My heart dropped into my stomach.
“Hello?” It was a fear laced question.
“Hi Honey,” my mom replied, her voice crackling a bit with the reception. “How’s everything going so far?”
Why was she asking me questions? Why wasn’t she telling me what had happened? Dear God, what had happened?
“Fine. How is Grandma?” My response was pointed. The words couldn’t come fast enough to satisfy my need to know … yet I dreaded knowing.
She sighed. “About the same. I just wanted to check up on you guys.”
My body deflated in relief. Thank you God.
The relief quickly turned to irritation. I wanted to reprimand her. Don’t call me unless something happens. It’s too stressful! I can’t take it!
But that would be wrong.
“Good,” I said. “Everything is going good here. The kids are being really good. How are you?”
“Hang in there. We’ll be there soon.”
We wouldn’t be there soon. We still had over five hours to go. Five hours. It was too long, too far. As the landscape transformed from mountains to plains, smoothing out into a windy wasteland of browns and greens, I thought of the last time I’d seen my grandma, just a month before.
We normally only visited once a year. We would make our big trek back to Montana from Wisconsin, or South Dakota, or Utah, or wherever we were living at the time. Since the move, we had managed to visit twice in the last two months, a record for us. This would be the third, and most likely the last.
Not most likely, I thought. This would be the last time. Why wouldn’t my brain accept that?
The last time we’d visited I had wondered if the end was nearing. She was still herself, but the cancer was masking it. She was tired and weak. My grandma had always been a fireball of energy and accomplishment. Now she could barely get out of her chair. A lifelong musician, she couldn’t lift her violin to play. After decades of singing with various choirs, quartets and the Sweet Adeline’s chorus, she couldn’t even use her voice beyond the hoarsest whisper. The cancer had paralyzed her vocal chords. It was a dirty and demeaning trick. As if killing her wasn’t enough.
We had visited with my grandma, my grandpa and my parents at the nursing home. It was a nice visit but it didn’t feel like enough. There was this internal pressure building inside me, screaming, crying out. My grandmother was dying. There had to be more than pleasant chatter. We needed to talk. Something had to be said. Something … but what? I didn’t know. I only knew that she was dying and that something within me was pleading to talk about more than the move and the kids and the weather.
I didn’t know what to say. I knew that I probably couldn’t even try without completely breaking down. Besides, this felt private and there were people everywhere. I didn’t know what it was, this thing building in the pit of my stomach, expanding into my chest, ready to explode at any moment, but I knew it was ours and ours alone.
Tony and I were chatting with my parents at the front door when I saw my sweet four-year-old daughter get up from her coloring, cross the room and approach my grandma sitting in her chair. All of my attention instantly shifted away from the conversation at hand and focused in on the scene playing out across the room.
My daughter wasted no time. “Grandma,” she said in her sweet little voice. “I’m sad you’re going to die.”
My first emotion was embarrassment. It was so awkward. Way to come right out and say it, kid. Then it hit me. Why did it have to be any more complex than that? That was the truth, the truth as only a sweet little girl could put it. Grandma, I’m sad you’re going to die.
My grandma, who had been leaning in to hear her, reached forward and pulled her great-grandchild into a tender embrace. She cradled her gently, whispering into her ear for a few moments. Her words were concealed from me by distance and my daughter’s feathery brown locks. This was private, just for them.
Time passed. My parents left for an appointment. The kids went to watch a movie in the common room down the hall. Tony stepped out and Grandpa fell asleep in his chair. Grandma and I were finally alone. I sat on the bed next to her chair and held her hand. Her voice was so faint I could barely make it out.
She told me about an obituary she had just read in the paper that morning. Someone she knew had died in a car accident. She thought that might be easier, she said, quicker at least than the drawn out death she was experiencing now.
“Good point,” I joked lamely. “I’ll put my order in for a quick and easy death like that someday.”
She smiled and whispered, “Yes but not until you’re really old.”
I nodded in agreement, chagrined at my own awkwardness, then grew solemn as tears began spilling down my cheeks. The fullness in my chest had reached a breaking point. Thanks to my four year-old little girl, I finally knew what had to be said. “Grandma, I am so sad that you’re sick,” I said. “I’m so, so sad. I don’t want you to die.”
My grandma wrapped her warm, soft arms around me, pulled me in closer and whispered, “Me too.”
I laid my head on her shoulder, my ear just inches from her mouth, so I could hear every faint word. I used to lay with my head on her chest, much like this, when I was little. She was so soft and pillowy. She always smelled of milk and sugar. I always felt so safe and so loved there, just like I felt suddenly safe and loved now.
“Mom told me that you’ve become really peaceful about everything,” I said, thinking back to a phone conversation that my mom and I had the week before. “Why is that? Why are you feeling so peaceful about it all now?”
My grandma paused, then whispered, “Well, I’ve done everything I wanted to do.” Then she nodded her head toward grandpa’s chair where he sat snoring with his mouth open and added, “and grandpa’s getting old now too, so it’s okay to go.”
She hesitated, then continued quietly, “Also, I feel people around me now.”
“Who?” I asked, suddenly alert.
“My mother,” she replied hoarsely. “I feel my mother a lot. Other people too. Close by. Here. With me.”
Perhaps it was the certainty of her voice or the calmness of her demeanor, but I somehow knew she was right. I had been blessed with a few spiritual experiences in my life, but there was one that came back to me now with all the intensity and emotion of the moment it occurred. I knew that our deceased loved ones were close. It made sense to me that she would feel them even closer now, now that she would soon be joining them on the other side.
I told my Grandma about that experience, the incredible yet ordinary morning when my first child was born and everything had transpired. “I know that someone is going to come collect you Grandma,” I whispered. “They’ll take care of you. It will be ok.”
“Yes,” she said quietly, simply.
“Maybe you could come get me when it’s my time to go,” I suggested quietly.
She smiled and whispered, “Yes, but not until you’re really old and ready.”
I laughed a little tear soaked chuckle. “Sounds good. If they want you to come get me any earlier, you tell them no and that they have to wait.”
She smiled again. She seemed to like the idea. We both believed we’d come together again and now we had a plan.
“I never thought about death until I was 21 years old,” she whispered.
“Really?” I asked, surprised. I’d thought of death nearly every day since I was six. But then again, that’s when my dad had died. If he hadn’t I may not have thought of it either.
She nodded. “That was when it seemed like everyone was dying. I realized that my children and grandchildren would all have to die someday too. That made me so sad.”
I nestled deeper into her shoulder, my grown up body hanging off the side of the chair. I inhaled her scent, absorbed her softness, gazed at her beautifully refined, familiar hands – hands that could bake anything, make anything, heal anything and gave the best back scratches I would ever have. I tried to soak her in deeply, greedily. I wanted it to last forever, to grab a hold of these last few quiet moments with her and pull back the long and rapidly disappearing thread of our lives together. But there was no pulling it back. Only the last few frayed inches remained.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.