I didn’t sleep for three days because I knew the call was coming. Actually, I take that back. I did sleep, but not at night. I stood guard through the night, only closing my eyes once the sun took over my watch. I know it was illogical. People die during daylight hours and the call could have come at 7:30 am during my 3-hour respite. It still would have been the same news. I still would have been rattled awake with inevitability as my unspoken ringtone. But I knew it would come at night and I knew I couldn’t really sleep while she went through the interminable process of dying.
The call came at 12:17am on July 7. My vigilence that night didn’t extend to remembering to keep my phone next to me at all times, so as I sat in front of my computer in the basement office, scrolling through Pinterest like a hipster automaton, I heard Ron’s footsteps down the hall and I knew. I met him halfway up the stairs. “It’s your mom,” he said and handed me my phone.
“She’s gone,” said Mom.
“I know. How are you?” I asked. And thus began my first encounter with the death of a loved one as an adult.
I talked to Mom for a bit while I fixed myself a diet Coke and rummaged in the pantry for the emergency box of Marlboros. I hung up, went to my back porch, and cried so much I could barely smoke the cigarette that I knew I shouldn’t be smoking. The grief surprised me. Grandma’s health had been failing steadily over the past few years and she’d been in hospice care for several months. The hospice nurses (who are truly a discrete class of earthbound angels) had told us weeks previously that she was “in transition” and that it “wouldn’t be long.” I knew this was coming, was relieved for the end to her suffering, had a wonderful last conversation with her — though I didn’t know it was my last at the time — and I thought I was ready. I was ready, but I suppose I expected an inverse correlation of preparedness level to grief amount. Even now, math is not my strong suit.
I talked to Grandma while I was on the porch. I told her to say hello to Grampsy for me. I apologetically stubbed out the remaining half of my tear-soaked cigarette. I went back inside, back to the basement office, back to my computer, and I looked at pictures. I cried again, of course. But gradually I smiled and even laughed. And finally, I went to sleep. At night.
The next week went by in approximately 5 minutes. I volunteered to make a photo montage for her memorial service. I volunteered to write the obituary. I volunteered to give a eulogy. I volunteered to help with every single thing I could possibly help with — then apologized to my mom and her sisters for offering to do too much and promised them I didn’t want to overstep. I apologized for apologizing (as one does) while they thanked me for helping so much with everything. ”You are a part of this too,” said my Aunt Janet and I finally settled. I shopped for funeral dresses for the girls and answered their questions as honestly and completely as I could. I cooked dinners, made travel arrangements, designed magazine ads for work, tracked down Grandma’s friends on Facebook (Facebook!!) and when Ron tried to slow me down enough to make gentle and loving inquiries regarding my mental health, I promised him I was fine. Just fine.
Do you know what I did when my dad died when I was 16? How I helped get ready for my Grampsy’s funeral when I was 17? In preparation to bury my father and then my father figure, I did exactly 3 things. 1) Shut bedroom door. 2) Played CDs of The Smiths/Nine Inch Nails/Tori Amos at louder-than-normal volume. 3) Wore more black eyeliner.
In the middle of my 5-minute-long week, I neglected to write Grandma’s eulogy. Well, I neglected to write it on paper anyway. I’d been writing it in my head and rehearsing it aloud all week, so I knew about 90% of what I wanted to say. As we drove from my sister-in-law’s house in Arkansas to the funeral home in Oklahoma the day of the memorial service, I wrote it all longhand in my notebook. I wanted to capture my Grandma in words. I wanted to tell everyone what she was to me and my sister. I wanted them to know that yes, she was an amazing nurse, missionary, mother, musician, teacher, artist, sister, and friend to everyone. But I wanted them to know that she was always my Grandma above all of that. That she loved each of her grandkids in exactly the way they needed to be loved. That she was the strongest, smartest, bravest woman I knew and I owe so much of my own strength, intelligence and bravery to her.
You know what I said instead? To a room full of fellow missionaries, elderly ladies, and many many conservative family members? That my Grandma made me a liberalish feminist. Oops. Not quite how I meant that to come out.
I said the other stuff too, and I think they heard that more than anything. I hope they saw my love for all that she was and my gratitude for all that she taught me. Because of the example she set for me, and for my own mother, I grew up believing — no, KNOWING — that I could do or be absolutely anything that I set my mind to.
There are a few things I didn’t get to say. A few things that seem so little but are such integral pieces of who she was to me. She knew absolutely every species of tree, flower and plant on sight. She and my Grampsy would snore in unison. She always drank Earl Grey tea at breakfast. Once, when I was in the midst of my infatuation with Chanel Vamp and insisted on wearing the nail polish and lipstick and mascara and blush at ALL times, she put on the red black lipstick in an effort to show me how ridiculous I looked. She had amazingly strong hands and arms from years of playing the accordian, but her hands were always so soft. She taught me how to be loud and quiet, hard and soft, an opinionated woman and a proper lady… and how to do it all at the same time with grace.
Eventually, my grief caught up to me. Once the service was over and we drove back home, I didn’t have my to-do list to distract me. I cried at inappropriate times and talked to her in my prayers. I shared stories with the girls and found even more pictures to dig through. And — of course — I put on a little more black eyeliner and created a Spotify playlist that my 17-year-old self would be proud of.
I love and miss you, Grandma. Thank you for being imperfect and beautiful and brave; and for showing me how to do the same.