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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

LJ Idol Week Two: The Missing Stair

March 24th, 2014 (03:33 pm)
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"It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one... It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things."
-Lemony Snicket

***

I lost my grandmother at Christmas. Her passing was nearly as kind as anyone's can be. She had been battling lung cancer for years, but her quality of life had been reasonably good all along; we knew this was coming, so we all had time to say goodbye; she celebrated a happy Christmas with her whole family just before her death. The day after Christmas she collapsed from a clot in her lung. She was unconscious for a day, a day during which her family gathered around her, telling stories and singing her favorite songs. Her passing was gentle. And all of this has been a great comfort to me. Her cancer was progressing rapidly, her last-ditch chemotherapy regime had failed, and all she had to look forward to was more and more weakness, less and less ability to breathe, more and more pain. She was spared that, surrounded by the love of her whole family. I think of this and I'm overwhelmed with gratitude.

And yet. Her passing was as kind as any passing can be, but death is not kind. Death is a thief. Gram was stolen from us, as all are stolen from their beloved in the end. We can know it's coming, we can resign ourselves as much as possible, but in the end we are still left with a hole in the world where a loved one used to be.

It's true that I'm generally resigned to Gram's death. It doesn't carry the bitter sting that the untimely loss of a younger person does, or a sudden death that leaves no time for goodbyes. But I am still reminded frequently that she's no longer here. I was close to her, and it's still hard to remember that she's gone. I see a person who looks like her in the street and I nearly call out to her, expecting her to turn. And as soon as I remember, her name on my lips, there's that sickening moment of realization, the plunge in my stomach. Like the step that isn't there.

***

When I was four years old, my grandfather was doing renovations on the second story of his house. Finding a crack in the floor, I dropped all of my grandmother's marble chess men into a crack in the floor -- who knows why. I also dropped a toy snowman, a tiny little thing, two styrofoam balls held together by a red pipe cleaner around its neck. The chess men were rescued by my grandfather; the snowman was not. But ten years later my grandfather decided to renovate the first floor, and as he sledgehammered the kitchen ceiling, an ancient little styrofoam concoction fell down -- my snowman, covered in plaster dust and stained gray by the years, but still whole. This became one of my grandmother's favorite stories. She put the snowman in pride of place in a display cabinet, telling the story frequently to anyone who'd listen, and gave me little snowman-themed presents over the years: a candle holder decorated with snowmen, a shirt with a snowman embroidered on the front. The candle holder was lost in a move, but I've kept the snowman shirt. And after her funeral, I pulled it out of the closet and noticed for the first time that the embroidery thread is unraveling, that I may someday lose the snowman. And my foot drops through the step that isn't there, and I stumble.

***

My grandmother was an alcoholic in her youth, but when she was around thirty she got into AA in a big way. From then on she lived the principle of "one day at a time" more fully than anyone I've known, and I know a whole lot of people in AA. When she became ill with cancer, her quality of life was enhanced so much by her refusal ever to worry about tomorrow -- today was enough. Within a few years of her joining AA, she was sponsor to dozens of "pigeons," newcomers to the program. Soon after that she got involved in "Schizophrenics Anonymous," a dual-diagnosis organization aimed at alcoholic schizophrenics that I believe has disappeared since. She wasn't schizophrenic, but she saw the needs of the people in that program, struggling so hard to find principles and touchstones that would help them through the worst times of their illnesses. A good proportion of them were homeless, as one might expect from that population, and time after time she took them into her home. My grandfather didn't like the idea and forbade her to do it, so she would hide them in the basement, sneaking them food and comfort whenever she could. It was a remarkable thing for her to do. And in a bookstore I come across a book called Sane, by Marya Hornbacher -- a book about AA and the stability it can provide for those struggling with alcoholism and severe mental illness. And I think about the support Gram provided to uncounted numbers of such people over the years, helping them stay in the program, helping them cope -- 50 years into sobriety, she was still acting as sponsor to new members -- and my foot hits the air and my stomach lurches.

