Did I tell you my grandmother died? No? She died about 10 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2010, in her sleep. She was 90.
And though she had been fading, after a fall that broke her hip and made death pretty much inevitable. And though she died at home, cared for mostly by family, after a few years of poor health and lessening quality of life. And though her life had been full–of children (five) and grandchildren (six) and great-grandchildren (six), of travel and adventure as the young wife of an Air Force commander in the post-World War II years, of interests (bird watching, gardening, politics watching). And though she could hardly have been said to have been cheated of life or cut down in her prime.
Yet, I am sad. I miss her. Before she died, I didn’t let myself reminisce about my childhood with her as my grandmother. I didn’t spend much time thinking about how she taught my brother and me to play poker one summer day when we were visiting her. I didn’t go over the special birthday meals she used to make me–the enchiladas and Spanish rice she specialized in (no one made Spanish rice like my grandmother). I didn’t think about the treats she always had for us–ice cream sandwiches, Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, Popsicles and other sugary foods not found at my house. I didn’t recall the family gatherings of my childhood, like the one where my then-single uncle stood up on the roof of the garage and yelled, and my grandmother (his mother) said, “Oh, Bruce!” and laughed.
It seems morbid to have fond memories of people who are not dead, so I mostly waited to talk about her in the past tense. And even now, I haven’t really found the conversational opening to share “the news” with anyone outside, well, my husband and one coworker. Because I am almost embarrassed to even say she died to anyone else. (I’m not even sure how you do that: “How was your weekend?” “My grandmother died.”) She was an important person in my life. She influenced me in ways I’ll probably never get to the end of–especially because she influenced my own mother, her oldest child, in ways she‘ll never get to the end of.
But other people are suffering. Other people have coped with miscarriages or stillbirths or the deaths of their own grown children or their parents or their spouses. And I have sometimes been a poor friend in acknowledging others’ grief. Maybe I even found it awkward–and didn’t know what to say to the coworker I don’t see very often, who lost her father, and who didn’t say anything about it. And what do you say? I always say, “I’m sorry.” And I always am. But grief goes on, sadness goes on, regret goes on, and those little, inadequate words have always seemed just that. Especially when someone else seems to be “coping” and “moving on.”
Or other people are happy and celebrating. And it doesn’t seem like the right time–really ever–to say, “By the way, my 90-year-old grandmother died. I’m a bit sad.”
I’m not even sure how sad I’m supposed to be. I was having a phone conversation with my brother, and I asked him how he was. He said, “I’m okay … Sorry about Grandmommy…” And I laughed. “Why did you laugh?” he said. (I’d misunderstood.) I answered, “It sounded like you were offering me condolences.” That’s how I feel–because I wasn’t the closest person to my grandmother, so to whom do I offer condolences? Even as I feel sad myself, I recognize my grandmother’s husband, children, sons- and daughters-in-law have a greater claim on the share of grief and sympathy out there.
What’s more complicated is that my grandmother’s wishes were: no funeral, no memorial. So there’s little public acknowledgment of her death. (I’m hoping not to violate her privacy, or her husband’s, by not naming her.)
Speaking of death, I just finished reading Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about the stillbirth of her first child, and birth of her second. I had wanted to read her book for a while, since I saw an excerpt in O magazine, actually. (See my post on O.) But I didn’t think I could take such a sad, sad story. And yet I managed to read it–and adore it–without crying. Much. And it did actually speak to me, even in my very dissimilar grief. Because McCracken writes about her own particular grief and history, but her story is a universal one. We all lose people. We all must go on. Sometimes we have to pretend to be cheerful when we are not, for other people. Sometimes we don’t say “Someone close to me died” because there’s really no good way to insert those words into the conversation. (I could go on and on about that slender book packed with humor and humanity and bizarre characters and compassionate friends and profound sadness and well-earned joy.)
So I’m beginning to say the words here, belatedly and inadequately. I recognize that I was so lucky to have a grandmother who lived to be 90. I still have my grandfather, her husband, a vigorous 96-year-old.
But I am sad. I miss Grandmommy. I do.