When I was thirteen or fourteen, my grandmother got cancer. The details sort of escaped me, partly because I was a teenager and totally involved in my own drama, partly because I'm sure because my mother sugar-coated Grammie's ordeal either for our sanity or for her own, and in part because even at 80 my grandmother seemed indomitable. She was petite and soft-spoken, but she was forever.
I hate that I can't remember much about what this was like for her. But I do know that chemo helped, and she beat it; the loss here was that bit by bit, her beautiful red curls fell out and turned to white-gray wisps clinging desperately to the pink skin on her skull. Self-consciously, she would wear those little stretchy turban caps on her head when we came to visit. But one night, as we sat around the dining table, the occasional gentle rubbing and itching around the cap became regular scratching. My mother gently put her hand on Grammie's arm and said, "You're uncomfortable. Why don't you take it off? It's okay." Wearily, shakily, Grammie slid it off, freeing her skull to the air but laying herself bare. Even in front of family, it was a big step. Her lips formed a tiny smile but she sat there, hands fidgeting, eyes flickering around the table. We started in on some light chatter until my grandfather's voice broke through ours.
"You know what, Evie?" he said. "You have the most beautifully shaped head I have ever seen. It's exquisite."
Grammie giggled. Then beamed. Then completely relaxed into her seat, into the conversation, into her family, as my grandfather smiled at her with limitless adoration and awe.
I've remembered that moment ever since. That moment is love. That moment, and a million others like them in her long life, carried my grandmother through the ten years she outlived her husband. "If I could do it all over again, I'd marry Evie," he was fond of saying. She was never alone after he died; she had us, but more importantly, she still had him, and he was part of her until she drew her last breath.
It's been surreal, waiting for The Call since more than a year ago -- back when she wasn't supposed to make it more than six months at best. My grandmother, all 5-foot-one of her, may have looked fragile but she had the soul of a fighter. She was brave and graceful when her body stopped being able to keep up with her still-sharp mind, when the trappings of age sapped her energy. There was no getting better, there was only waiting. I can't imagine the kind of courage it takes to close your eyes every night, or for a nap, and not know if you'll open them again or if the disease will take you while you dream. She had no fear. She was ready. And she had humor. Her 98-year old sister still lives; in the last few months Grammie would crack wise, "I don't know WHAT she's still hanging around for at this point." Last year, at age 95, she announced she didn't want to use a cane because "canes are for old people."
So it's weird to think she's gone. When we lost Gramp, it was sudden, and we didn't know he wouldn't be able to get better. He went into the hospital not feeling well and died within a week. Exacerbating the grief was the sight, for the first time ever, of our tiny Grammie without him standing tall at her side with his hand on her elbow. We watched her walk up to his coffin at the viewing, watched her touch him gently, and kiss his waxen cheek. "Happy sailing, Bill," she said. We watched her take her last look at the man she'd married 60 years before, and our hearts broke for her and for us, and for the end of a relationship that set the standard for the mutual love and respect and loyalty that we sought in our own lives.
This grief is different. It feels more like a misplaced sense of loneliness, like there's someone missing. Which there is, but my heart can't quite feel it so sharply yet. I know she's gone, but I can't really imagine it being true. My mother is being so strong, but for the past ten years she has seen my grandmother through everything, and was my grandparents' rock for a decade before that. There's a pain I feel for her, because she isn't a daughter any more. Even though she'd become more mother than daughter of late, "daughter" isn't a role she actively inhabits on this world any more, and as a daughter myself, I feel acute sorrow and anguish when I imagine being in that place. I know she'll talk to her parents in her prayers. But whether they're 46, 66, or 96, you're never ready for when you can't talk to them in person. As this hits my mother harder -- when the funeral is over, when the packing is done, when it's time to figure out what her life looks like without Grammie in it -- that's when it will really hit me. It's starting a bit even now, as she surveys my grandmother's empty apartment and faces putting a lifetime of memories into a bunch of boxes. "She'd left her glasses sitting on the bathroom sink and I almost couldn't bear to touch them," Mom said, her voice thick with loss.
What a life it was. Gramp and Grammie were the core of the party back in their youth, with legendary booze-ups and stories I need told to me again and again because I lose the details in the laughter. They're stories my mom and her siblings tell with blushes and hands clapped to their foreheads, and rivers of mirth streaming down their cheeks. Grammie was a great-grandmother for more than seven years, she met the husbands of the three grandchildren she knew best, and she experienced the unconditional love of a daughter and her husband -- who treated her like his own mother -- who would do anything for her, any time, any place, anywhere. She showed us strength and dignity, and my mother showed us unimagined stores of selfless devotion that made us swell with pride at what an amazing line of women came before us.
The past year has been difficult for her. Spoiled by all those ageless years, it was frustrating for her heart -- "The heart of a 50-year old except for that one valve," her doctor said -- to slow her pace. She hated having to push through the lack of energy, the lethargy, the shortness of breath. Her mind still spun too quickly for that. After a particularly difficult, scary day, my mother and her brother tucked her in and gently told her they loved her, and that whenever she decided it was time to be with Gramp, they would miss her terribly but they would understand. "Great. If only it were that easy," Grammie sighed with a chuckle. She'd lived the heck out of 96 years and she was ready to be with her Bill again, if only her body would cooperate.
But they're together again now. On what would be her last day, she spoke to my uncle and told him she'd felt pretty good, lively enough to go downstairs for dinner; there was a special chocolate cake on offer that night, and she decided to let herself splurge on a piece. Then she went upstairs, took my uncle's call before she went to bed, and said, "You know what? I had a really wonderful day today." And then she fell asleep for the last time. It's exactly what she wanted -- painless, seamless, quiet. And all we can ask is that she went after one last happy time. She didn't go to bed frustrated or agonized. She was, truly, in a moment of peace.
It's times like this when I'm so certain there's an afterlife, because it is the only comforting reality, and in another sense, the only logical one. Because I can't imagine my grandfather not having been here all along, invisibly sitting by her side, ready to greet her whenever it was her time. He'd have charmed all of Heaven while he waited for her to finish up on Earth, watching, loving her from afar, spying as she stuck around to make sure we were all in good hands before she left to join him. I can see his face in my mind, its openness and genuine delight in the experience of talking to others, and in the pride of having married her. He named his boat the Rare Mood, after a line from his favorite song, "It's Almost Like Being In Love," from the musical Brigadoon -- a song he would sing so casually at random moments. "What a day this has been..." is sometimes as far as he got before one of us would give him a big hug, or join in the song. "What a rare mood I'm in; oh, it's almost like being in love." I remember so many times that he sang, squeezed her hand, made her laugh, made us all laugh. I know when she gently passed, the first thing her spirit heard was her beloved Bill's voice singing the song as if on cue.
"She's with him now, Mom," I said.
"I hope so. I have to believe it, that he's there, reaching out to hold her hand," she said softly, her voice catching.
"Oh, I think he's been holding her hand since long before she passed."
"And now she gets to hold his."
We love you, Grammie. We miss you. Give Gramp our love.