Today marks five years since the 30 hours it took to say goodbye to my paternal grandmother and 15 years since my maternal grandmother died suddenly on a Sunday morning. The cliché goes “time heals all wounds” but it’s just another trite thing we say when we have no words. Grief is not a bell curve. It doesn’t crescendo and then disappear. Grief has no expiration date. It can be all encompassing or compartmentalized, a Jack-in-the-Box shoved in a corner only to be cranked open again at a memory, a song, an anniversary. The stabbing in my heart is no less than it was five years ago, 15 years ago. The tears I cry right now are no less salty and gulping, they don’t smudge my glasses any less with their residue. Grief, like the other big, messy, human emotions, is one of the few things that is both intensely personal and incredibly universal. It cannot be categorized or contained and language falls far too short to express its depth.
My maternal grandmother was truly a second mother to me. We lived together in the same house, a house my grandfather built with no blueprints and his own hands, from the time I was three until I was 22. When I was young my mother and grandmother worked at the same nursing home on different shifts, my mother as an LPN and my grandmother as a CNA. I would spend the morning with my mother, watch Days of Our Lives with her as she got ready for work, and then be handed over at the nurses’ station to my Nan as she finished her shift. She would drive us home; humming as she navigated the country curves the ten minutes back to the house, and take care of me until she tucked me into bed. As I grew older I found the generation removed made it easier to open up to her rather than my mother. Our relationship wasn’t fraught with the same guilt and recriminations and unspoken words festering that punctuated my relationship with my mother early on, like many mother/daughter relationships. I recognize now many of those recriminations were my fault as an angsty, sullen child, and then teenager, trying to find my place in the world. I still have no idea how to apologize at the age of 38.
It was my Nan I sat up with until midnight or later; discussing religion and politics, her stories and beliefs. It was her that taught me it is far better to be open and accepting and malleable than dogmatic. It was her I fetched from her garden when I woke up on 9/11 to Katie Couric talking over the smoking Twin Towers, me still in my pajamas as a commuting college student with no morning classes, begging her to come inside and see. It was her I huddled with by the TV at the beginning, trying to make sense of what was happening when we knew nothing.
I was living in my first suspect shitty apartment, only about five minutes from the homestead, when she died unexpectedly. I was working third shift at the time and barely heard my first generation blue Nokia cell phone ringing repeatedly and incessantly from across the bedroom where it was plugged in and charging at one of the only outlets in the room. The thing that finally woke me was a rapping at the bedroom door growing louder, the urgency persisting the longer it took me to open it. I swung it inward blearily to find my mother and stepfather there, crowding the nook where the living room led to my bedroom. She simply said “Nanny passed away.” Not your grandmother, not Nan, but Nanny—a term I hadn’t used since I was probably six. The tears came hot and fast, steaming my glasses. We held each other until I started to hollow out and pull away. I told them I would meet them at the house as soon as I got dressed. Back in my bedroom I listened to the voicemails left as I slept, tumbling one after another. My mother frantic. A former boyfriend that was a medic saying he heard my parents address on the scanner. My stepfather reporting they were at the hospital and then again to stay where I was, it was over. It took me years to sleep without my cell phone directly beside my head again. I spent those years blaming myself for not getting out of bed and crossing the room to see why it was ringing, for the chance to say goodbye.
She was barely over 70, still driving herself around and full of life, laughter, and joie de vivre. The week of her death she had been planning on taking the Herr’s Factory Tour with her ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ retired friends (poor country folk edition) to get some fresh out of the oven chips, because why not be a tourist in your own backyard…. She was the person who first emulated the Carpe the Damn Diem attitude to me. One of my favorite pictures of her, this Brethren Church going woman, mother of six, is of a barely clothed Chip N’ Dale dancer using his teeth to remove a $1 from her turtleneck. She believed in the Hereafter but she also believed in a life well lived here on Earth.
I was 23 when she died and 15 years later I can’t hear Neil Diamond belting out her favorite song Sweet Caroline, or smell spearmint gum, which she chewed frequently after she quit smoking, without getting at the least a pang in my gut. Sometimes I can’t even look in the mirror without throwing a pipe wrench in the middle of my chest, since I look exactly like my mother, who looks exactly like hers, my Nan. I know my face at age 65. I’ve already loved it when it wore the nametag Nettie Marie.
