My dear Grandmother passed away today.
There wasn’t any doubt that this was coming. She was sick, and we all knew it, but I never had a sense of how much time she had. The cancer was spreading, I was told, but I didn’t get to see her and I kept forgetting to call. I hadn’t seen her since 2009. I wanted to go. Wanted to pack all the kids in the van and drive up to Binghamton and make her smile. I knew she’d worry – my children subsist on the kind of danger that kept her up at night – but I thought it would be worth it. I just had to make time. Had to deal with getting back on our feet, finding the right house, making the deal, moving in, getting settled. Then I’d go. We’d go. We’d make a trip out of it.
I called her on her birthday. It was last week – December 7th – and it was something I used to do every year. I’d been slipping the last couple of years, though. I’d think of her but never get around to calling. I was too caught up in my own problems, worries, obligations, whatever. These were excuses, I think. Excuses that maybe everyone makes, but excuses nonetheless.
When I talked to her on the phone, it was alarming to hear how she sounded. Tired. Weak. Her speech was slurred. I wondered about the medication she was no doubt on. Was this why? I asked her how she was feeling.
“I’m old, Stephen.” The deadpan answer held both the truth and the jest, inextricably intertwined.
We talked about the weather, and my kids. We talked about the new house. She couldn’t stop worrying about the toadstools she was sure we must have in the woods, and how there had to be some way to keep the kids from eating them. She was always a worrier, but this time it was as if the fear took on a life of its own. Try as I might to change the subject, our conversation kept coming back to toadstools. Eventually, she fell asleep.
I decided it was time. We would go after Christmas. I had time off that I hadn’t used up this year, and I was going to take it. We couldn’t go for long, but we could at least see her one last time.
Tonight, as I was getting ready to leave work, my cell phone rang. It buzzed around on the surface of the heater in my office where I had laid it, and the screen lit up. “Dad,” it said.
Gramma has died, I thought. My dad doesn’t call me out of the blue. He doesn’t ring me up just to chat. Certainly not during evening rush. I answered. He was choked up. He still hadn’t told mom.
At first, it didn’t really hit me. I was calm and emotionless as he told me. I responded with shock, and concern, but it wasn’t hitting me. Not down deep. I thought of the video I had started making as a sort of birthday gift, sitting half-finished on my computer. I had intended to finish it up over the weekend, but I got busy with other things. I scolded myself for wasting time on Sunday night. I should have worked on it then. But how could I have known? I thought I had more time.
I drove home in the dark, and prayed the rosary. I don’t pray the rosary these days. I don’t like praying it. Not tonight. Tonight I prayed the rosary for the repose of her soul, and it didn’t take any effort at all. It’s what she would have done, sitting in her chair in the living room of the house on Vine Street, pulling a wooden-beaded rosary from the small board studded with little finishing nails made into rosary-hooks, just above and to the right of the fireplace. That marble bust of Jesus would sit there, looking out over the room, spreading a sense of peace. The brass and glass fireplace screen would reflect the light from the lamp by her chair, and she’d sit there naming off intentions after she’d finished the mysteries. How many times had I sat in that living room praying the rosary with her? How many times had her home been the one place that felt safe, the one constant place I could go to after another move, another trip, another life change, and it was still the same?
I have the feel of the place in my head. The smell, the look, the sound. The feel of the front door, and the way it would stick a little bit as you opened it. The yellow walls of the living room, the dining room table with its green vinyl tablecloth and frayed linoleum, the kitchen with its faint smell of day-old black percolator coffee and propane seeping slowly from the old match-lit range top. Every detail of that house is ingrained in my memory in exactly the way that every place I’ve ever lived is not. Over and over again, I’d come to visit her, and I would be at home. When I bought our house, the one I plan to raise my children in, one of the things I loved about it is that somewhere, in the essence of the thing, it reminded me of her house.
She and I were always close. I remember the days when we lived hours away from her, and we’d come to visit. My grandfather’s strong, happy voice would fill the room as we would enter from our long trip, my grandmother would see us kids and murmur something about how sweet we were and “Bless their little hearts!” In those moments, her voice took on a bit of the drawl she’d left behind when she’d moved from West Virginia to New York.
