On Sunday, July 9th, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly. According to the doctors, she suffered a silent heart attack the day before. Her body simply could not recover.
Obviously, I am not the first person to write on the subject of loss, nor will I share any unique or profound insights. However, I feel compelled to write, to ponder the significance and ramifications.
I spent my childhood at the Enjaian house, Grandma and Grandpa’s house or G and G’s. They came as a package deal. After school, one of them would pick my sister and me up and take us over to their house. We hung out there until supper, after which Mom took us home. Every holiday and birthday celebration took place at their house. Immediate family to me meant mom, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, and my grandparents.
For as large of a role that Grandma filled in my life, we were never that close. I knew from a young age that she favored my cousins, her son’s children. My sister and I bore the subconscious taint of our father’s misdeeds. I knew it, resented it for a bit but then got used to it. Grandma and I showed love different ways. We shared few interests in common. Honestly, I barely remember what our relationship was like before my aunt first started her battle with cancer.
During my junior year of college, my aunt underwent the first of several significant, disfiguring surgeries to remove a rare, recurring cancer in her jaw. (It wasn’t bone cancer. It was more rare than that, so rare that I do not remember the specific name.) Over the next seven years I watched this battle strengthen my aunt’s faith while my grandma grew weaker both physically and spiritually.
From that point, Grandma sank into worry and negativity. It became difficult to be around her which nearly killed me because avoiding her meant not spending time with Grandpa, one of my most favorite people in the world. I never totally physically separated from her. In fact, in some ways I was the grandkid who spent the most time in her company. Emotionally though? A gulf grew even as I watched. I loved her but I didn’t really like her. I rarely admitted that though.
After Ruth died, Grandma continued her descent. As she aged, she faced many typical ailments like hearing and sight loss. She chose not to fight them, at least that’s what her attitude conveyed to me. As her mobility decreased, her walk became a shuffle. So many times when this first started, I remember wishing she would just pick her feet up and work to regain the mobility. I saw her shuffling gait as a manifestation of her defeatism.
These post-2012 years also saw the growing up and leaving the nest of her grandkids. One cousin married a wonderful woman and moved to Maryland and then Maine. One cousin joined the Marines. Another cousin joined the Air Force. My sister moved to Chicago, a city she has, justifiably loved for years. This whole time I stayed put, still living in the same house that I have lived in for almost sixteen years. I watched my grandma bemoan the fact that all her grandchildren were leaving and didn’t talk to her anymore. I fought bitterness in myself when she said this while I sat across the table from her at the table every Monday night and most Sunday lunches. God used this to strengthen my faith and help me learn from my mother’s tireless compassion towards her own mother who constantly told her how tired she looked or that she was working too much.
I failed many times. I often grew irritated with her ignorant or prejudiced statements and snapped at her. I fought, many times unsuccessfully, the urge to pull away from her smothering hugs and kisses. Mom helped me learn that that was Grandma’s way of showing love.
In the midst of failure came growth. Over the past couple years God has been growing me, pointing out my weak points and giving me the wisdom and strength needed to improve my relationship with Grandma. He has given me the ability to take what has been a sore spot, my singleness and her chagrin at my lack of a husband and turn it into laughter. How could I not laugh when she asked me if I saw any handsome men on my runs and chased them or did they chase me? I laugh every time I think about it.
Then came Sunday, July 9th. I had just found Hamilton Park and the dueling grounds after blasting the Hamilton soundtrack on the drive from my airbnb. My phone started vibrating. Caller ID revealed it to be Mom. I answered excitedly, planning to ask her if we could Facetime so I could show her Manhattan across the river. I never asked her. She told me that they were at the ER> Grandma’s prognosis did not look good.
Although I did not think about it then, later I remembered the other time Grandma had a heart attack. Mom called to tell Laura and me while we were over at Dad’s house for the weekend. When I found out back then I panicked. I couldn’t imagine life without my grandma. I did not react that way a decade and a half later.
After talking to Mom, I hoped that everything would be fine, that nothing would interfere with Mom and Ellis’ anniversary trip or with Uncle Stephen and Aunt Joanna’s family vacation in Maine or my own current trip. I kept going with my itinerary for the day with the news constantly present in the back of my mind. Mom promised to text me if there were any updates. By the time I reached Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I had not received any. Before I started walking around the historic cemetery, I sent a quick text to Mom, “any updates?” I did not expect her reply. While I stood in the cemetery, I read the news that Grandma’s heart gave out; she died.
The irony of my situation contributed to the surreality of the whole thing. I had head knowledge that Grandma died but things felt distant, disconnected. I stood in a cemetery in New York, hundreds of miles away from home. I thought that maybe things would come into focus, take shape when I got back home. On some levels, it still hasn’t.
I immediately asked Mom if she wanted me to cut my trip short and come home then. Honestly, I did not want to; I still hadn’t gotten to Maine, to Acadia National Park, the primary inspiration for the trip in the first place. I would do it for Mom though. I would do anything for her. I asked her if I could help her by coming home. She told me I was sweet to offer and then asked if I wanted to cut my trip short. Later she asked if I wanted them to factor my trip into the scheduling process for the funeral. I felt conflicted. I did not want to go to the funeral. The ceremony did not mean that much to me. I wondered what that meant that I did not want to go to my grandmother’s funeral. I asked Mom if it was wrong for me to feel this way. She told me no. She’s been on the listening end of many “debriefs” after encounters with Grandma. I told her not to factor my schedule into the planning. I figured that the funeral would likely be held on Thursday, the last day of my trip, the drive all the way back day.
I ended up rearranging my trip, cutting out some stops in Maine and shortening the trip by a day so that I could arrive home in time. I’m so thankful that I did. All eight cousins were together at the same time for the first time in years. I kept thinking about how Grandma would be both overjoyed and also mildly annoyed that it took her dying to finally have all eight of us spend time with her.
We had an amazing time that day, from recreating old cousins pictures to an hours long Apples to Apples game that had us laughing until our sides hurt. I’m glad that I made the arrangements to be there, for Mom’s sake, for Grandpa’s sake, for the sake of having the family all together. None of these reasons had anything to do with Grandma. They had to do with the people left behind, the people with whom I share a close emotional bond.
On many levels, Grandma’s passing brings relief. Grandpa can finally return to repairing printing presses, his happy place. Aunt Kathleen no longer has to endure the stress of working full time and still putting dinner on the table promptly at 6pm. Ginger, the dog, no longer has to deal with being yelled out for being a dumb dog. (Okay, that’s stretching it a bit too far.) When looking for a vacation place, we no longer had to make sure that the house had a master suit on the first floor with a minimal number of stairs.
All of those reasons rest on the surface. I have no idea how Grandpa is processing this loss. He and Grandma would have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary at the end of this month. I cannot speak to what Grandma’s death means to Mom or her siblings. They’ve had their mom around their entire lives.
Where does this leave me?
I don’t know.
Nearly a month has passed since Grandma’s death. Things will evolve as the days progress. I hypothesize that in a few months, when the first Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, we will have to deal with the ramification of the loss of the one person for whom family would gather to keep up the traditions.
Loss presents differently every time. I cannot help but wonder how I will feel and respond when the next family member died. No one lives forever.
It’s hard to close a post without concrete answers yet that is what I must do.