***

My grandmother was a huge fan of lobster, but frequently found the price prohibitive. One day she and my aunts and uncles went on a harbor cruise, and there was an all-you-can-eat buffet with really good lobster. She knew they wouldn't give her a doggie bag, so she emptied her purse, a new one, and made my aunts empty theirs too, and they all left with their purses stuffed with as much lobster as they could hold -- ruining them, of course, but who cared? It was a week's worth of lobster! As they were leaving my uncle pulled out a lobster claw and let it dangle out of her purse. She made it most of the way home without noticing. And there is a restaurant a few miles from my home that serves all-you-can-eat lobster on Tuesdays, and I see the sign out front and there is that feeling of falling, the shock of loss.

***

There are endless stories about my grandmother, and I've heard all the good ones endless times. She was a storyteller, and a good one; no matter how many times you'd heard a story, you found yourself breaking into laughter. I treasure the memory of that laughter now, but the memory is all I have now. The next generation in our family will hear her stories, but they won't hear them from her lips, and that's a tough loss. No one will ever make a lemon-cream tart with her inimitable twist again. Her beloved possessions have been split up among the family. Her house, the house in which her mother was born, that's been in the family for over a hundred years -- that's not "Gramma and Puppa's house" anymore. Every time I start to say that, every time I have to correct myself -- it's just Puppa's house now -- I wince.

I know I should be grateful for the ease of her passing. I am grateful. I'm very grateful. But I cannot be grateful for her death. I know there are people out there who are glad to die, but she wasn't one of them. If she'd lived a hundred more years her stories would never lose their savor. Perhaps there are people who regard death in old age as a friend, but I don't think I ever will. Certainly not in regard to Gram.

There will probably come a time when I'll see snowmen, lobsters, books about AA and will smile instead of feeling my stomach drop. I know that's what she would prefer. I'll probably get there. Sooner or later, it will be okay.

I hope and trust she'll rest in peace. But I haven't found my peace yet.

Comments

Posted by: kecharasmoon (kecharasmoon)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 07:47 pm (UTC)

Having lost many a loved one, I can say strongly that I understand where you're coming from. I'd like to say that it goes away. But the fact of the matter is that while it'll relax, stop being so startling all the time, it will still catch you up from time to time. And that is when you pull out another story, another smile, and remember that she's watching over you (assuming your belief system allows for this), catching you before you fall off that missing step.

*hugs*

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 10:24 pm (UTC)

Thanks for commenting -- what you say is lovely. I'm sorry you've lost so many loved ones as well.

Posted by: Light in the Darkness (lostin_thestars)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 07:51 pm (UTC)

This was brilliantly done.

I'm so sorry for your loss

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 10:25 pm (UTC)

Oh, thanks. I'm really glad you liked it. And thank you for the condolences.

Posted by: suesniffsglue (suesniffsglue)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 07:52 pm (UTC)

Man, Gram stories get to me. I enjoyed this. Beautiful job!

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 10:25 pm (UTC)

Thanks so much. <3

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 08:22 pm (UTC)

This is SUCH a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 24th, 2014 10:26 pm (UTC)

Thanks, Amy. I'm glad I managed to convey a little of who Gram was.

Posted by: Mallory (seakittym)
Posted at: March 25th, 2014 03:12 am (UTC)

Absolutely beautifully written piece. Thank you for sharing something so personal.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:44 am (UTC)

Oh, thank you so much. I'm glad you liked it. I've really liked your writing thus far too.

Posted by: goldmourn (goldmourn)
Posted at: March 25th, 2014 06:03 am (UTC)

such a beautiful post.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:44 am (UTC)

Thank you so much. <3

Posted by: Pirate Jenny (deliriums_fish)
Posted at: March 25th, 2014 09:26 am (UTC)
vw

What an accurate quote. Almost every morning upon waking, I attempt to step on that imagined stair. Because of that, I so often will myself back to sleep. Even if I dream and my father is simply a background character, or I don't dream at all, it's better than waking and inevitably adjusting myself to his absence.

What you wrote here is, I think, what you should continue to write. Like most Jews, the afterlife is not something we spend a lot of time dwelling on, most of us take a rather apathetic stance on what happens after death, but as a person who has always lived through stories--both reading and writing them, I find that that is the best way to make those we love continue on.

The last time I saw my father, he was telling stories about his time in the military. During the 60s and 70s, the military practically encouraged heavy drinking amongst its ranks, and my father spent most nights in the officers' club, a glass of something perpetually in his hand (when he left the military, those who had been under his command engraved a beer stein for him, it was something he treasured for the rest of my life and is currently sitting on my bookshelf). While I was sitting in a chair next to my father's hospital bed in the oncology ward, my father laughed as he told me the story of how one night, he got so plastered, he fell off his bar stool--right next to a four-star general.

