit of light escaping from the hall into the bedroom, illuminating only the barest outline of the bookshelf and her dresser.

“Oh, thanks Seth, you’re a lifesaver.”

It was the first time I ever felt that tenderness to her. The tenderness of parent to child. It was so odd to hear her using that phrase that way. “You’re a lifesaver.” It just sounded so unlike her. It sounded so young. She seemed so much smaller. It was cute. It was cute like when a kitten does something. I felt protective and sorry about my earlier impatience. I felt like I imagine she had felt about me my entire life.

I think one of the greatest divides between a parent and a child is the resentment, however buried, that a child inevitably feels when they discover that their parent is not perfect, is not immortal, cannot protect them from anything and everything that will come. I think we all feel it. It isn’t conscious always, but it’s there. When our parents die, we come to the shocking realization that they are not gods, however much we believed them to be deep down. They always seemed so tall when we were children. They made us feel so safe. The world rested on their shoulders and they would protect us against everything. We want to believe in something bigger than ourselves, and a part of us is shocked and angry and despairing when we discover that our heroes are only human after all.

I lost that when my grandmother got sick, and I became the one doing the protecting. Or perhaps I didn’t lose it. Perhaps it merely changed into something different.

Because I still wish I could talk to her when something goes wrong in my life, which is too often. I wish I could turn to her when things don’t go the way I planned. I never got a chance to tell her, things didn’t go the way I planned. She couldn’t do anything about it. I know that. But it would be nice.

She was tall, my grandma. Until she became bound to the wheelchair, and then she inevitably seemed small. I remember, anytime a nurse or an aid or a physical therapist stood her up how surprised they were at her height. She was 5’11”. She was hardworking. She loved to mow the lawn, feed the hummingbirds, decorate for Christmas, and any show that contained vampires, werewolves, blood, murder and gore. That last is true, and I had to throw that in there before you start thinking she was a harmless, benevolent, little old lady.

One of my favorite comments I ever received about my grandma was from a woman named Sandy, at our local grocery store. I was working there as a stock boy, and Sandy was midway between my age and my grandmother’s, and she had worked with Grandma when she was at Boeing. “If I was ever in a fight,” said Sandy, her voice full of respect and rueful admiration, “I’d want your grandma on my side.”

She intimidated everyone. She took no nonsense. As I said, she was hardworking, and expected everyone else to be hardworking. She worked at many factories and plants, and they always wanted her to be a supervisor, but she never wanted the position. Being a relief manager at my own job now, I understand why. She never was unfair, or asked anyone to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, but she expected people to do their jobs. She started her union at a factory in Hartshorne, and was vice president of her branch of the union at Boeing. She was very pro-union, and because of her I would never pass a picket line.

She was hard and strong, but she was also kind. Very tender-hearted, although she didn’t display that openly. There was a girl who got pregnant in my neighborhood when she was about fourteen. She was from a bad family, and the girl herself got wrapped up in drugs at an early age. This girl was forever walking her baby back and forth across the neighborhood in some beat up old walker. My grandma was very concerned about the girl, and her baby. She sent me to Wal-Mart with the money to buy a new walker, and we gave it to her, although Grandma absolutely did not want to speak to her and forbid me from letting her in the house. Thanks for that kind of thing would have embarrassed her, and she did not like meeting new people.

I guess there is some regret, after all, because my biggest regret is that I didn’t see her more at the end of her life. I was away at college, at OSU in Stillwater, and I was very busy being in college. Being a college kid, being dumb and being depressed and being promiscuous and being young. I didn’t go home much. It’s a three-hour drive, or three-and-a-half if you stop to pee as much as I do, and it was always such a hassle. I should have gone home more. I should have seen her more.

No. Not should have. I wish I had. I feel no obligation, no failed sense of duty. I am sorry that I didn’t. Because now I would give anything to see her again.

