Life, Death; Sun, Snow; Hello, Goodbye

by Amanda Cleary Eastep

February 8, 2014

My grandmother died this morning as I awoke.

People share their sympathies with me via Facebook, “Liking” my post that announces my grandmother’s passing and requests prayer. On social media, we can broadly share our grief, reach out to friends and family and instantly receive condolences, assurances of prayer, even thumbs’ up. My proclamation of loss rolls through the news feed between the sponsored Do You Have Psoriasis? post and the National Hate Florida Day weather map meme.

I appreciate contrast. Total opposites separated by a hair’s breadth.

The spinach shoots growing on the warm side of my snowy windowsill. A dark-eyed sparrow’s flight of joy against the frigid white.

Sympathies on Social. Tears as I sort socks.

Sadness over the natural conclusion to 93 years.

My grandmother and my step-grandfather left Chicago when I was 5 years old. A vague memory of their house on 116th and Princeton has me at a formica table in the kitchen, everything is golden and close. Bodies like shadows move in and out of this scene, laughing and saying goodbye as Ma Flo and Papa Pete prepare to retire to sunny Florida.

Florida is not like Chicago. When I spend Christmas at their house when I am 11, I am convinced Christmas cannot be real without snow and the bite of cold on the parts of my cheeks that redden over the edge of my damp scarf. They have a yard of pebbles instead of grass. How do they know it’s summer without the smell of the first mowed lawn?

That is the second visit to Florida I recall. Once again, we have driven over three days from Chicago, stopping at Ruby Falls because, swayed by the billboard, I have begged my father for a roadside adventure; and because we are on a tight budget, sleeping in the cheapest hotels, the ones that open directly to the outside and have carpets we are not allowed to set socked-foot upon for fear of typhoid. On the first visit, my grandparents drive us another two hours to Disney World where I dive 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a pretend submarine.

I am in junior high. I have made the decision to begin calling her grandma, not Ma Flo. It is not the same decision I made about my maternal grandmother. Calling her grandmother rather than MaMo was born more out of the necessity to “grow up.” Calling Ma Flo “grandma” came with the intention to make her feel more loved. I have no idea if she noticed.

I am at their house again, this time with my college roommate. A spring break road trip. My grandmother welcomes us warmly and surprises me that evening by pulling out Jacks. I wonder why we never played when I was a child. Now I am laboring to hide a hickey. There are no turtlenecks in Florida. We stand at the kitchen table, bouncing the small rubber ball and swiping at Jacks that scatter instead. We laugh.

My relationship with my grandmother (and my sweet and hearty grandfather who passed away last year) is a photo album of these types of moments. I have over my lifetime longed for more. But as I reached my adult years, I didn’t make great efforts to change that.

My mourning is only one perspective of this death. So different from my youngest aunt’s, the year-after-year caregiver, whose emptiness and relief and resentment and thankfulness I only imagine. Different from my father’s, the first child and only son of the dark years with my grandmother and her first husband. Different than my mother’s, watching the varied suffering of her husband, who for his own quiet reasons cannot long endure the final deathbed scene.

My father doesn’t know if his mother heard him say “I love you” over her labored breathing, the sound of the oxygen, his own strangled goodbye.

“I’m sure she did, Papa,” my teenage daughter assures her grandfather. “You have a loud heart.”

Those moments now, too, have been added to my experience. Death isn’t so much loss as the culmination of every relationship it has formed and regretted and cherished and says goodbye to and waits to one day renew.

While sweet people offer their sincere and appreciated “sorries,” I acutely feel the lack of meeting expectations–not enough tears, no need for comforting arms. I mourn more so for what may, and maybe should, have been.

I mourn lost time but celebrate the few snapshots of it. I mourn over the sadness of others as she slipped away from the hands that could let go and the ones that grasped on desperately. Two sides of the same love, both beautiful and terrible. Both more passionate than my own.

But she is my Grandmother. She is part of who I am. She is every on-time birthday card, “honey,” and impromptu game of Jacks I remember and cherish. She is the mother of aunts who have bestowed gifts of humor and art and poetry upon me. And she is the mother of my first great “love,” my father, the boy she raised amid poverty and fear and into the light.

Like the kind you are supposed to see at the end.

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