A week ago Monday my grandmother died.
I’ve been putting off writing this, probably because putting my emotions in a public forum has never been my style. I’ve written about my feelings before–and I can be quite good at it–but it’s something I’d rather avoid at all costs.
My Grandmother’s Last Years
My grandmother was 90–a good ripe age–but she had effectively become a living ghost five years ago, when she suffered a stroke that robbed her of her energy and voice. But most importantly it robbed her of the ability to live independently on her own. And this was a striking blow to my grandmother, who by nature was a melancholy loner. (Asperger’s runs in our family, and her personality had some faint hints of the syndrome, including her inability to deal with strong emotions). She had spent the bulk of her retirement years reading vast amounts of books and listening to talk radio, but after her stroke, when it became evident that she no longer had the concentration to read a book or even follow a TV show, her condo was sold and she moved into a retirement home. Although she had her own apartment there, she had to go to the dining room at a specified time and eat with others, a social act that seemed to be a source of stress for her. And after a couple of years, when it became clear that my grandmother needed more care than we realized–she couldn’t control her bowel movements and nurses had to clean her almost daily–the retirement home gently suggested that she be moved to the second floor, where they offered palliative care.
How Will I Remember Her?
This isn’t the memory of my grandmother that I want to memorialize, yet I write if for context, for in my eyes she effectively died when she had her stroke. Of her grandchildren (my brother, sister, and I were her only three), I had perhaps spent the most time with her, including in adulthood (my brother had moved on to law school, and my sister, an extrovert with lots of friends, went to school in Guelph. And because I had challenges that they didn’t, I suspect my grandmother put a greater effort to be with me). When I was in my teens, my grandmother and I would go to a movie or venture downtown to see the Hockey Hall of Fame together; when I was in my 20s and early 30s and living in Port Credit, close to where my grandmother lived, we’d still go to a movie or go out for lunch. Or there was the time we had 100-level Blue Jays tickets behind home plate to a game that Roger Clemons pitched. Yet she was a big part of my brother’s and sister’s lives too. Our parents were young parents, and after they separated, when my mother had to start working, my grandmother always made sure her we had the basics.
My Last Visit
Given that she was a large part of my life–our lives– I feel like that I should be wallowing in emotion. And to an extent, I am. For a few days I was sad because I would never see her again. But then again, she had been almost an empty shell for five years. She had either seemingly given up or was too exhausted to care. During my last visit with her, which was two weeks before she died, my mother and I sat with her in her apartment while she had her TV tuned to The Chew (she watched daytime talk as background noise, as its meaningless banter requires a minimum effort to follow). She barely talked that day (she was partially paralyzed in the mouth from the stroke and looked exhausted), and neither did I. I was in a bit of a bad mood that day. And I regret not talking more; had I known it would be the last time I would see her before she went to the hospital, I most likely would have talked more.
Death Isn’t Scary, Yet Life Is
A long time ago I came to the realization that death doesn’t scare me. Don’t get me wrong: I have a strong instinct to live, so I won’t be stepping in front of the bus anytime soon. But I think a lot of people do have both a fear of death and an egotistical sense that their lives mean something important. I have no doubt that many people use religion as a comfort for this, as it offers the hope of an everlasting and deeper meaning to life. I’ve never coiled to religion as a comfort. I think I’m well equipped at dealing with death. There were two times that death upset me. The first was when I was 14, when my dog was struck by a train while I walked her. But that was an over-the-top experience. And two years ago, when my cat’s vet told me my cat was dying (my vet was wrong), I was upset out of a selfish prospect of wanting to hold on to a creature who depends on me for food.
However, I had five years to prep myself for the loss of my grandmother. Her illness effected me in other ways because my family’s dynamic shifted, as my mother and her sisters fought and drifted apart as a direct result. I wondered if the same would happen to me and my siblings when our parents get sick or die.
Whereas many people use religion as a comfort from death, I paradoxically use my grandmother’s death a comfort. For her, I’m sure it’s a comfort from the exhaustion and physical pain from the last five years of her life. And it’s a comfort from, in part, a sad life. Had my grandmother been born a few decades later, she probably would have been more equipped to pursue a life of independence, seek a university education, or have a profession. Or choose a more solitary life (I suspect it would have made her happier).
My grandmother kept a collection of photos of her three grandchildren on her living room table. They were pictures of us when we were infants, with kindergarten class pictures added. Each grandchild’s pictures were kept in a separate plastic frame so she could look at them. When my brother and I helped my mother move my grandmother to palliative care, our mother gave us our pictures and said, “Take them. You’ll get more use out of them.”
I now keep these pictures on top of my dresser, a connection to my grandmother and my past. A comfort, perhaps.