Recently, I had the displeasure of watching my grandmother die. To tell you the truth she probably would not have liked that fact. I am sure if she could have had her way she would have passed behind closed doors. She was a proud woman, of what I am not sure, but she was very much into keeping up appearances and let me tell you, nothing knocks down the walls of pretense like death. It’s the only certainty we will ever know, the great equalizer for the human race. Her passing was a strange thing, and in the time leading up to it I was not sure how I would react. I tried so hard to find the appropriate emotion to feel through the whole process. I knew it was going to happen, but when it did I still felt taken entirely unawares. Some time ago she had a been diagnosed with s chronic illness and for years she has been dying. Unfortunately she was very much aware of that fact, and made us all aware of it as often as she could. I honestly believe that for the last 4 years she convinced herself that every morning she wasn’t gonna make it to lunch. Far be it my place to judge this, there will be a time when I am next on the chopping block and perhaps I too will fixate on the question of “Will I make it to lunch today?” but honestly I think it is simply too much work/stress to ponder that question during my morning Cheerios every day.
For 4 years she was certain that she wouldn’t make it to Christmas. That was 4 Christmas’ ago. She was so afraid to go, that she talked about it incessantly, and just like the story goes, she cried wolf emotionally so many times when the big one came it caught me a bit off guard. So like I said I couldn’t find the appropriate emotion. Don’t get me wrong, I was sadder than I have ever been before in my life. One day my mom said she was going into the hospital because she fell. The next day my mom told me she was in a lot of pain. And on the third day my mom informed me she wasn’t going to come home. I was stunned. I mean I never thought she would live for ever, but then again when you trip over an automan you don’t expect it to be life threatening. I spent most of that night walking through the autumn night crying sporadically on the street. I am sure I freaked out a good number of passers-bye but to be honest I don’t remember most of it. The next day while I was at work I broke down again. I couldn’t hold myself together and my head swam a bit. I am not sure how but the next thing I knew I was staring up at the open sky crying. I was lying in the field adjacent to my office building bawling my eyes out. For about fifteen minutes i sat there not feeling much of anything except pain. Which was really all I could do, I certainly couldn’t go back into my office to incoherently answer phones, and get my snotty tears all over file sheets. So I sat out in a field openly crying. As I sat out there I noticed that the kids playing soccer had gotten a little farther away from my side of the field. Despite myself I smiled a bit, I must have looked like a freak, but I was happy the kids were giving me the space I need, pretending not to notice me so that we could all safe face.
The day I heard the words, “She is probably not coming back home, the doctors give her less than a week.” I took my car to the mechanics to get safety checked. The next morning I sped the 267 miles back to my home town. The whole time one thought kept circling around in my head. ‘I need to get there before she decides to leave, I need to tell her she always did right by me.’ When I got there grandma was still alive but she was not herself anymore. My grandmother had been replaced by a sleeping person whose personal agenda involved sleeping through pain and starving to death. She was alive, but not cognizant. I felt like I had failed. I spent a lot of time over the next three days, looking at her, staring into her open mouth as she took labored breath, and, I ashamed to say, wondering when the appropriate time was to go home. It’s not that I did not want to be with her. It’s not that I was scared to be there in the end. It was that I knew with all conviction that I had gotten there too late. I almost felt I did not deserve to be there. I just wanted to go to a place where I wasn’t sad anymore.
Everyone tells me she knew I had made it, that she was aware of me even though she could not answer. And when she opened her eyes for just a minute I took the opportunity to speak to her. She tried so hard to focus her eyes. She tried so hard to say something to me; her mouth moved, but nothing came out. And I will always remember it that she did know I was there, because remembering it any other way is too painful. She wasn’t ever gonna wake up again, and I needed her to know I had gotten there to support her.
She was never going to a lot of things again: She wasn’t going to feign interest in my hobbies ever again. She wasn’t going to meet her great-grand-children. She wasn’t going to find out who her father was. She was never going to learn to drive a car. She was never going to eat food again, or drink water. She was never going to have another conversation with me. I don’t even remember what our last conversation was, and I think that is the part that hurts the most. I cannot remember the last thing I said to this woman.
We had Thanksgiving just a few days after she passed, and then a month later we had Christmas. Everyone told me that Holidays without her would be weird. They weren’t. The holidays were just excuses to see the rest of the family. Which was a good thing in my book. By the time Christmas rolled around I was pretty much fine. I told myself that this is just a fact and that we must keep living life regardless of how unfair this whole life thing is. I guess it’s getting to be that time of my life. My mentors are beginning to one by one die off, and my peers are beginning one by one to get married and have kids. This doesn’t bother me, but it does make me question my own choices, on a daily basis. I wonder if I should be doing something more.
Several weeks went by after her passing and for all outward appearances I was fine. But then the dreams started. They would always be the same, I would dream that I was on my way to dinner with my parents maybe out to a restaurant in my home town, maybe to some place entirely fictitious. Last week I wandered into a strange mix of a Steak and Shake and a Chuck E Cheese and as I find their table I am stopped dead in my tracks. There sitting off to one side is my grandmother. She always looks really relaxed and kind of bored with the whole situation. Her expression is almost always a “too cool for school can’t be bothered with the events of the living” kinda thing. She is sitting there just as sassy as can be, without her oxygen, dressed in a tasteful, slightly feminine, pants suite combination. And no matter what my reaction (sometimes I run over and shower her in hugs and kisses, and sometimes I just shrug and say hello like it is the most normal thing in the world) she always asks me the same kind of mundane questions. “How is living in Chicago? How are you and KT doing? Do you think you will be coming to visit soon? I hear it is dangerous on the south side of Chicago, you need to be careful.” I answer these questions as best I can, but before I get the chance to ask her anything the food comes, or the she has to leave, or I wake up. And in the morning I find myself regretting I did not get to ask her anything. I did not get to ask her about the other side. I did not get to ask her is she knew I was there in the end. I did not get to ask her if she was scared or sad or calm, or at peace. Soon these regrets pass though, because I remember that I did in fact get to say “I love you,” and that is perhaps all that matters.
I am not a big fan of interpreting dreams, and I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. I am not comforted by religion, or spirituality. And I can’t bring myself to believe that I was actually speaking to my grandmother, and not just my own sleeping mind. But I can say that I am happy to see her when she visits me in my dreams. I am happy that she is not fading, that I am continuing to remember her strong and vivacious, if a little overtly sassy. It is the only thing I can give her at this point. The only afterlife or immortality any of us will ever receive. What we leave on this earth are reasons to be remembered, influences given to others simply because they knew us. In that respect she is still here. Proof of that is that every so often my grandmother comes to hang out and shoot the breeze with my subconscious mind. And she never seems disappointed that I showed up a little late.