I forgot how awful the waiting can be.
In some ways, it was worse than what I experienced after my mother’s death. The magnitude and suddenness of that loss left a gaping psychic wound, but that pain managed to give me something upon which to concentrate.
My grandmother’s death was a more protracted affair — sudden yet prolonged, unexpected yet unsurprising. It was no less heartbreaking than my mom’s passing, but it didn’t possess the same distracting immediacy. She was ill, she got better, then got worse, then better, then other problems emerged, then it became clear what the endgame was going to be. Within the space of week, the prognosis shifted from “six months” to “a few days” to a text from my cousin letting me know Nana had passed away earlier that morning.
On the day she died, my brother came down to Woburn so we could grab essential paperwork, touch base with other members of the immediate family, and finalize the funeral arrangements. As we made one last check of her bedroom for any essential documents we may have missed, I found a stack of old Polaroids, newspaper clippings, and grade school photos on her nightstand. All were of or about me, nothing about my brother or cousin.
“She was crazy about you, Andy,” my father told me later on the phone. “When we brought you up from North Carolina, she and your grandfather couldn’t put you down for a second. They would’ve paid your mother and me to babysit you.”
It was such a weird thing, considering how my relationship with her evolved in the past twenty years. I was the take-or-leave it grandkid, the one who had to be prodded into remembering her birthday or calling to check on her more than once in a blue moon. My cousin was much closer to her and interacted with her on a daily basis. My brother busted his ass trying to do the right thing by her and be a dutiful grandson, and got little but grief over it. I’d blow in for a half-hour visit every three months or help her with some small errand a couple times a year and it was like the anointed one had returned.
She was an unlikely matriarch, a tiny woman with a weird rustic twang to her New England accent who spent the first two thirds of her life trying to placate her volcanically cantankerous spouse. It wasn’t after a stroke laid him low and confined him to a hospice for three years that the depths of her inner strength became apparent. She looked after her own, with a ferocious sense of loyalty and a quirky (and occasionally outright bizarre) sense of “how things should be done.” She took in my brother and me because we were “hers,” and damned if my father’s kin thought they would raise us.
Again, my brother got the short end of that stick. I was old enough to be considered an adult in her eyes and close enough to my grandfather in temperament to coast along without too much interference (apart from the occasional “vulgar” punk t-shirt mysteriously vanishing). My brother was and remained a kid in her eyes, possessed of the same willful contrarian streak that caused friction between my mother and grandmother. “It was a sweet deal if you were on the inside track,” I told him while we were running errands on the day of my grandmother’s death. “Unfortunately, you weren’t.”
Even with those rough patches, she structured her entire life around looking after her family — rides, loans and gifts, offers of help, (often weird) meals, and words of support. She’d grouse and complain about being put out, yet felt gravely insulted when cut out of the loop. It gave her something to do, and she was convinced that momentum was keeping her alive. She had a mortal fear of assisted living facilities, equating that lack of independence with death.
It’s why we assumed she’d somehow bounce back from her recent health issues, and why we sensed end was coming when she stopped talking about getting mobile and back home again.
Her final weeks were tough on all involved. The anxiety attacks she’d been prone to took on a quieter, morbid air. Paranoid rants about bills not being paid gave way to fears of falling asleep or being left alone, her frail arthritic hand clenching mine with a panic-fueled strength that could’ve pulverized stone.
Rehab talk was dropped and discussions about hospice began. Her three grandkids agreed to get together and hash out long term plan for her care, but she passed on the day we’d were supposed to meet. The close coordination and shared preoccupation of the previous three months came to an abrupt and unsettling end. The plans for the service were set, other related matters were no longer pressing, and there was nothing to do (for me, at least, since my brother and cousin had taken on the heavy lifting) but wait a week for the funeral.
I went back to work for a couple of days, hoping to lose myself in those familiar rhythms. It worked to some degree, but I couldn’t shake the profound feeling of dread that descended upon me when afternoon rolled around. Y’see, that’s when I used to call in and check on my grandmother, which had become a harrowing endeavor in those last few weeks when I’d catch her in the middle of a panic attack or get a glum brush-off after a minute of cursory conversation.
Being at home, between the few errands I needed to run, wasn’t much easier. When my mom died, I spent the week between her death and service reading comic books and grinding away in Phantasy Star. These past seven days have mostly involved me pacing the downstairs, staring at the character select screen on The Division, deciding I need to pee, getting something from the fridge, checking the internet, flipping over a record (I listened to the Time-Life “Classic Rock 1967” comp at least two dozen times), staring at the character select screen again, doing a frenzied bit of housework, taking another pee, checking the fridge again, testing out an old stereo system Maura brought home, measuring to see if it will fit in my entertainment center, checking Ikea’s site for shelving, more measuring, deciding to just buy a new stereo system, even more measuring, taking another pee, rinse and repeat.
All the while my thoughts turned fractally inward while my restless energy and mental lethargy conspired against any sense of personal equilibrium. When my brother mentioned he had to take care of a few last-minute things, I begged to tag along with him.
The memorial service was quite nice, and in keeping with my grandmother’s sense of decorum. I chatted with family friends and relatives (some of which I doubt I’ll ever see again now that the last of the elder generation is gone) for a bit, then went home and crashed out on the couch for a few hours. The feeling of closure the funeral provided burnt out the feelings of restlessness I’d been experiencing, leaving behind utter exhaustion in their wake.
The heavy grieving will come a bit later, probably when we start sifting through my grandmother’s possessions for distribution and disposal.