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Initiation

May 1, 2013

My grandmother wasn’t part of my everyday life. We lived far away from each other, after all, and in recent years I did not call her as much as I used to. I used to talk to her at least once a week and write her maybe once a month, though she wrote me every single week without fail. Over the last few years, her writing slowed, and it became harder to talk to her. She sometimes got confused, more due to the morphine she took for crippling arthritis than to any kind of dementia, and she couldn’t always quite hear. I’m ashamed to say that I sometimes dreaded calling, and put it off, because talking to her could–again, only in the last five years or so–be an uphill battle.

But apparently I thought about her much more than I knew. Apparently an enormous part of everything I do or say is somehow linked to my grandmother. Turns of phrase, scraps of memory, places we went or places she told me about, little things sitting around my house (a lamp she gave me, a picture frame, a  box, books, china) remind me of her constantly. I didn’t quite realize this before she died–you don’t notice every step you take until there’s a painful pebble in your shoe. Now I’m brought up short dozens of times a day. Depending on my mood, I either find it comforting (she’s everywhere, and will be forever) or intolerable. I miss her. I suppose I always will. This is how it goes, a friend of mine told me (his mother died, and he knows a thing or two about grief). You miss them until you die.

I’ve been rereading letters she wrote me over the years, and reading some of the letters I wrote her, which I swiped from a drawer in her desk last week. Her letters are astonishing. She was incredibly prolific, and had an epistolary gift that I unconsciously tried to imitate when I wrote her back. So there’s more of her in my letters to her, if that makes sense, than there is of me. I did my best to ape not only her style, but her way of seeing, her manner of describing, her chattiness and humor, her voice.

I’m lucky still to have so much of her, to be reminded of her so often. And I know that this is how you learn about grief, if indeed you are as lucky as I have been. You reach middle age and a beloved grandparent dies after a long and busy life, and then you know what sadness feels like. It’s not a brutal education, it’s what we all earn, what we come to, if we’re lucky. It’s even what we deserve. I’m trying not to fight this grief, nor fetishize it, but rather to live up to it, to bear it nobly and well.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2013 1:02 pm

    Having lost my grandmother a couple of years ago I relate to this so much. There are moments my first instinct is still to call her and then I’m sad when I remember I can’t. But it does get better in a way. I was trying to tell my daughter, Mona, the other day when she asked about how sad it is when people die, that it depends on how you look at it. I could be sad that I had something great and I lost it, or I could be happy that I’d ever had something. I had so much with my grandma. Over time that’s what I’ve come to focus on. (But there are days I still cry.)

  2. kathryn conway permalink
    May 1, 2013 11:23 pm

    i lost the love of my life almost a month ago. the pain is exquisite – like nothing i’ve ever known. he was 46. his birthday is on saturday. grief sucks and there are no shortcuts. i can’t believe that, at 46, i thought i finally had it right – so much to look forward to – things were just getting good…i’m so sorry for your loss…xo

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 2, 2013 8:06 am

      Oh god, this is terrible news, I’m so sorry. Jesus.

  3. May 2, 2013 4:20 am

    Beautiful and heartfelt writing about grieving and loss. I recognise many things from a few years back when my mother’s only sister died. She looked after me when I was a child and my mother still worked as a dental nurse and over the years, as I grew older and away from my origins in a sense, I struggled with a bad conscience over not calling often enough etcetera. She died from cancer a few years ago and I will forever recall the moment I realised with absolute certainty that the summer ahead would be her last. And I was the only one realising. My mother wouldn’t think it, my aunt listened to doctor’s in awe not knowing how to ask questions. I simply couldn’t bring my self to be the bearer of ill news som I just decided that I would do everything in order to have good memories of our last time – and of course give her av good time in all modesty.

    And it was a beautiful week at my parents’ house. Even the weather cooperated We spent a lot of time taking short walks to old places and I got her talking about old times in this little village where she spent much of her youth and never really left, neither in time nor place. We had meals in the garden and playes silly games. My brother and sisters were there as well as my children.

    She died rather abruptly yet peacefully in hospital later that autumn. She had been in a lot of pain for a day or two and they just couldn’t get the meds right. But eventually they succeded and she fell asleep totally serenely her last evening. She died in her sleep in the morning hours. I’m eternally grateful for that relief of pain as is anyone who has experienced the miracle of extreme pain suddenly gone.

    Thanks for commenting on my erratic blog. I’ll see how it comes out on Google translate. Three teenagers, full-time job and the administration before moving to China for a year is a struggle, but not too bad.

  4. May 2, 2013 4:24 am

    Google Translate – hilarious. But you get the gist of it, I suppose:-)

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 2, 2013 1:16 pm

      I try! Google Translate is an imperfect and reckless beast…

  5. May 3, 2013 11:21 pm

    before my husband moved out, losing his mother was the hardest thing i’d ever been through. she was like the mother i would have chosen if it had been up to me: a mentor, a friend, an unflagging support, and a reality check whenever i needed one. her unexpected and early death 6 weeks before my youngest was born felt, until recently, like the greatest imaginable injustice.

    shortly after she died, my husband reminded me that gmail archives every message you receive. i still had every email she’d sent since i signed up with that account–the last 2+ years of her life. i kept the last message she sent me, from 3 hours before she died, in my inbox, but i couldn’t look at any of the others for more than 4 years. then i embarked on a project to print a collection of them for my sister-in-law’s birthday, and in the span of a week or so i read through every one. there were more than six hundred of them, which means, when you factor in all the time she spent visiting us, we were in contact practically every day. it was an incredible window into our relationship, and into her life, reading all of that communication in such a short time. i was floored by the generosity of her spirit, by the expansiveness of her love, and by the degree to which i relied upon her. and i was struck by a recurring theme in her emails: that she needed to change jobs, she was too stressed, too burned out, she wanted more time with her kids and her grandkids. again and again she wrote this refrain. and then one day she came home from vacation with us, returned to work, and collapsed from a massive heart attack at the end of her first meeting back. just like that, she was gone.

    your friend is right: you miss them until you die. the things that remain–her letters, her photos, the trinkets you might have brought home to remember her by–will alternately comfort and torment you. the sharpness of your grief is painful now, but try to savor that particular pain and really be with it while it lasts. it will fade and become more distant, but so will the vividness of your connection to your grandmother, and that is a pain all its own. she’ll never disappear from your memory or your heart, but that piercing grief is a connection to her, an imprint of her life on your soul, and it keeps her close to you just a little bit longer. “grief is the bill that comes due for love”–someone said this at david foster wallace’s memorial, and it remains the best distillation i’ve yet encountered.

    kathryn, i am so, so sorry.

    • kathryn conway permalink
      May 4, 2013 11:24 am

      beautiful perspective vikki…thank you. xo

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