I lost my grandmother in February. It’s strange to process a loss that had been coming for so long. Grammy was my mother’s mother, and we saw her every year or two growing up, even though she lived over 5 hours away, in upstate New York. Did we EVER have fun when we visited! We stayed up playing Rummy and Go Fish, and lots of other games. Grammy was a total goofball, and any time we spent together was sure to end up with all of us in stitches, laughing so hard our stomachs hurt — and at who knows what.
Grammy loved the color blue. LOVED blue. When I was little, I was surprised at this—were girls ALLOWED to like the color blue? I didn’t know that! I loved blue myself, but when asked, I thought my only options for answering were pink or purple, or maybe red (if you were an adventurous type) but that was a stretch. It hadn’t really occurred to me that you could have whatever you wanted as your favorite color, and could answer with whatever color you actually liked best. And man, when Grammy saw a blue, blue sky, she REALLY appreciated it.
About 4 years ago, when she had passed the point of recognizing me as her granddaughter (but thought I was a nice person anyway) we were sitting on the back porch at my mom’s house in afternoon, and she was talking about being a little girl, recounting the parts of her life she still had a firm grasp on and remembered. After a moment of silence, looking at the sky, she said, “Wow. Look at that!” and pointed at a few patches of sky that were a particularly vibrant blue. “Look there, and there! That blue is just so pretty, isn’t it?” It was as if she was seeing it for the first time. She was totally transfixed. She would often point our spectacular shades of all kinds of colors, when she saw anything of a vibrant or deep or really bright shade, whether it was a sunset or a sneaker.
Grammy certainly never had any qualms about looking silly—in fact, she’d try to look as silly as possible whenever it might get a laugh. All she wanted was to make other people happy. This carried on even after the point where she knew exactly who you were—she knew you were a nice person and would express her love. She might not know your name, but that didn’t stop her from saying, “I love you,” patting your hand, and inviting you to come back soon for an adventure.
It was probably six or seven years ago that my mom took Grammy in to live with her. Living by herself so long, her mind had slipped faster than anyone knew. Mom had her suspicions from phone conversations, and eventually drove up, packed up her things, and moved her back to NH where she could be with family. Mom and Sarah looked after her for years, and when I moved back to New Hampshire, although she was healthy physically, she didn’t recognize anyone and needed surpervision just to make sure she didn’t wander off and get lost.
It’s hard to see someone you love slipping away, and more confusing when they seem fine for so long, and then they say something that brings sudden clarity to just how little grasp they have on reality, linear time, and truth versus fantasy. And it’s especially heartbreaking to deal with the guilt of not spending more time with her these last few years. It wasn’t just that she wouldn’t recognize me, or even remember I had been there as soon as I left—although that was enough most of the time to sway me to any other way to spend my weekend. But it was also the fear that I might encounter her at a bad time. I’d heard stories of outbursts, brought on as an inevitable side effect of her dimentia, likely compounded with the frustration of not knowing what was happening in her own mind and body. I was scared to see her that way, not knowing how to handle it, and knowing that there was nothing I could do to help or make her feel better. This fear is what kept my visits to a minimum over the last couple of years. The people working at her nursing home were incredibly nice and warm and lovely people, but any place filled with people in various stages of dying is still a terrifying place to visit.
Then, I got word that she had taken a turn for the worse. I suddenly had an overwhelming sense of urgency to see her, compounded by the crushing guilt that I hadn’t been there much in the last few years. I made arrangements to miss the next morning at work, since she was likely already asleep by the time I would have been able to head over that night. I was too late by a few hours when I arrived at the nursing home. I was still able to see her to say goodbye before the funeral home took her away. It was certainly not how I would have wanted to see her the last time. But it was the only thing I could do.
It was a challenge to process her death. For awhile leading up to and even after, it felt like we had already been mourning her for years, as if the Grammy we knew had already died and it was just her body that lived on, recounting earlier and earlier details and versions of her life until she faded away completely. So the sudden and final total loss felt strange and surprising. And my own guilt made me feel, in a way, like I didn’t have the right to feel this sad. The woman at the nursing home who brought me to her body probably didn’t even recognize me — I’d only been there a few times. This was excruciating, the possibility of a stranger’s completely justified judgement; a stranger who had spent most of HER days with MY grandmother, who was now gone.
Afterwards, we started collecting photos for her memorial. Scanning dozens of photos from her childhood up through my childhood and beyond brought back the memories of the Grammy I used to know, and had somehow forgotten. I was crushed with an overwhelming feeling that I had betrayed MY Grammy by not spending more time (time that I had so much of, really) trying to make her last few years somehow less disorienting. It was seeing her as I really remembered her that started the process of truly mourning her loss.
My aunt wrote a lovely obituary for her that does a great job of capturing her personality:
Barbara had a great devotion to making people smile and laugh no matter how goofy she needed to be. She loved to sing to her God with all her might. She always had a sparkle in her eyes and an exploding smile that spread from ear to ear, especially when she was surrounded by children.
My mom read an incredibly eloquent tribute at her memorial as well, which encapsulated her humor and never-ending quest for fun. She told the story of how Grammy (her mom) looked up at the sky one day and said, “Wow, look at those clouds! Don’t you just want to go up there and jump from cloud to cloud?” “No, Mom,” replied my mother, ever the pragmatist. “You’d fall right through them and kill yourself.” Grammy wasn’t fazed. “You’re no fun.”
I still get hit with waves of longing for her when I pass a woman with a certain silly glint in her eye. I think of her often, and make it a point to truly appreciate the astonishing beauty of a really great shade of blue.