Four Years LaterMy mother says that the best way to remember someone is not by the day they died but rather by their birthday. But I disagree, because the day they die is the day everything changes. It's the first day that you start the rest of your life without them.
Birthdays almost seem inconsequential, what's a cake or a party or just a quiet dinner with friends when the life-altering day comes later, when you're gone? I cannot remember much about celebrating my Grandmother's birthdays while she was alive, but I remember well the day she died, now 4 years ago today.
I remember other days, when I was 9 and her husband, my Grandfather died. He was in the hospital and my mother woke with a start, (or by a phone call from a nurse, I can't remember which) and rushed to the hospital. She's not a fan of highways so her journey took her down city streets in the pre-dawn light, where she hit every light. And because she was his daughter, because he'd taught her that this was important, she did not run a single one.
Nor did she make it to his bedside before he died. But that was okay, she said, because she'd stopped for all the lights. She'd followed the rules, like he taught her. I'd never noticed that he worked that way, but that day taught me a lesson -- that there's some great value in respecting the rules and by being honest. Doing my very best to hold true to my word is how I honor him, a man I didn't get to know for long enough at all. So I honor that day for the integrity that lesson has brought to my life.
Later that day, I sat at a neighbor's house, thinking wow, now I only have 3 grandparents. I knew I'd been lucky to have 4 for that long but now, that was over. I had 3. And for the first time, someone I knew had died.
We didn't look at the body, in the end I'd sort of wanted to but Mom talked me out of it. I have no regrets about that, I don't wish I'd seen whatever his body had become. There was no need, the memories were all in my heart.
I didn't look at Grandma either. There was No Way I could do that. The casket was open for a while at the viewing, I think mostly for the family. There she was, at the front of the room but I did not look. Out of the corner of my eye, I swear I saw the edge of one of her brown shoes with the buckle but I don't really know.
I didn't see her like that. And still, always, I will carry no regrets about that.
I didn't see her at the very end of her life either. I could've. Without too much effort I could've dropped everything to fly there and sit with her in her final hours. But I didn't. Because she was lucky enough to be surrounded by my family, by her children and some of us grandkids. She didn't need me then but they needed her.
The lovely woman who'd lived with her for 5 years and cared for her said a prayer from her homeland. Then she quietly left the room and left my family to surround Grandma with love as she moved to the next world. For her sake, I hope it's everything the Church promised it would be.
My dad called me, his voice choking. Grandma's gone, he said.
That night, I played at least one hockey game and miraculously scored 2 goals. Each time, I looked to the heavens and said 'that was for you.' Only I was inside the rink and looking up meant seeing the ceiling covered in some kind of tin foil insulation. But I hoped that she saw me through that and knew that I'd given her something that mattered.
We flew home, Andrea, my brother and me. On the way we got stuck in Chicago and missed flight after flight. Though it wasn't super urgent, the visiting hours weren't until the next day, I needed to be back in Ohio, needed to be near Grandma even though she was gone. Chris and Andrea waited patiently as I stood politely at the ticket counter, asking quietly every few minutes if a seat had opened up. Finally, after 2 or 3 flights came and went, our names were called and we got the last 3 seats home.
So much of that week is a blur. The loudness of my extended family at the viewing, sitting in Grandma's living room with her there but not there in the house, the long drive to the cemetary and how we were escorted by a really nice motorcycle-riding police officer. How he waved us through as if Grandma was royalty and indeed he was right. She most certainly was.
I spoke at her funeral. All week, I went over what I'd wrote, gathered my nerve to walk up to the podium at the church where I'd grown up and speak into its cavernous depths. When I got up there I made my voice as loud and as solid as possible and read what I had to say. I think I captured how I felt about Grandma, how much she meant to me.
But what I've learned since that day is that I was only starting to understand how very precious a gift she was in my life. When you consider all the variables that go into being adopted, into finding my way into this particular family and somehow, by the grace of God, into the waiting, loving arms of my Grandma, well, for one I know that God exists (or I'm extremely lucky, I'll take that too) I feel so utterly grateful that the stars aligned and I found myself part of her family. Out of all the waiting families with the agency at that time, how did they know that within the next family on the list was the World's Best Grandma?
That gift extends today into Val, who bears Grandma's name for a middle name. We knew we'd chosen correctly when I looked up the meaning of Valerie Marta -- strong lady. Valerie means strong and Marta means lady.
Yes, I thought, Grandma was every bit a lady.
As I sit in Grandma's breakfast table chair every day, as I wear her simple wedding ring, I do what I can to keep her close and honor her memory. I show Val pictures of her, most of the time Val knows who she was. Marta, she says, my great-grandma. Yep, that's right. You only missed her by a year but she sees you just the same.
I know she would've been crazy about you, kid.