I wrote this a month or two ago when my Grandma was sick and after she passed away. For the record, I’m not sad so much anymore. I genuinely have a sense that my Grandma lives somewhere else now. Somewhere nearby that’s just far enough that I can’t see her. It got me thinking about the goodbyes that we say in life, whether to a friend, someone we’ve dated, a family member who’s passed on or even a pet. Things never seem to go quite how you think they will…Working on fleshing this story out with other stories too to put together a radio broadcast to submit to “This American Life”. We’ve got the stories, now we just have to get the people and the equipment all in the same room….But here’s a start…
When I remember my Grandmother, the first thing I see is this peppy little woman, with a big smile and vibrant red hair tucked perfectly into that standard old lady permanent, held in place with lots of aqua net hairspray. It really looked natural, the red, so I didn’t know until much later in life that her hair was actually gray and that she dyed it. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I realized this—when I went to a big family gathering that had been planned for her 80th birthday and suddenly her hair had all gone salt and peppered. It was so strange. She aged 20 years from the last time I had seen her. Just because of the color of her hair. My Mom was amazed that I hadn’t realized that Grandma had always dyed her hair before.
I think that was maybe one of the first times I realized that my Grandmother was getting old—and that someday she would die. And it terrified me. I could never consider this thought for more than a few seconds before I started to panic.
I never had the chance to say goodbye to my Grandfather or my Dad. They both died very suddenly and unexpectedly. My Grandfather went in for a fairly simple surgery. To have an ulcer in his esophagus sealed (or something like that). Yes there was some risk involved, but the doctors were incredibly optimistic and so gave us cause to hope for the best. And my Grandpa was very optimistic as well. My Mom tells me that he sat with my little brother Kenny before he went into surgery and told him that when he came out of surgery he would be as strong as Superman.
So when the Doctor came out and told us that my grandfather had bled out on the table we were stunned. Or at least my Mom and the other grown ups were. I don’t remember any of it. Apparently they had finished the operation and as they were stitching him up the rookie surgeon hit an artery and was unable to stop the bleeding. Despite his good health, the lucky penny I had given him to keep in his wallet and his promise that he would come back from the surgery as strong as Superman, he was dead. Everyone told my Grandma that she could easily win a malpractice suit against the hospital for wrongful death, but it hurt her too much to even think about having to rehash his death over a long period of time, and so she just let it go. No suit. No resolution.
Ten months later my Dad died in our driveway at our house in Washington State. My siblings and I were inside watching cartoons after dinner while my dad worked outside on the car. This was his normal routine. My dad practically lived in our driveway—always tinkering away at one of the 5 or 6 cars parked out front. My mother explained later that it wasn’t because he loved cars so much—it was because he was cheap and didn’t want to pay for a mechanic. Things that I never would have thought of as a kid. That’s why he was always out side. On the night that he died, my Dad’s best friend Gary came by to drop off a car part and came frantically into the house, “Where’s the phone?” he said, “We have to call 911.” Gary called and we followed him outside onto the pavement. My Dad was lying on his back and there was a big pool of blood at least 2 feet in diameter around his head on the concrete. At least that’s the way I remember it. I found out later it was a brain aneurism. I was 7 years old. I watched as Gary did CPR based on the instruction of the emergency care person on the other end of the line while we waited for the ambulance. I watched as my dad’s face turned various shades of blue and purple. I didn’t know that could actually happen. And the whole time all I could think about was this plate. It was a white plate, about 8 inches around that had a pink ring along the outside edge. My Aunt had sent my sister and me matching ones for Christmas or something. In the center of the plate were these three cartoon geese, kind of like cheap Beatrix Potter knock offs with bows around their necks that matched the pink ring around the plate. We’d had left over spaghetti for dinner and when I’d tried to pull my plate out of the microwave by myself it burned my fingers and I dropped it. The plate shattered on the floor. And that was all I could think about. That somehow that broken plate had caused all this. Or maybe that it was some kind of warning the universe was trying to send me. I don’t know. But to this day, 20 years later, one of the only things I remember about that night is the image of that plate.
Even though that was many years ago now, I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from that trauma of losing two people who meant so much to me in such a short period of time, and completely unexpectedly. In the months that followed I remember lying in bed wishing that I’d just had the chance to say goodbye. Convinced that if the doctors had let me into the operating rooms of my Dad and Grandpa that I would have hugged them, I would have said goodbye and I would have felt better. Or I might have even cried those magic tears like in a movie and my loved ones would have miraculously been brought back to life. It might seem silly now, but I really believed that that could have happened if only they’d let me in.
