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.