It really doesn't matter if a death is unsurprising, or a life is very long and incredibly well lived. The loss of someone you love is unbearable. Especially if it is not surprising, yet very much unexpected.
My grandmother, Rosemary, passed away very suddenly yesterday evening. She was 96.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a very close relationship with her. Over two years ago, in March 2012, she moved to an assisted living apartment with a full suite of services here in Rochester. She had lived in Chillicothe, Ohio for over 70 of her 90+ years and Ohio for all of it. My mother was retiring and could spend a considerable amount of time taking care of all the administrative matters required but, equally if not more importantly, spend a considerable amount of time with my Grandma. It also meant that I could spend a lot of time with Grandma, as she was a mere 30 minutes away at most and, since March of 2014, had been only 15-20 minutes away at the nursing home facility of the organization that took care of her. I visited her as frequently as I could--aiming for once a week, but more in the summers when I had more free time and when my mother was out of town. I was like a built-in backup, but I treasured all of the time I spent with my grandmother and thoroughly enjoyed the conversations and stories that we shared.
Towards the end of your life, stories come pouring out. There wasn't a visit to my grandmother that didn't result in some kind of story, sometimes a repeat, but I always marveled at how consistent her details were, how clear the memories were even though they were decades and decades behind her. My grandmother did not suffer in her mind. Her body failed her in every possible way -- she developed Parkinson's in her early 90s and it robbed her of her ability to read, to dress herself, to hold things reliably in her hands. She also had macular degeneration and hearing loss, which made seeing and listening difficult, but not impossible. The reading was a huge loss. My grandmother had been a journalist and then a middle school English teacher, and books were very important to her. It was a tremendous loss to lose the ability to read for pleasure. The Parkinson's was largely responsible for that--large print books might have been an option but she had difficulty tracking. I did some research into it and tried all kinds of things to help her track better and even looked into getting her software such as BookShare that works well for my students with dyslexia...but none of it worked. She appreciated the efforts, but listening ended with her asleep in her chair, and holding the books had become difficult (especially if she was also holding a construction paper mask or colored transparency). When she moved to the nursing home after a fall that broke the top of her femur last fall and an ultimately failed experiment in continued moderate independence in her assisted living apartment (it was just too much), my mother bought her a book to be read out loud. It was, The Women Who Wrote the War by Nancy Caldwell Sorel, a dense, ginormous hardcover but something that would interest my grandmother, as she lived through World War II on the homefront as a journalist and the wife of a Marine. It was a beautiful, loving gift that my grandmother treasured.
I read the book to her every time I visited by myself (because who else would want to hear me read out loud?). We made it to page 155 before she passed away yesterday. I read in chunks of 5-10 pages. Occasionally she would stop me and say, "Okay, now tell me that part again but the Jessica way." I loved reading the book out loud, despite the challenging place names and people names and the sometimes awkward, nonfiction-y prose. I had to sit close and read loudly and slowly so that she could hear it all. I liked to pretend that I was Sylvia Poggioli, international correspondent for NPR. There were so many names and so many aspects of what led to the war--and, according to my grandmother, "an awful lot of bed-hopping, isn't there?" She loved the raunchy details of extramarital affairs and heady romances and lesbian couples and scandalous divorces and all of that. There was quite a lot of chortling that came from her green velvet chair. There were things neither of us knew--such as the lit up mini cities floated on lakes near Berlin to fool the Allied bombers. But, the best part was how the book sparked Grandma's own memories of this incredible time, and led to stories about the war but also just stories about her and my grandfather and trips she had taken to see some of the places mentioned in the book.
Most recently, we had gotten to the chapter titled, "Facing the War That Is Our War Now," which detailed how all the international correspondents in Europe and the Philippines dealt with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. It doesn't escape me that my grandmother's last day on this earth was actually Pearl Harbor Day.
