story #8 in my “23 stories for a fried chicken sandwich” project.
i never knew how to talk to my grandmother. not really. i always felt like i had to keep a huge part of my real self hidden, the part she might not understand or approve. i realize now that this might not have been true, but that’s exactly how it felt until the few weeks before my grandmother died.
feelings are complex. we all know this. so then, why does it feel so wrong when you feel emotions that aren’t quite in line with the experience? i struggle every day with the emotional complexities of parenthood (i.e., newborns are tiny tyrants sometimes. i hate playing. i actually enjoy leaving my kids behind for overnighters with friends; so much that i usually forget to call home.). and the weeks, or maybe slightly less, in which my grandmother died brought a strange joy that makes me feel guilt to my core. not a guilt for the feelings, mind you. but a guilt for believing deeply that these joyful feelings, which seemed awfully strange, were authentic, real, and exactly how i was meant to be feeling.
joy in death, you ask, what is wrong with you?
well, for one, i loved the cozy family cocoon. the coming together. the taking turns visiting. sharing, at times in weeping turmoil, about the velocity of her decline once she was admitted to the convalescent hospital. the circle around her hospital bed. the hallway meetings. the walking back and forth between the hospital and her home where my grandfather was living and sleeping alone. the planes flying in. the sleeping and talking all night alongside her lifeless but still breathing form. the last time she opened her eyes and how we all wept and spoke the words we needed to speak and how i held out my oldest son for her to see. she was always a sucker for the little ones.
in the days before we admitted her, i stayed over a night or two at my grandparent’s house to help my grandpa get some sleep. my grandma kept saying she wanted to go upstairs. their home was a one story. i’m not sure where we were supposed to be. i didn’t know quite what to say. she smiled. i smiled back. in the morning, i brushed her fine white hair, looked into her white blue eyes, kissed her cheek, and made some silly joke in order to make light of the intensity i was feeling. she pursed her lips and shook and breathed in deeply, reaching out to me — all of these motions her way of oozing a love she could not fully express. or maybe that i could fully accept. i’m not sure. we held hands for a little while.
two days into her stay at the hospital, she left her body for the most part, fell into a slump and decided she was done. she would not go on anymore. i walked right by her in the hallway. over one night, she fell from being so firmly alive into sweet surrender. she was stronger than i ever knew. i tried to lift her, said, “come on now, grandma. stay with me.” walked her out into the bright sunshine, tried to get her to eat, to drink. i talked and talked and talked to her so freely, in a way i never could before even though i know she was listening. she whispered that she loved me without opening her eyes. those were the last words she ever spoke to me.
and the family, we cocooned and we waited and i wanted to stay inside that moment forever. the together moment. the being there moment. there was a joy in the being there for her. really there. being with a person who has lived a long and happy life when they decide let go and to die is a gift. and it felt like a joyful happy gift. that’s all i’m saying.