Missing her is an old, deep pain in me now, a longing that is much a part of me as roots are part of a tree. I don’t express it often, I don’t talk about it often, because it hurts, but I think I should. It hurts, but it hurts in a good way. It is good to remember her and smile. Remember her quirks and her rages and how tight she pretended to be on money, but how absolutely generous she could not help being.

I got to the hospital just a little too late to find her fully coherent. She was heavily medicated, and couldn’t seem to fully wake up. My mom and Aunt Bettie Jo poured cold water on her, just to see, and she did wake up somewhat for a second, just to mutter a sharp, “Bettie Jo! What are you doing?!”

She did wake up a bit for me as well. Her last words, if I remember correctly, were to me. I had gotten there, and they had poured water on her, and they managed to shake her awake to convey to her that I was there. “Seth is here.”

She looked up from that hospital bed and smiled, her eyes opening somewhat, and said, her mouth barely opening and full of sleep and medicine and exhaustion, “Oh. Seth. I love you.”

So I said to her, “I love you too Grandma. I’m right here and I’m going to stay here as long as you are.”

She never woke up after that. They tried a procedure, but they couldn’t anaesthetize her for it, because her heart wasn’t strong enough to start back up from the anesthesia. The next day, after much debate between my mom and aunts and uncles and I, we decided. I had to give the order, because I was the one listed on the living will as having the ability to make that choice.

And they pulled out her breathing tube or whatever it was, and they shut some machines off, and that was it. I was and am relieved for her. She suffered a lot those last few years. They were hard. She survived mostly, I think, for me. She even told me that. The night I stayed in her hospital room, on that cot feet away from her bed, I whispered to her, “It’s okay Grandma. I know you’ve been doing this for me, and if you don’t feel like it, you don’t have to. Because I’m going to be fine. You’ve raised me to be fine.”

And I am fine. I mean, I’ve made mistakes, a lot of them. I haven’t graduated yet, but by God I’m going to. That’s all Grandma wanted in life was for me to graduate college, and if I have to crawl to the graduation procession, I will. I will be fine. Life isn’t as I imagined or hoped it would be, but it is a good life.

There was one day, about two weeks after it happened. My best friend Alex had stayed the night, because she always stayed the night, we slept together our last year, maybe two years, of college. Because I didn’t want to be alone and neither did she. We were getting up; it was a weekend I think. I was at the kitchen sink, she was in the living room, we were talking. I was pouring water into the water purifier and I remember having this itch between my shoulders, this nagging sense that I was forgetting something. Something seemed off.

Then I remembered. It had been so long since I had talked to Grandma! Why hadn’t I called Grandma? I needed to call her. I should be ashamed of myself.

I opened my mouth to say so to Alex, and then I remembered.

Oh.

Right. That thing. That’s why it’s been so long.

That is what they don’t tell you about grief. It isn’t constant. It’s tidal. You don’t throw yourself on the coffin, sobbing that it can’t be true. You forget that it is true, because so much of your life has been built around the person you’ve lost, it takes time to adjust to the fact that they’re gone. I don’t know that you ever really become accustomed to it. You just deal.

A couple of months after Grandma died, I was walking on campus. It was after classes, and I was… oh, I don’t know. Just messing around. I think I went to the student union and bought some stuff I didn’t need. I was looking through my phone, walking across campus, and I noticed a notification on my phone. It was a voicemail, from a number labeled “Home.” That number is still in my phone, even though “Home” has long since ceased to exist. “Home” died with her. Somebody else has that phone number. I’ll never call it again. But it’s still in there. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to delete it.

It had been a while since she died. I knew I wasn’t over it, but I didn’t think it would bother me all that much. It was just a voicemail. Grandma was awkward on the phone. She often came off short and gruff and annoyed. So I decided to listen, standing outside the student union, I pressed play:

“Seth? This is Grandma. Just calling to see if you need anything. It’s been a while since I heard from you. See if you need some money or anything. I love you.”

I’ll never stop missing her, and loving her. Everything I am is because of her.

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