She told me that she had been at my grandfather, Bem's, parents' house having dinner. They were listening to the radio when the news came over that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. She said that it didn't really sink in right there, it seemed so far away, but that she knew things would change. Two days later, they went to West Virginia to see an opera and when they crossed the bridge at the state line, there were soldiers standing guard at each end. My grandmother said, "I thought, well we're at war for sure." My grandfather, Popie to me and my cousins, was in the Marines Reserves. He was in college at the University of Michigan and had spent summers in Officer's Training. He had a feeling he might get called up, and so he didn't sign up for Spring semester classes. Instead, he went hunting with his Dad in January. It was then that he received the telegram informing him that he was to report for duty. He went off, I think to West Virginia, for training and started his career as a Second Lieutenant. He and Grandma were married in April, and he shipped off to war overseas shortly after. While he was at war, he became a hero. He was at Guadalcanal when he rescued a downed pilot. My grandmother, since she was covering the homefront in Ohio for the paper, was offered the chance to write about what had happened to him. She told me that it was one of her greatest regrets that she turned down the opportunity: "I just couldn't do it, it was too emotional for me and I couldn't stop thinking that he could have died that day."
I heard many other stories, such as the teacher tour of Europe that she took where she went to the Coventry Cathedral in the 1970s after it had been rebuilt from the Blitzkrieg, where it was pretty much destroyed. A portion of the cathedral stood standing, battered and broken, and there was a cross made of nails on the wall. "Forgive us" was written underneath--a gift from Germany. So much destruction in that war. Grandma said that she was just so moved by the sight. And unrelated stories, such as when she and Popie were living in forest ranger's quarters after the war, when my Marine grandfather turned to forestry. My uncle, I think it was Tom (I could just kick myself for not writing these things down with more consistency and fidelity), was very young and my Uncle Jim was a baby. Uncle Tom got stung by a bee, and it turned out he had an allergic reaction to it. I think Popie stayed home with baby Uncle Jim while my grandma took my Uncle Tom to the doctor's, and she made it just in the nick of time. This was before EpiPens, and she was told that another few minutes and my uncle would have died. This story weighed heavily on my grandmother, as she told it more than once (so you would think I'd remember the details better), and after she told it a second or third time she'd look at me funny and say, "I told you this before, didn't I?" and I would say, "Yes, but I never tire of hearing your stories and sometimes you add more to it." She was very concerned that she would be looked at as confused or losing her marbles, and marbles she had in droves.
My grandmother was smart. She was funny. She told dirty jokes. She told clean jokes. She loved her family. She loved reading and books. She had kept a list of the books she read from 1984 to 2010, until she started having difficulty with reading and could no longer handwrite comfortably. I put it into a spreadsheet -- you can learn a lot about someone by the books they've read and when -- it was 453 titles long. She inspired me to start keeping lists of how many books I've read and when. She was a writer. I have manilla envelopes full of pieces she wrote from plays to poetry. She was an appreciator of fine music--she loved to hear her favorite hymn, "Be Thou My Vision," and "In the Garden," and when she still lived at the assisted living apartment she had asked me to play a Christmas violin concert two years ago, and added a few requests for some additional music. "Nothing fancy," she said, "Just a little Grieg, you know, the Peer Gynt Suites? Something from that." Oh yeah, nothing fancy. Just a little Anitra's Dance (look it up, it's beautiful but also a beast, but I did it for her). Two days before the recital of sorts she asked me if I could just tell a little bit about each carol I played and each piece, just research a bit and give a little background. Ever the teacher, ever the educator. I learned so much about the carols we both loved, and it was fun to share that information. I cried my way through "Amazing Grace," as it always reminds me of my Popie and his funeral. He died right before Christmas, as well, but many years ago. My grandma was up on current events and was amazed at the techonology that had developed in her lifetime. When telling me about Popie and his time at Guadalcanal, we were able to look up where that was on my iPhone in the Maps app and see how close it was to Australia and how far it was from Indonesia, which is where I thought it was closest to in proximity. "Isn't this amazing," she said, "that we can be sitting here in 2014, talking about your grandfather and where he was 70 years ago, and you can with a touch of a button see just where that is and have that connection." It was a marvel. She loved lemon poke cake, and Junior Mints, and always tried to have something on hand that was gluten free that I could eat (and was disappointed when she couldn't). She loved all her children and her grandchildren dearly and loved being caught up via facebook on everyone's goings-on. She wasn't super demonstrative, but she told me frequently how much she appreciated everything my mother did to take care of her in every possible way.
