It was Saturday, November 12, 2011. One of my aunts had emailed the family on Wednesday with instructions to send the officiant any thoughts or memories about the family matriarch by 6pm on Thursday, November 10. I had dutifully opened a new email and typed Dear Bob,
Then I stopped, unable to think beyond that last horrible week, which I had spent feeling trapped and helpless in Virginia while my grandma struggled along in an ICU in Indiana, my mom sounding tired and tense on phone calls where I grasped fruitlessly for something useful to say; beyond the years of holidays spent worrying and waiting in hospital hallways and cafeterias; beyond the first time I saw Grandma cry, looking weak and pale, propped up against ghost-white hospital pillows in a room that smelled of ammonia.
I stared at the screen. I couldn’t write anything that day, or the next day. The deadline passed without Bob getting an email from me with thoughts or memories about Grandma.
It was the kind of death that is often described as “not a tragedy.” It’s not a tragedy. She lived a full life. It’s a release. It must be a relief. It wasn’t unexpected. She was in a lot of pain. At least it’s not a tragedy.
I probably said it myself a few times. I feel awkward giving or receiving sympathy. It’s not a tragedy sounds like the sort of thing I’d say to deflect condolences. And it felt true. Two of my high school classmates died—motorcycle accident and muscular dystrophy. The father of one of my friends died suddenly before she was to move into her freshman dorm. Grief at the end of a full life seemed...irrational. Grandma had a lot of children and grandchildren: I didn't feel like I knew her that well, didn't have a legitimate claim to a share of the grief. By the time I was getting old enough to start to relate to my grandparents as an adult, they were declining and had been for some years.
For my last two years of college, I lived up the road from the assisted living facility where my grandparents lived. Some days I would walk down and visit. I told stories about the funny hijinks I saw on campus, talked about my classes, told them about my job or internship. Grandma smiled or laughed, and Grandpa would stop every passerby to boast “This is my granddaughter! She goes to Purdue!” I think they enjoyed my company, loved me, were proud of me... but I still felt like I hardly knew them. It seemed fake to grieve. I hadn't known how to do it the year before, when trying to write the same email to Bob for Grandpa's memorial service. I'd sent something trite about how Grandpa used to give us mints and joke about "Santy Claus." Staring at this year's blank email to Bob, all that my memory would project onto the inside of my eyeballs was the slide show of depression and illness.
A few days after Grandma's memorial service, my sister’s friend’s great-grandmother was in the hospital. It was hard to not feel jealous that she had a great-grandmother to worry about. It was hard to think anything besides We don’t even have any grandparents anymore. In the end, that's all that matters. It doesn't matter that I didn't know them very well, didn't know much about them or their lives. They loved me, and now they're gone.
Now that it’s been four months and I've totally, completely, in every way blown the 6pm November 10 deadline, I’ve finally finished that email to Bob.
I always knew when Grandma’s birthday was because every year one of my aunts or uncles would tell me that I had been Grandma’s “early birthday present”—her youngest daughter's first child, born two days before Grandma's birthday. Besides Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, Grandma and Grandpa’s birthdays were also family holidays. The whole family went to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Grandma’s birthday, and since it was so close to mine, it was like all my cousins, aunts, and uncles were having a party for me, too.
That was special, because mostly it was hard to have a personal relationship with Grandma or Grandpa. Everything was always a family affair, and I think that’s integral to understanding why maybe not very many of us grandchildren sent specific memories. All our memories of Grandma are tied up in memories of family gatherings, of holidays, of a few dozen people celebrating in a tiny house. At least, that’s what it’s like for me.
One of my favorite family gathering memories is from the 50th Wedding Anniversary Party we all threw for Grandma and Grandpa. This was a long time ago, when they were both in pretty good health. A bunch of us girls learned all the words to As Long As You Love Me by the Backstreet Boys and did a choreographed performance. Some people have teased me over the years since for singing along whenever it comes on the radio. It still makes me tear up a little because it reminds me of us at my grandparent’s anniversary party, dancing and singing and hoping they like it.
I could probably still do a lot of our choreography.