As a result of these deaths early on in my life, I felt cheated. It was unfair that everyone else had both parents—so what if they were divorced. At least they were both still alive. Even though the death of a loved one is never a pleasant experience for any of us I’m sure, I always thought it would be better or at least acceptable if I had the chance to say goodbye. That was my major gripe. That my chance to say goodbye had been stolen away. Not just once, but twice and within a one year time frame. I would make my mother be sure to say “I’ll see you in the morning” when she’d tuck me in at night. Thinking that whether or not she knew it, she was promising that she would survive till the next day. I was convinced that these words held some actual power. I recall at least one time in particular where my Mom said only the first 2 parts of the systematic mantra that I had made systematic somewhere along the way. “Good night, I love you, I’ll see you in the morning” I said. “Goodnight, I love you.” She said, but no, “I’ll see you in the morning.” I bolted upright in bed as my Mom closed the door and I said the last part louder, “I’ll see you in the morning!” I said it once or twice more until she said, a bit agitated, “I’ll see you in the morning!” Obviously, she had no idea how important it was that she say the whole thing.
That’s why I was so surprised at the calmness and peace I’d felt when I got an email from my Mom saying that my Grandmother wasn’t doing well. My entire life when I’d imagined that news, I saw myself falling into a heap on the floor, sobbing and shaking, unable to cope with all the emotion I felt. Instead, I was sitting on my bed at midnight after returning from a summer Shakespeare in the Park event with friends. I just happened to come home, turn on my laptop at midnight and read my Mom’s email. I cried a little, or maybe a lot, but I felt ok. After an hour or so I tried to go to sleep but I had to keep getting up every few minutes for a tissue. My eyes were still watering and it kept me from falling asleep.
Later, my Mom asked me if I’d like to go and see my Grandmother or if I wanted to just remember her as she was the last time I had seen her. I knew the answer right away. I had to go and see her. This was my chance to say goodbye. To do it my way and to have a sense of closure. All these ideas started floating around in my mind. I wanted to know my Grandmother more as a person. I wanted to know more about her life and the experiences she’d had growing up and now there was no time. In the last several years I’d tried to have these conversations with my Grandma but she’d always start to cry and I’d stop asking. It’s not that me asking her questions was torturous or anything. It’s just that, like she told me, “Everyone is dead. They’re all dead. I’m the last one.” And it was true. All her childhood friends, her family, even her husband. They were all gone and as I got older I realized how sad that made her. So I’d felt guilty for asking her about her life and decided I wouldn’t do it any more. But this was my last chance. I had to think of something. Something that wasn’t linked to anyone else that might make her sad. An answer she wouldn’t’ have to think about. Finally I’d decided on my question. I would ask her what her favorite color was. That would at least give me some kind of memory to hold onto. Something that’s just about her—apart from the role she held in our family.
When I got to my Aunt’s house in Utah, it was sunny out. One of my Grandma’s cats, Ashley, was sunning herself on the pavement in the driveway and came over to say hello when we walked up. As I got ready to go into my Grandmother’s basement apartment I silently prayed the same thing that I’d been praying since I’d gotten my Mom’s email : “Help me keep it together. Just don’t let me cry.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to cry for me. I didn’t want my Grandmother to see me crying. I didn’t want to make her sad. My Mom had warned me that my Grandmother was much thinner than the last time I’d seen her and very frail. She hadn’t been eating much and was now bedridden. When she wanted to sit up to watch the movies on TV, we had to use the little remote control on her hospital bed to raise her head up. She could barely reach out her hand to pet the twin white cats that were sitting curled up next to her on the bed.
I opened the stain glass accented door and stepped inside her apartment. I was shocked at my immediate impulse to turn around and leave. When I opened the door the stench of ammonia came pouring out. The 7 cats my Grandmother had down there with her were also getting old and apparently having bladder problems. Despite my Mom and my aunt’s efforts to take out the old arm chairs and carpets and replace them with plastic patio furniture that could be easily hosed off, the whole place reeked. It was like a haze that hung over the entire apartment. But I paused, walked over to her bedside, bent down and hugged her. “Hi Grandma.” I said, trying to smile. She looked back through heavy eyelids and smiled back. “Hi, honey.” She whispered. My Mom pulled out a chair for me and I joined my sister at my Grandmother’s bed side. “Why don’t you sit with Grandma while I go upstairs and make dinner?” My Mom piped cheerfully. “She’s watching ‘BIG’ right now. She really likes Tom Hanks. ” I was astounded at my mother’s tone of voice. She sounded upbeat—just like she would any other day. And not fake happy, like genuinely happy.
