Life and Death

What My Grandmother Taught Me

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[Image: two abstract paintings with black borders hanging on a yellow wall with an info card between them. The left one has black, grey, purple, and yellow splashes of colour on a white canvas. The right one has black, purple, pink, and yellow splashes of colour on a white canvas]. Paintings by H. Jou Lee.

 

CW: discussion of death, grief, and hospitals.

I don’t really know what to write. My usual way with words has gotten away from me. I’ve been left with a chaotic swirl of thoughts, images, and feelings that are difficult to articulate.

Thinking about death. Thinking about grief. Thinking about meaning, about birth, about loss, about change.

Your life can change in a moment, with one voicemail, text message, or email. One moment.

I was homeschooled for most of my childhood. My mother was the primary person in charge of my education. For a few years, she would drop me off at her parent’s house once a week to learn from them. My Poppa taught me math. My Nan taught me french and poetry. She had me memorize and recite The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear to her, which I initially hated because it was hard, but eventually managed because she wouldn’t let me give up on it. She had it memorized herself and would correct me mid-recitation if needed. We went again, again, and again until I got it.

Everything changed with a voicemail. When I first heard the recording over the phone, I assumed it was for something else. I had last spoken to the caller a few years ago about arranging a surprise party for my Nan.

I heard her voice. She said her name. Confused, I thought, “Why is she calling about the party? The party already happened”. I was almost irritated. Who calls about a party that’s already happened?

Then she explained her reason for calling and it clicked. Ah, it’s one of these phone calls.

My partner was sitting in the room with me. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Heart racing, I told him what I had just heard. I called the person back. No answer. She hadn’t been able to reach my mom, she’d said. I called my mom. No answer. I left my own voicemail.

While I’d been trying to call my mom, the person had called me back. I called her. She picked up.

She was with her, there. She explained what was happening, what they had found, and where the paramedics were going. She mistook me for my mother. I explained who I was and said I would keep trying to call my mother. She said she would keep us updated. We said goodbye.

I tried calling my mom again. No answer.

Wait, had anyone told my brother?

I called him and he picked up on the first ring. Later, he told me he’d been looking at his phone while walking home from work, just about to change the song he was listening to, when he’d received one of those kinds of phone calls from me.

I told him. A few minutes later, he walked into the house and told my mom. A few minutes after that, she responded to my messages.

Now they knew.

As I got older, lessons with my Nan became less formal but just as formative. We moved away from memorization and practice and towards discussion. After the day’s chores were done, we would sit together in the evening with tea and snacks and talk for hours. I would tell her all about my life, my plans, and my questions. She would listen openly and curiously. She would ask me to elaborate sometimes and share stories from her own life. She didn’t pretend to have all of the answers or try to make me see things in any particular way. She would just share what she knew and had experienced. She would also tell me stories from the books she read or movies she watched in great detail. She was a wonderful storyteller, and often, just listening to her take on a story was more interesting than the books or movies themselves.

I had to get there. I haphazardly packed a bag, forgetting socks and underwear. I arranged a ride with a friend. The conversation on the way down was surprisingly normal. When we neared the hospital, I realized what was about to happen, what I was going to walk into. I felt scared.

We got there and it all happened very fast.

I was in the bathroom shortly after, looking at myself in the mirror, drying my eyes and blowing my nose. I was still scared. I didn’t know if I could handle this. I was buzzed back into emerg and told they were moving here into a private room in the stroke wing.

The damage was too severe. They couldn’t operate. This was the end.

She squeezed my hand when I first arrived but never woke up. There was a substantial bleed in her left hemisphere from the blood thinners she was on.

Two days went by. I won’t go into detail about them. They were awful, beautiful, powerful, painful, bizarre, long, exhausting. They are private. At some point during those two days, I stopped being scared.

Then she was gone. Just like that. Gone but not really gone. Gone but still here, gone but everywhere. She left that room in the hospital and went everywhere.

My Nan told her grandchildren she was a witch. She would cast spells sometimes to be dealt a better hand of cards or win a draw prize. She told me one of our ancestors had been a witch, a powerful healer who shared my name. I asked her about this when I got older and she maintained that it was true. That magic is real, everywhere, and accessible to all of us was one of her lessons.

Look for me
when my spirit leaves this earth
look for me above,
I wish to join the eagle’s flight
and soar with them at dawn’s
first light.
Think of me each time you see
a pair of wings,
close your eyes & in your mind
see hummingbirds + dragon flies,
the gorgeous wings of butterflies,
when they alight then look for me,
a flash of light in a twilight sky
just know I’ll be close by.

