From the vault. I wrote this post shortly after my grandmother passed away. She was a complicated, high-strung and not always happy woman, but full of vibrancy and colour nonetheless. I am like her in many ways, and I wish I could have had a chance to know her better.
Originally Posted Wednesday, 07 January 2009
My grandmother passed away on December 25, 2008. I was back in Boise at the time, having driven home from Washington with my brother and mother on Tuesday the 22nd. I flew back to Seattle on the 26th, and spent the next week with my aunt and mother sorting through Grandma’s stuff, crying, reminiscing, and preparing for the Memorial service on Tuesday the 30th. What I thought would be the most difficult part, going through her things, turned out to be the most cathartic and really the best way to cope with grief. My Grandma had saved literally boxes full of old photo albums, and it was wonderful to go through them with my mom and aunt, sharing old stories, and talking and laughing.
We began to write up the obituary, starting in the morning, and getting nowhere. By the evening, we were all worried because the deadline to submit the obituary to the paper was in the morning and we had only a few biographical notes. My mom and aunt were both exhausted at this point, and none of us were feeling particularly inspired. (The feeling of guilt that comes with this lack of inspiration is nearly crippling in itself). Finally, I suggested that we just start with the biographical information, and hope that something came to us from there. I was not useful for this part, because I knew very little about my grandmother’s life, since that I was nonexistent for most of it. My aunt and mother wrote up a sketch of Grandma’s life, hitting all the major life events, from birth, to marriage, to motherhood, to death, including jobs and notable accomplishments. Still, a fitting tribute eluded us. It was around 11pm, and my aunt was barely even awake, so we sent her to bed, and Mom and I stayed up, struggling to find words. The later it got, the zanier we became. We giggled, verging on hysterics at points, and it seemed a bit sacrilegious that we could enjoy ourselves so much while writing an obituary, but my mother reminded me that my grandmother, whose sense of humour never abandoned her, even to the point of death, would have been delighted. By one in the morning, we felt that we had accomplished our task, and rather well, if I may say so myself. Only one thing remained: the final phrase. I suggested, half-heartedly, the cliché, “Dolores will be dearly missed by all who knew her”. Mom laughed and laughed, and managed to choke out through her giggles, that it wouldn’t exactly be honest, because her mother had NOT been loved by all who knew her. On the contrary, there were some notable instances of people who disliked her extremely. This, of course, delighted my inner contrarian nature, and so, in an effort to be both honest and tactful we settled on “Dolores will be dearly missed by all who knew and loved her,” the final conjunctive phrase being key.
The day of the Memorial Service was unbelievably draining. I won’t really get into many of the details here, except to say that there are certain religious attitudes that anger me immensely, and they were displayed in all their gross tactlessness. One thing that was particularly frustrating was the service itself. Shortly before she died, my grandmother had converted to Christianity after lifelong agnosticism. She was raised Catholic, and she referred to herself jokingly as a “recovering Catholic”. I am glad that she found something that gave her peace, but somehow I doubt that the service was really what she would have wanted. The Anglican minister tended more towards proselytization than memorial, which I found not only irritating, but also dishonourable to my grandmother’s memory. I’m willing to bet, that with the exception of my parents and a very few family friends, nearly everyone present was either atheist (like my aunt and uncle), agnostic (like myself), or simply not actively practicing any religion. The Memorial Service was disappointingly less like a memorial and more like an alter call. It was neither comfortable nor comforting. There were some very poignant moments, however, such as when Trinda, one of my grandmother’s best friends stood up and paid tribute to Grandma’s wit, vivacity and incredible artistic talent. She also talked about how often my grandmother had talked about her children and grandchildren in glowing terms. To hear just how much she loved all of us was unbelievably comforting. Another notable moment was when the song “I Hope You Dance” by LeAnn Womack was played. Now, I’m not a fan of country, and I’ve never particularly cared for the song so I must admit I was rather disappointed when my aunt and mother picked it as the song for the service. However, when it began to play, I realised just how perfect it really was. My grandmother didn’t just live, she danced. Her life was full of joy and laughter, not because it was always good or perfect, but because she chose to delight in it.
I was reminded of the last moment I spent alone with my grandmother in the nursing home. My mom had gone to pick something up, and my grandmother was sleeping fitfully. I sat by the side of her bed and just watched her sleep. Her beautiful face was disfigured by pain, and completely clean of the makeup she never used to go without. She woke up, and smiled at me weakly, and we talked trivialities. She made a comment about when she was in the hospital immediately prior to transferring to the nursing home, and how annoying it was to be constantly poked and prodded and intruded on with endless check-ups and blood-draws. Without thinking, I expressed my assent, and remarked that I had felt similarly when I was in the hospital. She didn’t answer, staring off into space with her eyes half-closed, and I thought that would be the end of it. Then she asked softly, “What were you in the hospital for?” My mind raced, filling with all the possible lies and excuses I could tell her. It would be easy to say that I had a concussion, that I had a work-related injury, that I was just sick, anything but the ugly truth that I had been so depressed and so hurt that I swallowed two bottles of pills. That I had experienced more pain and more darkness than I ever thought possible to endure. That I had willfully tried to extinguish the life-breath she so desperately clung to now. I wanted, more than anything, to lie to her, but I didn’t. I told her the truth. Seeing the sorrow in her eyes was almost more than I could bear. For the first time in my entire life (even throughout the duration of her hospitalisation and slow, painful death), I saw tears in her eyes. They didn’t fill and overflow, they just sparkled at the rims of her eyes. She said gently, “I didn’t know. Your mom didn’t tell me,” and then, I waited for the words I dread most, the promise I cannot, and will not make: “promise you won’t do that again”. No, I cannot promise. But she didn’t ask me that, instead she only said, “promise me to live a full life.” And I promised.
My grandmother is no longer with us. I don’t know if she’s in a better place, or in no place at all, and it doesn’t really matter. Her life was here, with us, and she lived it well, and I will strive to do the same. I will fight, and I will love, and I will live, and I will dance. I promise.
With Grandpa Ralph, close friend Mary, and Mary's husband
Working as a telephone operator
Grandma showing one of her paintings, in her (now my) condo, a few months before she passed away.