I still don’t know what to think about my weekend there at the house. Though my Mom said my Grandmother had been fairly conversational and alert the previous weekend when she was there, this weekend she was tired and she couldn’t talk much. Even when she tried her voice wouldn’t come out. Not even a whisper. So she’d get frustrated and just wave her hand as if to say “Never mind.” There were no heartfelt talks, or sharing memories. Instead I fed my Grandmother chicken and rice soup and helped her drink down part of a strawberry milkshake. All I could really do was sit with her. That’s all. And even though I think she would have told me if I’d asked her, I didn’t know how to squeeze my question into general conversation. Since there wasn’t much of that going on anyway. I sat there with the question floating around in my brain all weekend. But when I saw that she was getting weaker, the idea of asking the question made me feel guilty. Like it would be selfish for me to ask her to expend even a small amount of the energy she had left to answer such a frivolous question.
The last night I was there my brother, sister and I all slept in my Grandmother’s room with her. She had been so weak that I remember just wanting her to sleep through the night so that she would be awake enough for us to say goodbye to her in the morning. I went into the bathroom with my bible and my journal and tried to make sense of how I felt. And the black cat—the big semi feral cat that my Grandma used to feed from her back porch and let into her house, the cat that she had effectively kidnapped from the wild to bring with her when she moved to Utah to live with my Aunt, pushed his way through the mostly closed bathroom door and stood looking up at me. This animal pretty much lived under the bed and never came out to see anyone. He was feral. His tail was crooked. Not like hitched in the middle crooked, but actually stuck out from his body at a 90 degree angle. He came into the bathroom and wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept rubbing up against my calves as I sat on the closed toiled seat and I reached my arm out to run my fingers down his back. It was so comforting. I felt like he knew what I was feeling, even though I wasn’t even sure what I was feeling.
Thankfully she did sleep through the night. I finished packing in the morning after breakfast and brought my bags upstairs. My Grandma woke up just before we left. Saying goodbye to her that day was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Because her short term memory isn’t that great, I couldn’t exactly say goodbye in the “this is the last time I’m ever going to see you” kind of way. But I didn’t realize that until I was walking downstairs to see her. I realized that I couldn’t say that kind of goodbye; that I’d just have to say a regular goodbye. Like I would any other time I’d ever come to visit her. Except I would know that I was saying something else. As hard as I tried, when I hugged her, I couldn’t help but cry and when I looked at her, she was crying too. I’m still not sure if she knew what I was saying, or if it was just that she always cried when we left, which she did. I held my breath and smiled and then turned around and went into the laundry room. I stepped around the corner to make sure that she wouldn’t be able to see me through the window, and I sobbed. Then I walked upstairs, went to the airport, and flew home.
What I did realize after I got home though, was that the person I went to see wasn’t my Grandmother anymore. Not really. She was already mostly gone. She’d faded away in bits. First when her short term memory went. That was a shock. To talk to her and have her ask the same question 3 times in a 10 minute span. I remember feeling sad then too. So is it easier to lose someone suddenly all at once, or in pieces over time? I think that’s something that most people have wondered. For me, I think it was easier to lose my Grandmother in pieces over time, because I was able to at least say a sort of goodbye…But I wonder if I only feel that way now, because I’ve let the sadness out in pieces instead of all at once. And I’m not sure being upset multiple times is really much better.
I went home and never had the chance to ask her what her favorite color is. But that’s ok. You can always learn more about people. And I think that’s what this situation really impressed upon me. The need and desire to invest in the people I still have. To ask them questions. To listen to their stories. You can always learn more. And even when you spend a lifetime as an adult learning about a person, when they’re gone, it’s ok to wish you had the chance to learn more. You can never really know it all. And even though I feel pretty good overall, I mean at peace as far as what happened with my Grandmother, when I grow older and pass away, I think if I see her in heaven, I’ll ask her what her favorite color is. Because I still really want to know.
(c) K.Smithson 2009