Then he told the story of the physical exam given before entering into the Air Force. During the vision testing, he was told that his vision was far too bad to be in the Air Force. At that moment, however, the man giving the vision tests was called away, and, my sainted father, dreading the idea of being in the Marines or Army, waited until the man was out of site and then simply walked to the next testing area before the man came back and had time to document him as unfit.

Although my father absolutely opposed the war, he took his job as an officer in the USAF very seriously. He was very proud to be a veteran, and yet hearing these stories, right at the end, I saw something I'd never seen before in my father.

This was three days before my father died. I hugged him and said goodbye to him as I left the hospital. By the next morning, he was drifting in and out of consciousness, eventually falling into a coma a day before he died. I made a conscious decision that next morning not to return to the hospital. I wanted to remember my father as that storyteller. Yes, he was weak and incapacitated and so clearly dying the last time I saw him, but he was also giving me something irreplaceable: another part of himself to carry with me throughout the rest of my life.

Keep telling these stories of your grandmother to yourself, to your friends, to your children. They are a part of her and nothing can take that part of her away from you.

P.S. I know what you mean when it comes to adjusting your language to include or exclude her. I'm still in flux when it comes to using past and present tenses when it comes to my father. Right now I'm not too concerned about it. I don't see the point in forcing myself to relegate my father to the past tense.

P.P.S. I'm sorry for the length of this and also post hijacking. It's just that this brought up a lot of similar feelings for me.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 26th, 2014 04:14 am (UTC)

Oh, no, it isn't post hijacking at all! It's nice to hear those stories about your dad. (I take it his vision never proved an actual impediment in the USAF?) I understand your feeling in choosing to keep his storytelling as your last memory of him. I nearly stayed away from Gram's deathbed because I wanted to remember her as she was at Christmas. In her particular situation it turned out to be good that I went, but it could so easily have gone the other way.

Anyway, your comment wasn't too long at all. I'm glad you posted it. Can you both sympathize and empathize with something? That's how I feel.

Posted by: Desiree (x_disturbed_x)
Posted at: March 25th, 2014 09:53 am (UTC)

*hugs* Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 02:00 am (UTC)

Thank you for reading! *hugs back*

Posted by: Ponykins (rolypolypony)
Posted at: March 25th, 2014 11:26 am (UTC)

This was lovely.

>i> But I am still reminded frequently that she's no longer here. I was close to her, and it's still hard to remember that she's gone.</i>

Her house, the house in which her mother was born, that's been in the family for over a hundred years -- that's not "Gramma and Puppa's house" anymore. Every time I start to say that, every time I have to correct myself -- it's just Puppa's house now -- I wince.

Yes, so much yes. It's been almost 2 years with Papa and both of these so much yes. And I hate the sudden-no-reason punches in the gut when I remember he's gone. I can now better deal w/things that obviously remind me of him, but the out of the blue no rhyme or reason ones shatter me every time.

It's so hard.

*HUG*

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:45 am (UTC)

*hugs back*

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 02:01 am (UTC)

*hugs* Thanks, Carol. I don't have very good words for it but I'm so glad you're my friend and are still around.

Posted by: solstice_singer (solstice_singer)
Posted at: March 25th, 2014 11:03 pm (UTC)

Your grandmother sounds like a lovely person. I can understand why you mourn her loss so deeply. I lost my grandfather to cancer in November of 2002. It definitely took some time to get used to not having him around.

Side note: I adore Marya Hornbacher. She's an inspirational woman and a phenomenal writer.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:46 am (UTC)

Thank you so much, and my condolences on your grandfather's loss as well. (And I LOVE Marya Hornbacher. It was so good to see her writing about AA, knowing she's found a healthier path to follow. Her past experiences were wrenching.)

Posted by: tatdatcm (tatdatcm)
Posted at: March 26th, 2014 03:53 am (UTC)

You really did a good job punctuating each story of your grandmother with the shock of the missing stair. It really is a great metaphor for how remembering a lost loved one is.

