I’ve not experienced grief like this before. I usually saw my grandmother once or twice a year — often for a time period of around a week.
Yet, the string of weeks here and there has had a profound impact on my life and, as I drove down the familiar road, the emptiness of the world without her in it pressed in like the ocean on a deep-sea diver. It is heavy. Every inch of her home has her mark upon it. The stucco fireplace. The master bedroom with its 3/4 wall dividing it from the sitting room. The buffet still waiting for the copper. The copper kettles hanging in the kitchen.
And the walls. The self-portrait of the Old Man. The nude. And along with the favorites, her own paintings hang everywhere.
She said this painting represented her — a horse too wild and free for tethers. When she was a girl, she rode everyday into the mountains near her Idaho home. Once, her horse threw her and she broke her arm. She lifted it and examined it dangling helplessly. Her first thought was, “Mom‘s not going to let me keep riding this way. I’ve got to convince her I can still ride.” Of course, after the arm had a cast upon it, her mother saw it was useless to keep her down. She insisted that if Dottie could ride, she could do all of her chores as well — which she did.
When they brought her box of ashes to the door, Grandpa stood there, shaking and frail, and we wept because that’s all we have left of her and she is not in them and she is not with us.
I experience a deep, piercing pain in my heart when I think of the truth: my beautiful, fun-loving, inspiring Grandma Dottie is gone. I worry about remembering her. I worry more about forgetting her. Death brings so many confusing emotions. If I laugh, I feel guilty. When I forget, I am ashamed. When I remember, I feel pain. If I idealize, I feel self-pity — a sticky, romantic, sappy feeling that is disgusting. When I take a deep breath and stand tall, I am proud at my being brave and then ashamed that I feel pride over it. Confusion. Not only do I struggle with my actual emotions, I struggle with what I should feel, and then I can’t decipher which.
I build a picture in my mind of her and cry because I can’t see or hear or touch her to correct it. There’s the real rub — my memory is so faulty. Pictures cannot convey the richness in her bell-like voice. Memories don’t talk back. I weave mistakes into the fabric. Were her naughty brown eyes really naughty? My memory cannot surprise me like she could.
Words of comfort go like this:
She is at peace. She is with God. She is no longer in pain. She is in a better place.
But she is no longer here and that is what I want. She fretted about the election while she was sick. She tried to paint some chairs. My sister and cousin helped her finish them. All those worries and concerns are truly and utterly gone for her. Or are they? I find myself influenced by my Catholic best friend and enlisting Grandma’s help with my own worries. Does she watch like a spectator? Does she cheer like she was wont to do? Does she complain bitterly if I fail?
Of course, death makes us face what we believe about life after death. I confess my temptation to believe that the box of ashes are it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But in going to her house, the vast emptiness overwhelmingly communicates that something far more than a body is gone. Perhaps I have never felt a spirit so profoundly as when I experienced her spirit’s absence.
I believe in a resurrection. That indomitable, powerful spirit went somewhere. Where did she go?
I look in the stars and I know she is not there. Sometimes, I feel she is nearby.
I believe our bodies undergo a second baptism. Death is a dormancy period; our bodies are the seeds. All of nature speaks of this. All our stories, myths, and legends. There is no exchange of matter for the spirit, and if you met my grandmother, you would recognize that a box of ashes could not contain it. We’re just so limited in our imaginations. Truly, if all of creation travails like a woman in childbirth, then the womb shrouds us. Though we hear voices and perceive light and dark and activity, we have so little knowledge of the heaven or hell outside. I wonder if our spirits experience the same rude awakening, the pressing, squeezing, the yank, and the slap across the bottom? I laugh to think of it. And feel guilty for walking all over a sacred, superstitious subject.
I’m crying again. And wondering at myself — is this a sappy, self-pity party? Is this grief? I wish it could be more honest. I wish it could be clear and sweet like water and less muddy.
I just miss her. I don’t think I realized how much I modeled myself after her. I deeply admired her. I went to her house and took mental notes on her decorating style, what she cooked, what she wore, storing up ideas for how to live. I wear some of her clothes now and feel powerful and beautiful in them. It is not much different from when my little girl walked into the room stark naked in a pair of my heels. A few items of my grandmother’s and I’m ready for the world.
And here is where I wonder about the depths of the human heart and just how selfish it really is. Do I just miss my role model? Is the real pain I feel in wondering how I’m going to improve my life without having a person I truly, deeply admire to imitate? Did I ever really know her? I doubt my love. This is where I long for heaven. When the purity of heaven roots out the selfishness and secrets and I can love and know truly without the veils and flesh that imprison God’s breath within us. It frightens me because I know it will hurt but I cannot help but long to have the dreaded dragon flesh pierced and pulled away.
I’d like to find what’s really me and I hope there is something left that is sweet, true, pure, and clean.
- My Dying Grandmother. (elephantjournal.com)
- Review – Quantum of Solace (larkalong.wordpress.com)
- Timothy Finn | E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren finds solace in performing (kansascity.com)
- My thoughts on becoming a grandma (teresasthoughtsfortoday.wordpress.com)
- The Safety of Tenderness (stuartwilde.com)
- Josh Groban Mourning Grandmother’s Death (contactmusic.com)