Marc at Sorryless corralled Dale at A Dalectable Life and me into a challenge recently. He asked that we head back to 1985, the year my Grandma died, I graduated from St. Thomas More, and I started at Maria High School. Like Marc, mine went in a different direction. I thought I would be doing the talking and telling, but I was actually remembering, listening, and forgiving.
The fragrance of the brisket, mixed with cigarette smoke, tears and sweat were new to her. This is what the death smells like, she thought. The house was filled with people she didn’t know, yes, she knew she was related to them, but she didn’t know them. She saw her siblings weave in and out of the clumps of mourning relatives, while she sat back and watched. She felt the weight of someone’s hand on her shoulder, but when she looked to the right and left she found no one. The presence remained, it was both eery and reassuring.
She’d attended a few funerals prior to today, but this was the first real loss. And if death was a competition, she was winning, she was ready for it and she asked for it. Unlike her Aunt Mary and her children, her father; the enormity of her grandmother’s death just about killed them.
This whole week she felt like a voyeur with an invisible chaperone. The week earlier they visited Grandma after attending mass. She immediately prayed and asked God to take her. The Alzheimer’s had gone as far as it could, robbing her of every faculty, reverting her back into the fetal position to return to a womb she was too large a human to fit into. Painful was an understatement. Pain is what covered everyone’s face, in those last months, in those last days, in those last minutes.
A few days earlier, her heart leaped with joy and relief, when she heard the pre-dawn knock at the door. Her mother came in quietly, gently roused her and her sisters, and told them that Grandma died. It was the second time she felt her prayers were answered. The first time came ten years earlier when the doctors said her newborn brother Kevin had a fifty / fifty chance or making it through the night, and that his twin Brian would be dead in the morning. They will turn ten later this month.
She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was cheated as a grandchild, that jealousy and other issues made their relationship strained. There was something between her father and his mother that was unsaid. It became evident after she went to Grandma’s after a half day at Rosenwald. Her cousins Stephanie and Katie were in the a.m. kindergarten and she was in the p.m. On this day the classes were combined. When class ended, her cousins told her they were going to Grandma’s and said she should join them. She walked down Talman to Grandma’s three flat, where Grandma welcomed them in with all the warmth and love of an Irish grandmother. This was the first time she was with her Grandma without her parents or her brothers and sisters. She didn’t know what to make of this woman. She wasn’t the standoffish Grandma that she experienced in her own home. This Grandma was happy to see her. Grandma made lunch and soon she and her cousins made the mattress in the back bedroom just off the kitchen into a makeshift trampoline. They jumped, higher and higher, only landing on the ground to scurry out of the bedroom to grab an Oreo from the package on the kitchen table. She learned there were no limits. They could eat as many as they wanted. Smiles with chocolate crumbed teeth riddled the room, laughter echoed throughout the flat, both abruptly turned upside down and muted by the ring of the telephone.
Curiosity enveloped her cousins and her, all three looked at each other when they heard Grandma say, “Yes, of course, I’ll send her right home.”
For Stephanie that meant upstairs, for Katie that meant three blocks away, and for her, that meant a mile walk home. Alone. Her heart fell.
“All right Marie, yes, sorry about that.”
“I had no idea, you didn’t know she was here.”
“Ok, yes, we’ll see you Sunday then.”
Katie and Stephanie looked at me for a minute. She didn’t know if they knew that today’s Grandma was one that she never knew. She suspected that today’s Grandma was always their Grandma. Sadly, she began to hunt for her shoes and socks, and her sack before Grandma could even tell her it was time. She grabbed another Oreo, told Katie and Stephanie she hoped they combined the kindergarten classes again soon and then went over to Grandma and thanked her. She gave her a long, strong hug. She didn’t know then that she would never have another hug like this. Then she walked home wondering how on Earth her mother could be angry with her for going to Grandma’s house with her cousins.
Of course, none of that mattered now. It was 1985, she had less than two months left before she graduated St. Thomas More. She’d see some of these relatives’ faces again in June for her graduation party. Others, she may never see again.
She saw her mom from across the room. In the kitchen, as usual, near the sink, a cigarette in hand, with a smile that warmed every heart in her presence. Her father’s remarks from a few hours earlier still hung with her. “Never abandon your mother. Never stop loving her,” he said. She and her siblings held on to his every word. He just buried his mother, a woman who in the end did not know if he were Tommy, Eugene, Francis or Stevie Joe. She hadn’t heard her Grandma call her son Jerome by his own name in years. At the grave, he implored his children to honor their mother.
Why? Had he not his own? She was unsure.
She turned away from the crowded hallway, walked upstairs, into the bedroom she shared with her two sisters, cracked the window, and moved the dresser just far away from the wall that she could slip her tiny frame behind it and into the triangle of space. She fell down on her sleeping bag and let the voices fade out until there was no noise at all. She closed her eyes for a moment, resting her head against the corner of the room. She felt the hand move away from her shoulder. Her presence was near.
“Forgive him,” Grandma said.
Tears filled her eyes.
“Your father” Grandma repeated.
“I have nothing to forgive,” she said.
“The time will come,” Grandma said.
“You’ll fall in love.
You’ll pursue a career.
You’ll have a child.
And throughout your life, you’ll measure your success through his eyes.
You’ll face two paths.
And for many years, you’ll choose the path you think your father wants you to take.
That will bring you grief.
Always, choose the one you want to take.
He’ll find reason for anger either way.
Don’t let his anger consume you.
He never fully learned how to forgive.
And he never learned how to forget.
No matter what, forgive my son.”
She was the same Grandma from that day after school. Serenity pulsed through her veins, and her words were like lyrics, melodious harmonies of love. She was stoic and soft. She loved him. She loved all of them. She loved me, too, she thought.
“I will,” she said and pulled herself away from the wall and moved toward her Grandma. She hugged her long and hard, told her she loved her, that the world will miss her, and that she will always pray for her.
Then she was gone. The weight did not return to her shoulder. Her Grandma’s life resurrected and soul ascended into heaven. She enjoyed the mystical nature of her Grandma’s departure. She loved the peace she found in death. Was that the lesson? To forget is to ascend? It’s not about burying the pain, it’s about releasing it. Once removed we can then forgive. It was a lot to take in. The voices downstairs were getting louder. She closed her eyes and thanked her Grandma for her visit on this spring day in 1985, a day she’ll never forget.