I remember when my grandma died. She had been sick for a couple of years and the vibrant woman who laughed and cuddled and read voraciously was becoming a memory when faced with the pained and miserable creature we met upon our frequent visits. In and out of hospitals and returning home to the infirmary at her retirement community, she wanted to die. Anything that might have held her here seemed inadequate and she craved peace. She was tired and ready to be done.
I was seventeen in March, 1996. I could drive myself to the large brick building where she used to life - playing cards and dining with friends, going to church and painting ceramics, reading books and listening to all my stories with love. I would take my homework and walk from the parking spot behind that building and enter the first floor of the nursing area. I would greet the women who always wore white in the central desks and turn right down a hallway often filled with moans of pain. I turned right again and beheld the woman who played such an important role in my life and wonder if we’d talk as we always had or if she was having a bad day.
I thought she’d get better, I think. After years of being in and out of hospitals and the infirmary, she’d always bounced back before. Weaker and less each time, but still. She would return to the apartment decorated in mauve and start to smell like Grandma again and we’d forget the medicinal gloom of what waited downstairs and at the back of the building. While I’m sure Mom and Aunt tried to prepare us - told us she wasn’t doing well and that we might be nearing the end - it must not have felt very real to me.
“Stop,” I remember Dad commanding one night. “Just stop, guys.” Brother and I were fighting one evening - I remember we’d been to the mall and he must have irritated me in some way on the drive home and I was self-righteously trying to correct him. Brother and I argued all the time growing up and the time I spent in high school and he in junior high was especially tense in various moments. We’re both rather dramatic, passionate people and we’d grown good at sniping at each other after years of practice. I remember looking over at Dad, hearing him tell us Grandma was gone and walking slowly to the bathroom before sinking down on the floor, my back against the bathtub. I didn’t cry right away - I was more surprised than anything - but I remember Brother sitting next to me and Dad standing over us as we tried to understand and accept what now was inescapable reality.
When I remember or dream of Grandma, she’s always bright and healthy. Face creased in smiles and laughter coming easily. I thought of the infirmary for the first time in a long time while talking to Friend last night. I can remember the cloying, floral smell at the services, speaking to a long line of people who also lost someone special. Touching her face and recoiling at how cold she was, lying there in a casket we’d selected. I clung to the stem of a pink carnation at her graveside as I cried and cried and cried. Mom didn’t make me go to school again until I was ready. It was at least a week before I left my room for more than a few moments, I think. I recall lying on the bed and staring out at the sky through the navy mini-blinds at my windows, nearly paralyzed with grief.
“I don’t think you can prepare for a loss that profound,” I told Friend as she curled in the corner of my couch, consumed with pain of her own. “It’s not like practicing loss on someone who was less important would help you deal with this. Having a parent - a mother - who is sick is a whole different category.”
There were long silences between statements. I listened as she spoke and tried to think of something to offer in return. I watched as she cried, brushing away some of my tears before they slid back into my hair as I reclined on the loveseat, facing her. You’re going to have to help me, I told God.
“I think that if I were you, I would try to give some of the burden to Him,” I finally offered. “I know you can carry it, but it’s so heavy. And while I don’t know that I could give all of the pain and anger and worry and grief away, I think I would ask Him to take some of it.”
I paused at her question and tried to think. “I don’t know,” I finally replied. “I don’t know how the checklist works to give that to Him. How you feel ready to let go of some of it or what you should say when you ask. I just ask, I guess. And then something happens that makes the next step clear.”
We talked and cried and I prayed again while she curled into a tight ball. Friend is very flexible and when her knees came up and head went down, she appeared very, very small.
Get up, I thought suddenly. Sit next to her and together, you’ll be bigger, more substantial. I thought of that experience in church, of putting my hands on Friend's shoulder and head and praying for her given that she wasn’t sure how to do it herself. Asking that God take some of the heaviness away so that she could take a few breaths. Begging that he offer a few hours of peace so that she could sleep. Asking for His comfort and presence and mercy upon the friend I love. Get up, I thought, looking at the spot where I could sit next to her. Get up.
I remembered after I went to bed how I used to lie next to Grandma when we’d take naps together. I spent my days at her house while my parents worked and we’d curl up in the front room and sleep for an hour or so in the afternoon. I remember staring out her window covered by soft, white sheer drapes and wanting to tell her that I loved her. So say it, I remember thinking. Just open you mouth and say three words you’ve told her hundreds of times already.
But I wouldn’t.
I would instead worry that she was already asleep or that she already knew I loved her or some other weird reason that only made sense to a very young Katie. I remember opening my mouth to speak only to close it again. And when I sometimes did muster the will to utter the words, she would always - without fail - cuddle me closer and tell me she loved me too. And yet that odd hesitation lingered for me. If I thought about it too much, I would fail to speak or act in some situations.
I did finally rise from the couch when Tylenol PM made me ache with the need to sleep. I told Friend she was not alone and I would be right down the hall if she needed me. I moved toward her, smoothed her silky hair and kissed her forehead. “You will be OK,” I told her, needing that to be true, before touching her head again. I moved down the hall, bitterly disappointed in myself for not doing more, saying more, at least trying to take some of the burden and giving it to Him myself. If one can’t trust God in a given moment, perhaps she could trust me and know that I care. And maybe my certainty that God knows and cares about her and her pain would translate into her feeling less heavy.
I should have gone to her. At least tried and risked making her uncomfortable or pushing too hard. But I didn’t. I wanted to and she deserves the effort, but some personality flaw kept me where I was. And so, given that Friend has a broken piece in her support system (that would be me), I’m asking that if you have something to offer, that you actually get up and offer it. Be it sympathy or hope or prayers, I know this community has soothed me when I’m struggling. Made burdens lighter out of the knowledge that people I know only through words and images are capable of worrying over me and wishing me well. So maybe you could leave a comment or send an email and let Friend know that she truly isn’t alone. And my hope is that if enough people care, she might gain a bit of hope that God does too.