There are some things in life that no person, no matter how strong, stoic, or wise they are, can properly plan for. Such things are usually called tragedies – the stuff of life of life that can’t be controlled or predicted, the muck of being human. Losing a job. Losing a lover. Being cheated and stolen from. Hearing the words “your baby is not going to make it.”
Sure, we can sense or speculate or get a “feeling” that something bad might happen if their are warning signs preceding tragedy, but until it actually happens, it’s impossible to know how your heart, soul, and spirit will respond. Or how it will permanently affect the rest of your life.
I had a toothbrush in my mouth, brushing in front of the bathroom mirror while studying myself in all of my horrifically un-glamorous just-rolled-out-bed glory, when my iPhone rang. It was Friday morning and I was due at work in an hour. “Mom Cell” flashed up on the screen. I threw the toothbrush down and wiped my mouth with a towel. I immediately thought to myself “this might be it, this might be the call” before I even said hello. But deep down, I was sure she was just calling to tell me she saw one of my old teachers at Target or just wanted to say hi. Or something like that.
But my immediate intuition was right. As it usually is. “Grandma passed away this morning,” my mom announced, her voice soft and heartbroken. I heard the words but they were just words until several minutes had passed and a pain began to swell up in my chest as both my body and mind registered the reality.
“Oh no. You doing okay?” I asked gently.
“Well,” she sighed, and several long seconds of silence followed before she finished, “not really.” Contained in those three simple words was the sorrow of a woman who just said goodbye to her mother forever. I could feel her brokenness over the phone 2,000 miles away and wanted nothing more than to be by her side, talking and soaking in this together. I stayed on the phone with her while I put on my make-up and wondered when the tears would come.
Not everyone grows up close to their grandparents. Maybe they visit on Easter and Christmas or reserve special time slots once a month to catch up about the family and the weather on the phone, but it’s not common that grandparents are always around, every day, like a sibling or a second parent, for most of your life. Since I was born in 1987 this was true for my relationship with my Grandmother. She was always there. We lived with her for the first five years of my life and we took her in to live with us for the last eight years of her’s. The years in between she always lived close.
Hearing the words “Grandma passed” two days ago didn’t feel right or good or fair. Not for me or my family. Some people have offered comfort by saying: at least you got to spend time with her before she went, or she was old and she had a good life and this is just what happens. But that’s cheap advice, generic BS that’s been re-packaged and polished into sounding helpful and heartfelt to compensate for the fact that there’s nothing you can say to somebody when they’ve lost a person who constituted a part of their identity. It is of more value to simply listen. Call or connect in some way that shows I’m here, you’re not alone in this, and I’ll pause my life to be there for you when you need my shoulder. Real friends will do this. The others will pretend to and you’ll see right through it.
Grief would be easier and less messy if it weren’t attached to the realization of our own mortality. I think that’s one of the most difficult parts about losing someone. We’re all living a life that is impermanent. We can’t predict, control, or prepare for death and that’s damn scary. It can render one’s life bleak and bankrupt from the black hole of sadness and disorientation from all that once felt ‘normal.’ And once that’s all over, there’s a season of remembrance and rejoicing, as the memory of the person we lost starts to feel less oppressive and more life-giving. That’s what I’m looking toward. In the meantime, I’m clinging to the details, the details of her life and her story and how she helped to shape me from infancy, to keep a little light shining.
The first time I heard “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash it was with her. It was my favorite song for a solid year of my childhood. A good man, that Johnny Cash. A real good man, she’d say. I learned about The Great Depression before I was old enough to take an American history class because Grandma lived through it. She told me everything she could remember about growing up in the roaring twenties and to me as a ten-year-old it was riveting. She taught me how to play Scrabble when I was eight. I started beating her at the game when I was nine and she told me “don’t get cocky, a good winner stays humble.” Words to live by.
Memories from my first years of life in Connecticut are colored with images of her. She took care of me the day my father passed away when I was still so young and fragile. She protected me from the pain as best she could. She watched the birds, I helped fill the feeders. She read the newspaper every morning and clipped out the Marmaduke comic strip to read with me over hot apple cobbler on Sundays. And oh, was her apple cobbler something special. Cobbler and chicken soup from scratch: two dishes my Grandmother could make with her eyes closed with the promise that they would change your life, and taste-buds, for the better.
There was always a carton of Tropicana orange juice in her refrigerator and a box of Stop & Shop store brand ice cream sandwiches in the freezer. If I was good and did what she’d asked, I could have an ice cream sandwich and a small glass of OJ before bed. Not one morning went by that she didn’t read her Bible and she’d tell you so if you asked. She loved scripture and old hymns and playing the piano like she loved crossword puzzles and Entenmann’s coffee cake; she knew what made her happy — simplicity, not luxury — and celebrated those things every day.
I’ll miss her stories and the way she told them. And Christmas won’t feel the same this year without finding a letter from her, jotted on old stationary and folded into a greeting card, in my mailbox. The next time Johnny Cash comes on the radio I might feel sad and it will be hard to play Scrabble again without remembering who taught me all I know. But I do believe that time heals. And I believe she’s at peace up in heaven with my dad and Grandpa, feasting and smiling and dancing together on what I see as streets of pure gold and joy.
We can’t plan for tragedy but we can control for how we manage the memories associated with it. I know in due time this grief will be abated by gratitude and thankfulness for the rich relationship I had with my Grandma. Though it’s hard to see now, I know there’s a day that will come when there won’t be so much pain as I remember this woman who forever changed my life and altered my path, but in it’s place, there will be reverence and joy. And that will make the sting a little less raw to the touch.
There is a season
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven.”