She touched everyone who met her. There were so many tears at her nursing home yesterday, tears and stories that just erupted from all of the nurses and aides who were there, there when she passed away. I had spoken with her at 1:30 in the afternoon, and she was just fine -- I was still feeling sick from this awful virus I can't seem to shake and had spent most of the day in bed, so I called to let her know I'd come Monday or Tuesday instead. I didn't want to get her sick... she said, "You sound terrible. Please don't share!" and then comforted me with the fact that in my mom's absence (my mom and stepfather were on a Christmas cruise down the Danube they'd planned for a year) there were people just lined up to visit her each day, because my mom takes care of those kinds of things and is highly organized. She sounded fine, jokey, even chipper.
At 4:22 I was up in my bed trying to nap when my phone rang with an unfamiliar number. I don't usually pick those up, but something told me it could be Grandma's nursing home. It was. They told me that she had had some chest pains, that they were quite severe and they had to give her nitro. Being who she is, she both informed them despite her pain that she couldn't have more than one, because nitro drops her blood pressure significantly, and she was right. Luckily that wasn't a bad thing as her blood pressure had spiked considerably and could use a drop. She was stable, although still having pain, when they called me. She actually didn't want them to call me, they said she said, "Don't bother her; she's sick!" and was adamant that we not call my mom in Vienna, that she didn't want to ruin her vacation. The nurse walked me through what was certainly a cardiac event, and that my grandmother had been clear that she'd had a triple bypass open heart surgery 22 years ago but that she was also told that it would only be good for 15 years, so she was doing pretty well with it so far but was on borrowed time. She was lucid enough to tell all these vital pieces of information to the head nurse on the floor. They said I shouldn't come, that because I was sick I should stay home, especially because she was stable. At 5:02 I received a second phone call telling me that the pain had come back at the severe level again and, midsentence the nurse interrupted herself and said, "You need to come now." I got dressed as fast as I could, kicking myself for not having gotten dressed with the first call, but knowing that my grandma was strong as an ox and had beaten close calls before. I sped all the way there and we went up the elevator and as soon as we passed the kitchen, I knew. A circle of nurses was standing there, looking sad, and one put her hand over her mouth as she saw me. I knew she was gone. Bryce asked because I couldn't, and the head nurse confirmed it. My grandmother had passed away at 5:05, not three minutes after my call to come, and there was no possible way I could have made it in time. I was devastated. I am devastated.
In her room, the nurse on duty who had taken such good care of my grandma was in tears and came to hug me, sobbing herself. I ugly cried into her hair, letting out bellowing honking coughs and apologizing for spreading my germs. My grandma was in her bed, looking very peaceful, but also definitively a shell of herself. Her beautiful, loving, stubborn, brilliant soul was gone. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. One by one all the nurses told me about how they'd stayed with her, they'd held her hand, they'd caressed her face, that she was not alone. That she knew she was so loved. That she was worried most about my mom, who she knew would be devastated that she wasn't here when she left this world. They told me there was nothing I could have done to get there sooner, that she hadn't shown any signs of dying until right before, that it was a shock to them all. I hadn't seen my grandma since the Sunday before Thanksgiving, because a quarantine had made taking residents out and visiting residents not possible (or at the very least very much discouraged for the health of the residents) due to a nasty respiratory virus. Which EVERY SINGLE PERSON ON THE FLOOR got to some degree EXCEPT for my strong, stubborn grandma. After the quarantine was lifted I was hacking away and disgustingly sick myself, and did not want to share. So I did not see her. I spoke with her on the day she passed, and for that I will be forever grateful, but it hurts so much that I didn't see her and I was supposed to.
