My grandmother died the Sunday before I moved across the country to begin a new life. I’d spent that day packing and loading a shipping container with my husband, parents, and brother, which was more fun that it had any right to be. Our raucous laughter shook the house we were leaving behind, rumbling out into the sleepy neighborhood. I’ve never had a day without joy when in their company, regardless of the weight of the world or the stress of boxing up your life to be replanted elsewhere. It was a joyful, yet bittersweet experience to share with my loved ones.
Once we’d finished with the house, leaving just what Mark and I would need to keep with us for the drive to California, we decided to go see a movie. We rushed to the theater, anticipation for popcorn and soda sky-high, anxious to have a respite from the heat and stress of moving. No more than five minutes after the movie began my father got the call. I don’t know that there are words to describe the loss of someone you care for, when it’s known they eventually have to pass on. Death is never expected when it enters your life, no matter how prepared you might be to let go. We left the movie in a general state of disbelief. My parents had spoken to her the day before. My brother, husband and I had laughed with her at my cousin’s wedding, but I still can’t remember what about.
Two weeks later my large extended family sat down to eat together after her memorial service, then descended into laughter. We teased one another, played with my cousin’s babies and shared stories in a sort of mad libs only close families can understand, picking up where others left off. I was struck by the realization that none of us were crying or down-trodden. The even was more of a party than anything, a potentially macabre celebration of a woman we all loved and lost.
Death is still a taboo subject for many people, but I don’t think it should be. Perhaps my mind is warped from being forced to confront how little control I have over the circumstances affecting my existence, but I believe the more we talk about a thing, the less said thing can break us down. The pain will still exist, however we might get up with more grace if we know how to move forward in a healthy way. My grandmother is gone, yes, but what she gave to me remains. I have her cheeks, her nose, the shape of her face, just like most of my cousins and aunts and uncles. We’re all stubborn as hell and never back down from a fight. Her death doesn’t have to be the end of the lessons she can teach us about who we are. In loss we are forced to confront the chasms separating us.
I’ve had quite a lot of time to turn over the feelings swirling in my chest: surprise, fear, sadness. The one that I’ve returned to the most is a sense of relief. The emotion isn’t tied to wanting her gone; I feel relief that my grandmother no longer has to feel pain. I feel relief that she got to meet so many great-grandchildren. Most of all I feel relief that she is with her own beloved mother again in a place that may or may not exist, but nonetheless removed from our perception. In loss we are forced to confront the chasms separating us. We get to choose whether or not to build bridges, who we want to move on with or leave behind. So, I feel relief that even without the maternal glue of my grandmother my family remained whole; that is where the peace is, the release of my fears.
I believe the real weight of losing someone is tied to the fights we will never get to have and the opportunities for growth we were robbed of. I didn’t cry during the ceremony, and I noticed few of us did. When the tears began to well up, I stopped them with a vengeance, because it didn’t feel right to cry. I didn’t understand why until I came across this quote by Harriet Beecher Stowe:
“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”
My grandmother never left us to wonder how she felt, whether good or bad. Regret didn’t exist in her world. She was a woman of her word, and she passed that on to her descendants. She knew that when she was gone we would have to find peace in one another, but you can’t do that if you hide pieces of yourself. If I feel any sorrow, it is that my grandmother and I will never again be able to forge new paths together. Yet, I choose to focus on the paths we did carve out, the fights we did have and the growth those rows fostered. All in all, I have no regrets with my grandmother. If I did, I would have to find a way to make peace with them and make sure that I have nothing to regret with those loved ones I have left.
No matter how far I creep away from the staid Methodist teachings of my youth, I always return to the belief – the desire – that the end is worth the race. However, now I’m beginning to rethink the type of race we’re running. Perhaps it’s something more akin to a relay than a straight up sprint. We pick up people along the way, trade stories, pass on pieces of ourselves, then hand over the baton. My grandmother’s passing has created a new spot on the team, a void in my heart for others to occupy, but I’ll never forget how well she lived.