“How did it get so late so soon?”  –Dr. Seuss
Grandma and mom
The last couple of posts were a bit reflective and deep and I thought it was time for something fun and summery. So I wrote a post about summer for today. But life can be messy and sometimes it doles out more truth than cake. And the only way I know to really process the tough things is to write about them.
My grandmother died unexpectedly yesterday. And when I say unexpectedly, I mean that her heart stopped and no one was prepared or had the chance to say goodbye. But I also mean in that way that can only ever be unexpected when a person you love dearly is suddenly no longer in the world.
She had been undergoing treatment for early stage cancer–to shrink a tumor that hadn’t spread but was at the time inoperable because of its size and location. My mom took five weeks off and went to stay with her while she battled to stay positive and strong, her mouth blistering, her body no longer obeying her commands. It was brutal, as chemo usually is. But through it all, it never occurred to any of us that she wouldn’t get the chance to fight, the chance to have that one tumor removed and go on with her life.
She found out about her cancer two months and one week ago. I spoke to her that day, from a hotel room in Chicago, thirty miles from her home in Downers Grove. I wanted to jump in a rental car and hug her and I asked her repeatedly to let me do so. But my grandmother handled it the way she handled so many things: with grace, and the assurance that she loved me very much “sweet girl,” but needed to be alone and didn’t want to be seen in her current state, already forty pounds lighter.
“Next time,” she said. Next time was to be in September when I joined my mom to help her through the surgery….
When I think of my grandmother, I think of: pages of lined yellow paper scrawled with black ink, the smell of yucca flowers, her love of “heavy” trinkets, her soft hands and tall stature, her lilting laugh, her penchant for off colors like rust and pale green. And her expressive eyes, like miniature glacial lakes.
But most of all I think of love. The kind of love that doesn’t grasp too tightly but revels in freedom and joy.
When my mom phoned my grandma seven years ago to tell her about my crazy plan to move to Canada to spend time with a boy I’d met in Europe, her response was: “Oh, what a great adventure!”
And that was how she approached all of life: open hands, open heart. She taught my mother to hold on loosely. She taught me the same. Love, she felt, shouldn’t come with selfish expectations but be given freely, again and again, wherever we landed in the world.
When I spoke with her a few days ago, it was hard to imagine she was sick. Her voice, smooth and reassuring, a mixture of green grass and bells, sounded as it always did. I could not imagine the thin, blistered woman on the other side. She was, as she had always been for me, tall, beautiful, the bright light in the room.
We talked about the trip I’ll be taking to Italy next week to attend the wedding of a dear friend. We spoke of travel and adventure and one of the last things she said to me was, “Call me when you get back and tell me all about it.”
“Of course I will,” I replied.
I always imagined a string of unhurried days where I could ask her all of the little questions I had about her life. She would fill me in on the bits that weren’t in those yellow-lined letters she sent me or the photo albums we pored over last time I stayed at her house. She would tell me the ‘juicy stuff.’ Like why she really changed her name from Sarah to Sally.
But, as Jack Kornfield so eloquently wrote,
The trouble is that we think we have time.
Regret is perhaps the most potent ingredient in grief. And for me, it is only tempered by the fact that I wrote her a letter last year, before she was sick, telling her how much she meant to me and what she had taught me about family and love.
Maybe I knew it was getting late. Maybe I knew the time would not be endless. But, I am, and always will be, glad I said those things.
grandma and me wedding
If there is a lesson in death (and I’m sure there are many), the only one I can see clearly is this: love big and let it be known. Say the things you feel. Because it’s all too short.
Last night, I stood on an outlook above the bay, thinking about my grandmother, trying to convince myself she was gone. Nearby, a saxophonist was playing a sad, slow version of the “Pink Panther.” The sun, a bright glowing ball, slid effortlessly behind the mountains. And just like that, it was late. The sun was gone.