I remember Christmases at her house, all of her kids and their kids packing into the long, narrow living room for a second round of gifts on the evening of Christmas day. Everyone would be excited for Uncle Bill and Aunt Jodie to come, because they always brought us the coolest presents. There would be food, laid out on the dining room table. In the early years, that table would get cleared off and the air hockey table would wind up on top, the fans humming as we took turns batting the puck with paddles too big for our hands. Years later, that same table made way for Grampa’s hospice bed after his last series of strokes, and it was there that I held his hand on the last day I ever saw him, and did impersonations of his Indian physician until he tapped his nose with the index finger of his working hand. “On the nose” he was telling me. If he could have grinned, I’m sure he would have.
I remember spending childhood nights in the room at the top of the stairs, the one with the Americana wallpaper and the two twin beds with the white, textured blankets and the old board games stacked high on the shelves. My brother Matt and I would lay in our beds at night and move, letting the static build and crackle until blue and yellow sparks danced through the sheets in the darkness. We’d stare at each other’s faces, obscured by the lack of light, and squeal about how we looked like aliens before hiding again under the covers.
Gramma’s house was always the most Catholic place you could ask for. Statues here and there, holy cards tucked into the frames of mirrors, a holy water font by the front door, the picture of the Sacred Heart gushing blood and water by the mirror coming down the stairs. That picture of Jesus always looked at you – looked right through you – but the look on his face was kind and loving and made me feel welcome and loved. It was the same sort of feeling she always gave, and you knew that she was genuinely happy to see you when you came. As a teenager, after Grampa was gone, I stayed with her often, laughing about the way she’d prop chairs under the handles of the doors at night to keep the bad guys at bay. I’d trip on them in the dark on the way to the kitchen to get some water or a snack, and I’d tease her that if the chairs didn’t keep the burglars out, they’d at least have a heck of a time trying to move through the house with them all piled in the doorways like that.
I used to take her to movies, and for Chinese food. She was particularly fond of lemon chicken. I paid for her to go and see Jurassic Park, and she loved it. I saw it three times that summer, but the time I remember was the time I took her.
The memories coming flooding back, all a jumble, out of order. There were the times she’d come to visit me when I was a small child, and living in the various places we moved to as my Dad got transferred from one store to another. I remember her giving me a little plastic rosary with red beads like rubies, and tape recording me as I said the prayers. She sent that tape to a nun that she knew, living in a cloister. She was so proud of me for being able to do things like that when I was so small. She would always remind me of the time when I was about three years old, and I exclaimed to her that I was “too little to say exaggerated!” Then there was the time that we used the Mr. Peanut grinder we picked up at a garage sale, and made fresh peanut butter in her kitchen. (It wasn’t very good, but I sure had fun doing it.) There was the time we went boating on the Finger Lakes, and Grampa (his eyesight failing) saw her brightly colored plaid shirt as she sat up on the bow and remarked, “Hey look, a hot air balloon!” He begged us not to tell her when he realized his mistake. We of course denied him this simple mercy, and she laughed and laughed.
I have more memories from her home and of her as a part of my life than I could possibly hope to recount. She was essential.
My oldest daughter is now the same age that I was when my Grampa died. I think of how long Gramma waited, longing to be with him. How once he had gone, the flavor simply went out of life, but she took up her cross and kept on living. Her life became, in a sense, simply an anteroom to eternity. I know we’re all supposed to live our lives like it’s our last day, but she truly had her eyes fixed on heaven, and was simply waiting her turn.
I don’t believe in canonizing people the minute that they’re gone. But that woman, more than anyone I’ve ever known, loved God. I mean really loved Him. If the things we believe in are true, and heaven is something we can really attain, then it is almost impossible for me to fathom that she won’t be there soon, if she isn’t already. Nobody I know deserves it more than her. Nobody I know has ever been more devoted. Religion wasn’t a burden for her, or a crutch, or even a particularly unsolvable mystery. Outside of the love she had for my grandfather, her Catholicism was the driving force of her existence, the thing that made her put one foot in front of the other and draw each and every breath. It was the single thing, more than any other, that gave her happiness and purpose. It was a thing that she passed on to all of us, and that we, in turn, have passed on to others.
I hope and I pray that this night, she will be with Him in Paradise. And that when she arrives, my Grandfather will be there to take her up in his arms and hold her again. I know that there is no marriage in heaven, and that the love of God and the Beatific Vision will replace all earthly loves, but I cannot for one moment fathom that there will not be a joyous reunion with the man that brought her to the sacraments, gave her eight children and I don’t even know how many grandchildren and great grandchildren, and has been waiting for her all this time. It would make me so happy to see them together again, and I have to imagine that it would make them awfully happy too.
I love you and I miss you, Gramma Emmons. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you again before you had to go.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her.
May her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.