Sunday, April 18, 2004

There is no easy way to say this, so I'm just going to say it hard. My Grandma died yesterday at about noon Eastern time.

My Mom called me immediately. She's functional. Grandma was in advanced stage Alzheimer's for the last 2 years. This was expected... But we can never really be completely prepared, and it is never easy or painless. Right now, I'm proud of my Mom for getting the things that need to be done, done. Funeral prep. Obituary writing. That sort of thing. She and my Dad flew out here today and I will be seeing them tomorrow.

I'm actually doing well. Yeah, I've been crying, but that's natural. Mostly I feel, believe it or not, joy.

I am elated that she is finally with Grandpa and her sister and brothers and great-grandma again. For the last three years, she has been hallucinating her mother. She has been calling my Dad by my Grandpa's name (who died in 1984) or her brother's name (who died in the 1950's), depending on her mood. She has often called my mom "Mom." She has been living far more in the next world than in this one for a long time, and now she is finally there, where she has longed to be. I am so happy for her and for Grandpa, who I am sure is thrilled to have her to laugh at his jokes again.

I am happy for my parents, who can begin to rebuild their lives now after being care-givers for over 5 years. My mother refused to let Grandma stay in the nursing home. Grandma couldn't eat, walk, dress, brush her teeth... You get the picture. It was like having a colicky infant in the house that weighed over 100 pounds. The guilt my mother suffered was intense, but nothing compared to the fear and longing and sorrow knowing that she was watching her mother die. My own guilt for living here in New York when I felt that my parents and Grandma needed me in Illinois has been the stimulus for many therapy sessions and long late night coffee talks with friends.

I feel especially joyous for my own very special reasons, which I will try to explain briefly here.

It took a few hours, but ever since yesterday evening, I feel her presence very strongly. She has been inside of me, next to me, and all around me ever since shortly after lunch.

On the ride home from the office, I was telling my bf about how perfectly Grandma timed this. I truly believe her passing Friday was a conscious choice. If there was one thing Grandma hated, it was putting people out. She never wanted to be a burden on her family - she confessed this to me several times about 10 years ago before the disease took hold of her and robbed her of her ability to speak. She was afraid of dying like her brother had - in a nursing home, riddled with Parkinson's - but what she really wanted was to simply die of natural causes before anything got that bad. Sadly, that didn't happen.

About 6 months ago, she fell and broke her hip. She has been in a private nursing home ever since, healing from the hip repair surgery. The repair went very well. Over the last few weeks, her doctors had her wearing an analgesic patch on her leg. This pain killer not only relieved some basic arthritis pain, but rendered her almost able to walk again. Because of this, my mother insisted on bringing her home. Daddy was looking into hiring a home health care provider.

I was stunned. I tried - gently - to talk them out of this. There are so many reasons why my parents should absolutely not be doing this, finances not the least of them. The emotional toll of being hospice care-givers was devastating to both my parents. I have watched them go through this for years. I desperately tried to explain without putting into so many words that Grandma would never have wanted this... but my parents seemed determined.

Of course, Grandma took this as her last opportunity to assert herself.

Of course, she would leave on a Friday. Of course she would pick a quiet time of the month when nothing else was really happening at my job - she couldn't have chosen a better time for me to not be able to be at work. And there are other reasons as well... It just makes so much sense.

Zenchick called me on the phone to see how I was. I told her all this. I was laughing a lot, realizing the astoundingly well executed plan my grandma had put into motion. I could feel her laughing with me. At one point, I swear I actually heard her laugh. I wasn't the least bit creeped out. I felt warm and snuggly, as though her arms were around me, strong and healthy like they used to be.

It gets better.

