On Death

My friend’s grandfather died last week.

It came quickly. He was fine the week before. Then what was thought to be hemorrhoids turned into his kidneys shutting down, which led to machines, which led to the decision to remove the machines and let nature take its course.

It was sudden and unexpected. But not too unexpected really. He was 90.

It’s all got me thinking about death and my own loved ones. I’ve lost two grandmothers that I loved. That’s it. I don’t remember the grandfathers. One passed away the year before I was born, of an alcohol-related heart attack. I have no memory of him, but I’ve built a vague image: a faceless farmer in a work shirt and overalls glaring into the sun, painted hard and abusive from stories I’ve heard my mother tell. The other was a stranger to me. I met him once, at the hospital, as he lay dying. I don’t remember his face, but I remember his house — a lone, filthy couch against a wall and a dirty spittoon in the corner, years of tobacco wads that had missed their mark clinging to the floor and walls. He too died an alcoholic, my memory of him as stained as the walls.

The first death that meant anything to me was of my grandma Clara, and I took it hard. In my mind I’ve always been nine years old, although I recently came across her death date and realized I was more like twelve. But she is a figure of my childhood, a fat, somber woman who loved me unconditionally, who played endless games of Go Fish with me, who kept a bowl of hard candy in her apartment — sometimes butterscotch buttons (yum!), sometimes ice blue mints (yuck!) — who had a parakeet I loved, who crocheted butterfly magnets to hang on her old white icebox. I don’t remember her laughing, but I remember
she was happy.

When she died, unexpectedly, I cried and cried. I took comfort in solitude, escaping on my bicycle to process it all. I rode my bike up and down the street for hours, singing between my tears a melancholy song that I had just learned in school. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but singing consoled me. The song wrapped my memories in soft minor chords, and cushioned the hole inside my heart. The funeral came, I saw my dad cry for the first time, I met some cousins I’d never known. The song was always with me.

I loved my grandma Lucy, too. We visited her every year in her small western Wisconsin town, and she visited us every year in Milwaukee. Whenever she visited, I gave up my bed for her.

Grandma Lucy was smart and fun. She was a storyteller. Her visits always meant my parents and my mom’s siblings around the kitchen table, crying with laughter over stories of the past, or crying real tears over some deep unresolved emotional issue that families always have. I loved my Grandma Lucy, but
her visits were always overshadowed by my unspoken terror that she might
die in my bed.

Eventually she went to live with my mom’s older sister in Minnesota, and soon after that she suffered a stroke. Four years later, she died. I was twenty-two and married by then, and my busy life combined with infrequent visits had put emotional distance between us. Four years of illness had prepared me for her death. I don’t think I cried. I remember feeling relieved that she hadn’t died
in my bed.

I can’t remember crying over anyone’s death since my grandma Clara. It feels like I’ve hardened, somehow. Feeling relief that someone didn’t die in my bed — how heartless is that? I sometimes imagine the death of my mother and wonder what my reaction will be, and it worries me that in my mind, I don’t cry. Maybe it’s because I have deep conviction of an afterlife. Or maybe I have a very sane view of the reality of death.

Or maybe losing my grandma Lucy was so hard, that I’ve learned to distance myself from people who I expect to die.

I hope I cry.

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3 responses to “On Death

  1. It’s amazing how memory plays with our emotions. On my mother’s side, I never knew my grandfather, but adored my grandmother and stepgrandfather, both have died and I remember not crying but holding it in, I don’t normally let people see the real hurt, I hide that away till I am on my own. I spent many school holidays with them, they were my life. I never knew my Dad’s side, our family was very disfunctional probably because my parents married when very young, my Mum had just turned 18yrs and pregnant with me. I guess it can’t have been easy and probably didn’t go down to well.
    This was a very thought provoking post and stirred up memories, many fond ones to.

  2. Oh sorry, forgot to mention I love Nana Mouskouri, I used to wear glasses like her, so my brother teased. LOL. Love her songs.

  3. Everyone grieves in different ways. I think the older we get, the more control we have over our emotions. Differences between Society’s and Familial expectations vary. My tribe is taught not to cry because it holds the Spirit back. Four days, everyone has to come to terms somehow as the preparations are made because after the fourth day, we can’t talk, think or remember the person until one year has passed. Then we have a feast to celebrate their successful journey to the next world. There is more to it than can be covered in this comment.

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