Monday, January 5, 2009

interpret my silence as grieving, not as a lack of love for you all

Near the beginning of December, we got the news that my grandma had fewer than six months left to live. Her tumor was growing again, and her 71-year-old body could sustain no more caustic chemo attacks, so that was that. I was writing final papers, helping with Advent services, trying to keep things together, and so this did not seem entirely real to me.

We drove up to Michigan on Christmas Eve and headed straight for Grandma and Grandpa's, picking up Burger King on the way (Grandma hadn't been eating; I ordered her a Whopper with extra onions, which was one of her classic favorites). The hospital bed in their living room was a new addition, as were the massive oxygen tanks casting shadows on knicknacks framed photographs of grandchildren.

I did not know on Christmas Eve that the morning after Christmas she would stop breathing. What I knew on Christmas Eve was that I loved her, and that her steel-gray was finally growing back baby-soft yet thick, and that she smelled of floral musk lotion, and that her fingernails had been trimmed (she did it herself, Grandpa told me later, and he let me have the nail file). She said over and over, "I love you. I love you so much."

She was relatively docile, but she was still herself. At one point she pulled down the blanket to show that she was wearing a crimson satin nightgown--exactly the kind she liked. Her head rested on a leopard-print pillowcase. She wanted a cigarette (despite the oxygen), and laughingly batted away my hand when I offered her my finger to smoke. I fed her bits of strawberries and bananas, spooned butterscotch pudding into her mouth. And that was the last she ate.

"Promise to come back?" she said when I left, and I promised. She didn't wake up again after that.

No one person in my life, I think, has declared love for me so many times as did my Grandma. She told me time and again that she loved me; she mailed me cards and letters with the word love underlined (sometimes with five lines), exclamation-pointed, highlighted in different colors. Her angular script is, I think, the font in which I most know love.

And she is gone. And my own babies, should they one day come, will never know, as I know, the mark of her lipstick on a coffee cup's rim, or the elegant bend of her tobacco-yellowed fingers, or the shaking shoulders of her laughter. They will not know the overflow of her generosity, the gift-giving and feeding and slow, warm smile. To my own babies, Grandma (to them, Great-Grandma) will be a larger-than-life legend whose tastes tended toward the epic, despite the diminutive frame they'll see in the photographs--heaping dinner plates, closets full of clothes, humongous gardens, arms open as wide as they could go. These stories and photos will be good, but they will never be quite enough.

So I am learning to grieve. Wearing one of her old watches, washing with a half-empty bottle of her shower gel, hanging a familiar copper jello mold on my kitchen wall, I am learning to imagine a world without Grandma in it. But I am learning slowly. I will have to take my time.

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