– Wendy Pantony

I went for a walk on a trail the day after I got back home. I looked for her in the birds that flew above me. I looked for her in the light and the clouds. I felt her presence everywhere.

I still do.

Your life can change in a moment, with a voicemail. One minute, you’re going through your Saturday routine, and the next, everything is different.

At some point during those two days, I wrote a poem about grief sitting next to her. My brain was fried and scrambled, so it wasn’t very good, but in essence, I was trying to describe grief as being like a ball of energy. When it first forms, the ball is huge and takes up every part of you, beginning in your core and seeping into every limb, into the tips of your fingers and toes. Gradually, it shrinks down to a more manageable size, until eventually it can be tucked away and stored. Once acquired, that ball of grief will always be with you. Even if you manage to tuck it neatly away, it’s still there. It will always be there.

My Nan will always be everywhere now, and nowhere. She has gone to that expansive place where individuality, separation, definition, and lineality are not factors. She exists differently now. She is here and not here. We miss her and she is with us. She has moved on, gone elsewhere, but the love she gave us is still here, within us alongside the grief.

I wish I could write about this more articulately, beautifully. I wish I could find all of the right words. I wish I could express the depth of everything I’m feeling, but this is where I am and what I have. Maybe better words will come with time. Maybe words themselves are too limited to capture death, loss, or grief. Maybe all of these things are too big for words.

I think my Nan is at least partially responsible for my being a poet, which I’d never thought about before now. It didn’t come from nowhere. She introduced me to poetry at a young age. She was a closeted poet herself, a private one. She wrote a collection of poetry throughout the course of her life that she never published, but she let me read some when I was a child. When I started writing poetry, she was always keen to read it. She encouraged me to get my work out there and was proud when I would occasionally get published. A few years ago, she asked me why I hadn’t published a book yet. “I thought you would be like J.K. Rowling by now,” she said. At the time, it irritated me to hear this because it felt like a lot of pressure. She had high expectations. J.K. Rowling wasn’t even J.K. Rowling at twenty-four, but maybe it wasn’t high expectations so much as highly complimentary. She just assumed I would become a famous writer and was wondering when, exactly, that was going to happen.

I cry a little bit every day. I write a little bit every day. I go back to work. I act normal. Sometimes, I feel normal. Usually, I feel surreal. I’m exhausted, in body and brain. I keep crashing with fatigue. I keep thinking I’m getting sick, but I’m just tired. It hits me in waves and the waves contain all kinds of things. I keep thinking about how I’ll never talk to her again: never share anything with her, never ask for her advice, and never hear her stories. Occasionally, I’m hit with feelings of elation and surges of energy. Is that her? I wonder. Is that her telling me she’s happy now?

I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. I’m realizing I don’t really know anything.

Nothing matters and everything matters. We’re all going to the place she’s in now. I hope it’s a good place. I hope she’s happy there. I think, if she is, she’s trying to tell me that.

Before all of this, death had affected me, but I had never seen it, never touched it, never gotten that close. At first, I was scared. Terrified. I wanted to leave. I didn’t think I could do it. It was too much. And then, at some point, I just got comfortable there. I had to. It doesn’t scare me the way it did before. I was able to see the beauty in it. I was able to see it as natural, normal, just another part of life—the counterbalance.

She gave me so much all my life; so much love, so many lessons, so many adventures and questions. The last thing she ever gave to me was a close proximity to death. This was the last lesson she ever taught me.

Death is natural, normal. It is coming for me, for you, for all of us. Do not be afraid. Do not avoid it. Do not run away. Come into the room, sit down, get comfortable. Be with death. Hold space for death. Respect its power, its inevitability.

I watched my grandmother die and I learned about death. I also learned about life. She was fearless, dedicated, grounded, open, loving, generous, and always curious. She and my grandfather built a beautiful and enriching life for themselves and their family from very modest beginnings. I believe love was her guiding pillar, she pursued what she loved and centred the people she loved in her life. I can’t count all of the lessons she gave me. I am grateful she was in my life and I was in hers. I am grateful to have been with her at the end, to have held her hand during that final lesson. It was a hard one to learn, but it will be with me until my end, until the cycle repeats itself again.

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

– Edward Lear

2 thoughts on “What My Grandmother Taught Me”

  1. One thing about being a virtual hermit is, it’s easy to experience life vicariously through reading about other people’s lives. I try to imagine being you, then, and that is empathy I guess. I never really have connected with anyone in real life, but for a minute there I felt connection with you and your nan and in a way with humanity and grief and appreciation and something else so poignant I can’t say what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

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