During her lifetime, my grandmother raised thousands of dollars for her church. Thousands. It was amazing. Well, I'm not exactly organizing a fundraiser, but I will be singing tomorrow night at my church for our canvassing committee's Annual Pledge Drive Potluck Dinner. I feel like I am SO following in her footsteps here. One of the songs I will be singing is "God Help the Outcasts" from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Rehearsing this song today with my accompanist, I cried. A snippet:

God help the outcasts, hungry from birth
Show them the mercy they don't see on earth
lost and forgotten, they look to you still
God help the outcasts, or nobody will
I ask for nothing, I can get by
But I know so many less lucky than I
God help the outcasts, the poor and downtrod,
I thought we all were the children of God.

Grandma gave away virtually everything she owned to the poor. Mom used to yell at her for giving away things that she actually needed - pots and pans and the like. Grandma was so moved to simply give all she had to those who needed it more, who she felt had been dealt a rougher deal in life than she had.

I would say that I'd give anything to have her hear me sing this song tomorrow night, but she will hear it. I know she will. She heard me practicing it today. She is here.

The many layers and levels of cosmic rightness are mind-blowing. And wonderful.

She is closer to me now than she has been in 5 years. I feel so blessed and so grateful to be in a place in my life where I can truly appreciate this without fear. Of course I miss her. It has been a number of years since I realized that the Grandma I did things with was lost to me forever, even though her heart and lungs and vital organs were still functioning. I miss our cooking lessons, going shopping with her, crying on her shoulder about the men in my life, her stories about Grandpa, her stories about her Mother and other older relatives, stories about her many beaux at the dance halls in the 1930's. Most of all I miss her hugs and her laugh and the way she listened. But underneath all that is the essence of her, her spirit, which never dies. We all have that. I am so grateful to be able to open my heart and feel that, and not be afraid. I trust.

I have learned so much about trusting God in the last few years. Not that I'm able to DO it that much... But I'm getting better at it. Zenchick described that as my grandma's last gift to me, and she's right, it is. It is the ability see my faith and spirituality as something deeper than any one religion or church - something that transcends human dogmatic definitions, something that is inside us all, and outside us and all around us at the same time. My deep, dark, horrible fear of losing my grandma was part of a package of events that led me to delve very deeply into my spirituality over the last 2 years. I could have dealt with the loss of my dream job and the disintegration of my marriage - but I couldn't handle having my grandma taken from me.

Now, I can.

This morning, immediately upon exiting my shower, I re-wrote the lyrics to a country song that I've been thinking of singing at Grandma's funeral, if I'm asked to. I doubt they'll ask, since I'm not Catholic, but if nothing else, I'll sing it for my family.

Grandma's body was flown out here this morning so she can be buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Jersey City with the previous 2 generations of her family. I will be seeing about 200 family members over the next few days - OY! My job gives me 5 days for bereavement, so I'm off all this week. (Grandma, thank you, thank you...)

This is when things seem surreal - when I talk about the practicalities. It's detached from reality somehow to talk about scheduling and plane tickets and bereavement leave and this-world tangibles like that. Life, death, love, and change - that's real. That's the foundation of existence.

The Country song I re-wrote is "Guardian Angels" by the Judds, if you know it. The refrain I left unchanged, but the verses are different:

A sixty-year old photograph sits inside a frame
And if you look real close you'll see my face is just the same
Their love brought my Mama into this world, and me too
You see them in this woman standing here in front of you

Grandpa told me stories about older harder times
Grandma's kitchen was always safe when I needed to cry
And even in my darkest days, I knew that I was loved
And I know they will always look down on me from above

They're my guardian angels, and I know they can see
every step I take... they are watching over me
I might not know where I'm going, but I'm sure where I come from
They're my guardian angels, and I'm their special one.

Sometimes when I'm tired I feel my grandma take my arm
She says "You can do it, I've been by your side all along."
And when I'm really troubled and I don't know what to do
Grandpa tells me, "Just do your best, we're so proud of you."

They're my guardian angels, and I know they can see
every step I take... they are watching over me
I might not know where I'm going, but I'm sure where I come from
They're my guardian angels, and I'm their special one.

And it always will be so.

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