Each of the nurses and aides told me how much they loved my grandmother. That they weren't supposed to have favorites, but by golly she was most definitely their favorite. One said, "What am I supposed to do now that she's gone? She was the bright spot in my day." Another, who my grandmother had nicknamed The Admiral, said that she had sat with my grandma as she was feeling better and offered to get her dinner. She said, "Well, if it's anything like lunch I don't want it." The Admiral laughed and a few moments later Grandma said, "If there's pudding I'd like that--Jello I can't swallow as well but pudding would be nice." The Admiral kissed her on her cheek, and my grandma kissed her back. When she came back, the other nurses were there and my grandmother was gone. She opened the window, "for the the traveling," she told us. "She doesn't want to be stuck in here. She needs to go find your Mama and go on home." It was so incredibly touching to see how many of these people who took such intimate care of my grandmother over the past 9 months or so were truly touched by her presence, in awe of her sharp intellect and wicked sense of humor, and genuinely devastated by her loss. What an amazing gift to be loved by so many.
The last 24 hours have been a blur. My parents are on nearly their last leg of the trip back from Europe, and since I am the agent in my mom's absence I spent last night and today on the phone and meeting with various funeral homes and attorneys and the home. I cleaned out my grandmother's room (with the amazing help of a dear friend) and brought everything up to my mom's house, which I thought I'd be more of a mess through but it just wasn't her home anymore. I was glad to do this unpleasant task and take it off my mother's plate, as she will have funeral arrangements to finagle in Ohio when she gets back.
One of the things that makes me saddest is that my grandmother never got to see me become a mother. She knew how much I wanted it, she knew all about what we were going through. She didn't always understand it all (smartphones are one thing, frozen embryos and the medical babymaking craziness is another), but she understood our longing. Or rather she sympathized with it, as her babies came easily to her and she'd never had any of that struggle in any form. When getting her biographical information for the death certificate today, I found the obituary/biography she herself wrote in 2007 "in case we'd need it, which no doubt you will" in the preface. She had handwritten a list of her great-grandchildren (and then my mom kept adding to the list as more arrived), and it physically pained me not to have anyone of my own on that list. I always hoped that we could have been successful in her lifetime. I remember the short-lived joy on her face when I told her I was pregnant two years ago, when I was visiting in her apartment and unfortunately had to go because I had discovered I was bleeding and would ultimately lose that baby. I wanted to see that again, for keeps, and for her to know that joy and meet our son or daughter (or sons and daughters, however it will work out). I am completely devastated that this is not to be.
However...she saw me marry an amazing man. She saw me have a marriage I never dreamed I could have, with a man who she dearly loved and who she respected as a grandson, the husband of her eldest granddaughter. A man who made the difficult calls I could not as I wept next to my grandmother's body and tried to figure out what I needed to do in those hours just after our loss. Who told my mother, my sister, and my eldest uncle horribly sad and sudden news. Who executed this duty with with grace and compassion. She would have been so proud of him. She saw me become a teacher in a similar niche to what she had taught, and to have a career that I love and could talk with her about and she could share her own stories of life in the trenches of middle school ELA, if not the special education bit of it. I was blessed to have so much time to spend with her, to see her weekly and at special events and to bake her birthday cakes. I can let go of the cruel slashing disappointment that she didn't see us become not only wonderful partners to each other but parents as well. It's just going to be hard when the whole family is together, as it will remind me of my absence of babies, of children, of little ones who would have known her even the tiniest bit.
But they will know her, because she lives on in me, and in everyone whose lives she touched. Her light on this earth has gone out and it is a horrific loss to so many, but she shines on in our hearts and our souls. I love you, Grandma, and I miss you so much already.
|Grandma in her apartment 2 1/2 years ago, playing Scrabble.|
She was the Scrabble Queen and I only beat her once! I thought
she looked beautiful and happy in this picture, but when she saw
it she only said, "Who's that aardvark? Well, I guess this is as
good as it gets now."
|Thanksgiving 2012, at our house.|
|My stepfather Rob's birthday BBQ, wearing a chenille sweater|
when it's 88. Bryce is listening to a story about why the 1940s
were her favorite decade.
|Grandma's birthday get-together this past October, for 96.|
My sister serenading her with the guitar, my mom sitting by
the hammered dulcimer.
|Me serenading my Grandma with "My Pretty Irish Girl," a little|
Irish jig that she liked (although typically she wasn't so much of
an Irish music fan) at her birthday celebration.