My mother has been gone for 16 years and there are times when I feel that ghost stair immensely. It gets easier, but it never really goes away.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:47 am (UTC)

Yeah, I loved that Lemony Snicket quote from the first time I read it. I thought of it immediately when I saw the topic because it always stayed with me. Thank you, I'm glad that the way I used it worked for you. :)

Posted by: cindy (tsuki_no_bara)
Posted at: March 26th, 2014 05:18 am (UTC)
chocolate mouse

she sounds like a pretty fabulous lady, and your writing is lovely and wrenching.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:48 am (UTC)

Thank you so much. She was pretty fabulous.

Posted by: i_will_not_say (i_will_not_say)
Posted at: March 26th, 2014 04:02 pm (UTC)
Teacup Rose

*hugs*

I'm so sorry for your loss.

Thank you for sharing this lovely piece with us.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:49 am (UTC)

Thanks so much for the sweet comment. I'm glad you liked the piece. <3

Posted by: sarcasmoqueen (sarcasmoqueen)
Posted at: March 26th, 2014 05:44 pm (UTC)
heart

That was a beautiful piece.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:50 am (UTC)

Thanks so much. <3

Posted by: Laura, aka "Ro Arwen" (roina_arwen)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 01:32 am (UTC)
Christmas Angels

I've lost all my grandparents at this point, so I know where you're coming from. Your gramma sounds like a wonderfully caring woman, and I'm glad you have so many treasured memories of her. ♥

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:51 am (UTC)

Oh, I'm so sorry you've lost all of your grandparents... I know it comes to all of us in the end, obviously, but that doesn't make it hurt any less. And I'm glad you liked the piece. *hugs*

Posted by: The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors (halfshellvenus)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 05:35 am (UTC)

This is a beautiful tribute, and your sorrow here is so palpable. The way ordinary and offbeat things sneak up and make you stumble, for the memory of your beloved grandmother, really pulled me into this.

I'm so sorry she's gone.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:51 am (UTC)

Thank you for such a lovely comment, and thank you for your sympathy. It means a lot.

Posted by: Yelеna (kehlen_crow)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 10:58 am (UTC)

I am sorry for you loss.

And quite like you do, I miss the presence of other who are no more.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:54 am (UTC)

It's such a universal thing, and I guess that's one of the ugly facets of the world. Thank you for commenting and for your condolences though. I'm sorry for your losses as well. <3

Posted by: Teo Says (eternal_ot)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 12:59 pm (UTC)

This was a nice homage...loved reading it..may it bring peace to you too...<3

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:55 am (UTC)

Oh, thank you so much. I think writing about it and processing it probably is the best shot I've got at making peace with it.

Posted by: Teo Says (eternal_ot)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 05:10 am (UTC)

I agree..:) writing it down helps.

Posted by: Every Day Above Ground (mallorys_camera)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 09:43 pm (UTC)

Very moving portrait.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:55 am (UTC)

Thanks so much. <3

Posted by: MamaCheshire (cheshire23)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 11:18 pm (UTC)

I don't know if "Schizophrenics Anonymous" is still around, but locally we have something called Double Trouble in Recovery, aimed at roughly the same population.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:57 am (UTC)

That's really interesting, and I think it's a really good idea. I've been on dual diagnosis psych wards before (I'm not an addict, but I am bipolar and the straight psych unit ran out of beds :P) and it seemed like the people who were actually on the road to somewhere good were the people who were living the Twelve Steps. I like "Double Trouble" too, heh. (Also, I love your icon!)

Posted by: Snark (snarkerdoodle)
Posted at: March 27th, 2014 11:24 pm (UTC)
toadie snark

A great series of memories and stories of your grandmother. I hope you find the peace you're looking for soon. :)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:59 am (UTC)

Thank you. I think I will, and this entry helped me to do that a bit, so that was good.

Posted by: whipchick (whipchick)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:23 am (UTC)

Very moving, and I can identify with a lot of it. Have you read Cheryl Strayed's essay on losing her mother?

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 01:58 am (UTC)

I haven't, but I'll look it up -- reading about things similar to what I'm going through has always been something that's helped me to deal with stuff. Thanks for that and for the sweet comment. <3

Posted by: whipchick (whipchick)
Posted at: March 28th, 2014 02:01 am (UTC)

http://thesunmagazine.org/archives/2192

:)

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