I’m not one to believe in Fate or superstition but if the Fates ever did screw with me intentionally it was exactly a decade later, almost to the exact hour, when my paternal grandmother died in on the same day in 2013. My mother believed in me maintaining a relationship with my paternal grandparents despite the person my father turned out to be, so a custody visitation schedule was worked out from an early age. I spent every other weekend on their dairy farm with them, feeding calves and inhaling sunshine and manure. When my half-sister was born six years after me, her mother followed suit with the arrangement so we could know each other. As I grew older it switched to every third weekend. There were no weekends when Grandma left my grandfather for a brief period, when one of his several infidelities came to light. We’re all fallible. After I got a job as a teenager I opted out of spending weekends there, but my paternal grandmother was still one of the biggest influences on my life, as much as all the other women that helped raise me. My little sister took her first job working on the farm. We both formed a deep connection with this side of the family despite our father.
It’s from Grandma that I get a love of feeling my bare toes in the grass and summer sunflowers. When I think of warm July days I see her on the farmhouse porch, feet up, reading a Harlequin Romance with a glass of sweet iced tea beside her as we kids suck on Icee-Pops on the grass below. Everyone in my life encouraged me to read but she was the Gold Star example. She would devour a book in two days and I saw early the sheer glee in immersing oneself in a book. She also taught me how to pack in my emotions when it was needed, my stoic grandmother, to box it up and still let in laughter. It’s funny, it’s still her voice I hear when I leave a room without turning out a light, scolding me to go back and turn it off if I don’t plan on being back in it in the next 10 minutes, lest I waste the electricity.
At the end she was sick and tired, and tired of being sick. At age 33 I had spent several years avoiding my father to the detriment of my relationship with the rest of the family. I couldn’t stomach to be in his presence to the point I would drive home after seeing him and physically shake for hours later, so I avoided seeing the entire family in person. I wrote letters to my grandmother. I stopped by in the middle of the day when I knew it was just her, instead of Christmas Day or family reunions. I had moved an hour away and was working at a hospital so it was easy to feign excuses. Then the phone calls came. First, a message from my aunt several states away saying my grandmother sounded ill, to call her, just in case. I was rocked back on my heels by the frailty in her voice when I called, my strong and stoic grandmother’s voice cracking with every word. I made plans to meet my sister and drive down on my day off, which turned into visiting her in the Emergency Room instead when our father imposed his will and talked her into going to the hospital. She was admitted. Then she wanted to go home to die on her own terms.
She was lying in a hospital bed in her living room for less than a week when the final 30 hours started ticking down. Watching someone you love slowly die for days is traumatic. Any death is traumatic, but bearing that particular witness took a toll. It wasn’t better or worse in any quantifiable or qualitative way than the unexpected death of my Nan. The grief was familiar but unique, punctuated by the trauma of bedside vigil. It triggered my life long struggle with depression to its greatest spiral in my adult life, to the point my supervisors at work, at a healthcare facility, staged an ‘intervention’ which was achingly transparent in its motive to protect themselves and necessarily aid me, because we’re conditioned in this repressed culture that grief should not be demonstrated beyond the funeral. Instead, we need to “get over it and move on”. We flinch in the face of any emotion deemed outside the status quo. My purchase of the Huh House grew directly from that extended period of acute grief, from searching for a way forward, any way, from the 3 a.m. insomnia, from the near alcohol poisoning as I was self-medicating, from losing the fair weather friends whom only accepted the version of me that was a trip-planning, fun time me rather than the I’m sorry I’m a wreck, I need help but I don’t know how to directly ask of it, version of me.
That was when I started running because walking didn’t feel fast enough to outpace my thoughts. I sat at the table in my new house, one of my attempts to unstick my life and propel with forward motion, with a box of tissues and worked through two bottles of red wine as I relived every second of those final 30 hours, writing it down to exorcise the perpetual memory. I wrote it long before I conceived of a blog, writing my life as it were in all its incarnations. I posted it shortly after the birth of said blog, needing to share it as much as I needed to write it, to spew it out to the ether. I thought about just reposting it today, this arbitrary anniversary that darkens my thoughts, but I’ve been told it should come with a trigger warning. It is very raw, a time table retelling. Sharing our stories connects the communal, so please feel free to click here and read if you wish. Grief is intensely personal and uniquely universal.
I, myself, can’t read it now. The thing about defining moments is the essence of the memory remains. I may have tried to exorcise it but I can still smell the rotting seafood smell of infection. The color of the shirts everyone was wearing has faded, but not the panic of wanting to shrug my father’s hand off my shoulder, letting it remain because it was his grief too.
It’s been 30 hours + 5 years +15 years and the Jack–in-the-Box has sprung tonight. I’ll try to put him back in the box tomorrow.