I was sitting in the place where my grandmother died just 12 hours earlier.
In the time it took me to pack, grab my work computer and drive four hours to my hometown – her imprint on my childhood home was already vanishing. Where hospice had put her hospital bed the couch now sat, quickly replacing the empty spot in the living room. I sat on the third cushion in from the inside wall and read the evening news headlines.
This is death. To help with the pain, we try to go back to normal as quickly as possible.
Two years ago, Gram left her beloved Florida to live with my parents. Dementia paralyzed her mind into an almost-toddler state. My mom cared for her own mother in ways that mirror how my brother takes care of his five-year-old daughter. She stepped up to the task with little question; it was just what she had to do.
There’s a hint of the things my mom is free to do now. Today, we drove to a town an hour away and grabbed a burger. For the last two years, mom would have been glued to her phone; worried a home healthcare nurse would call with an emergency.
But no one wants to say anything about that.
No one wants to tell my mom that the norm of her last two years is now different. We don’t want to get excited about the weekend trips that she and my dad can take now. In the back of our minds, there’s the spicy chili my dad can make again. No one wants it to be different, but yet – they do. Because getting old, as my Gram would say, is for the birds. And watching your loved one slide downward is hell.
Death can feel incredibly personal even when it has nothing to do with you. An accident you hear about from a friend of a friend. An obituary you read in the newspaper. We never talk about it, and it’s always there. I thought about the bartender who served me a beer at lunch the day I left town. I can still see her, in an ivory and black printed shirt and bright pink matte lipstick. She smiled at me with those pink lips and asked why I was driving four hours into the middle of Nebraska on a Tuesday.
“My grandmother died,” I answered, with slight hesitation. I knew what would come next: the apology. The sorry everyone says when someone dies. The sorry I don’t know how to respond to because it was time for Gram to go. The sorry that makes me feel bad for my mom, for losing her mother. The sorry I worry about receiving when it’s my turn to lose a parent. I instantly regretted exposing my personal tragedy to a stranger when I could have just said “for family.”
Last night, I was elected to stay in Gram’s old room since the three other bedrooms were taken. New sheets and blankets were put down. But it smelled like her. I slept with the light on, opposite of her spot, and stared at her pillow. I wasn’t that close to her. I felt the predictable pang of regret for not trying harder before dementia took her. I felt the predictable resentment for her not trying harder.
When I think about the death of my Gram and about when I’ll take care of my own family, I think about what kind of legacy I want to leave. I will not be remembered for my subpar musical talents or nonexistent basketball skills. My mother has given me the greatest lesson there is: We accept the love we think we deserve, and we deserve great love from those we chose to surround ourselves with. My legacy, I hope, will be that those I care about will never have to question my love. I’ve never had to question hers.
Rest in peace, Gram. You raised one hell of a woman in my mom.