On Love and Loss: Hearts on a String
"She says it's important," my husband said, pushing the phone towards me.
"It's not important," I said, sidestepping my daughter, trying to reach the wall, hammer and nail in hand.
"She said to put you on the phone," he urged.
I took the phone from his outstretched hand.
"What is it?" I said, peppered with the frustration of my daughter shrieking in the background.
"Gram passed away today," she said, emotionless.
"Oh. Okay. Wait - What?" I asked incredulously. My husband and daughter had left the room.
We conversed for a bit, with all matter-of-factness, about times and dates and the need to find an outfit to bring to the funeral home. When the conversation ended, I sat in my office alone, staring at the bare patches of wall I'd yet to cover with portraits, prints, diplomas. My grandmother's death hung over me like a bead of water on a duck's wing.
I got up and moved. Somehow, moving around felt better. I carefully placed the portraits, the Bachelor's, the Master's, the collages of Florida and Vegas, the clock, until there was nothing left to hang. Until there was nothing left to busy my hands.
I took a deep breath and left the office, fearing I might crack. I grabbed a bowl of pan-fried chicken tenderloins, black beans, and rice, and sat down at the counter. I ate slowly. My husband, leaning against the counter, eating his own dinner, looked up at me furtively, carefully surveying my state of mind. I continued to eat.
He said something generic, yet polite, as people with a few degrees of separation always do, one of those, 'It was for the best' or 'She's in a better place' -type things. I can't say for sure. I wasn't listening.
I stared down at my rice, lying indifferently at bottom of the bowl. I picked at it with my fork, like a five-year-old negotiating with his green beans. I lay down the fork and lifted my bottle of root beer to my lips.
I knew the tears would come. Quietly, I sobbed, hoping my children wouldn't see or hear. My husband walked around to my side of the counter and hugged me, rubbed my back with a force inappropriate to the situation. I pushed him away.
"You don't know how to rub," I said quietly.
I quickly composed myself, cleaned my dish in the sink, and returned to my chair.
"Matthew, honey, Mommy needs to tell you something," I said , the words scraping painfully over the lump in my throat.
"What is it? What is it, Mommy?" he asked as he approached. I pulled him up on my lap.
"You remember how Nonna was sick, right? Well, sometimes, people's bodies get sick, and they leave their bodies and go to Heaven. Nonna's gone to Heaven. She's going to watch us from there now, okay? And we're going to say goodbye to her in a few days, okay?"
He looked around with the understanding that something serious, something complicated, something important was being said.
"Okay, Mommy," he replied, knowing somewhere in his four-year-old head there no room for debate, discussion.
He later informed Daddy that, "Nonna left her body and she went to Heaven."
And I thought that was the hard part.
Yesterday, due to a combination of restlessness and frustration, I decided my babies and I should visit Grammy, cheer her up.
"Grammy's sad, and we are going to visit her and cheer her up," I explained to my kids as I wrestled on their socks.
"Grammy's sad?" Michael asked, eyes wide enough to swallow the moon. "And we're going to cheer her up?"
"Yes, Michael. Let's go cheer her up!" I said, knowing we'd only have a 50-50 shot.
When we arrived, my mother looked fine, had eaten lunch at a restaurant, was pleasant.
"So, do you want to know how my day was yesterday?" she asked, barely masking her eagerness to unload her story onto someone. At that moment, I remembered the time my neighbor, an older woman, eagerly allowed my five-year-old eyes to fall on the pictures of her car accident and subsequent hospital stay.
"Uh, yes," I responded, bracing myself for the wild unknown.
She talked quickly about the details, how everything happened, who came, who went, what time it was, and what transpired at the hospital. She vacillated between referring to my grandmother in both the present past tense, both of which made me uneasy, and concluded by discussing the upcoming remembrance services.
And then, slowly, she looked towards her bedroom and said, "And every time I close my eyes, all I see is that bathroom. That bathroom. And that room she sat in all the time. It kept me up all night. I couldn't get that bathroom out of my head."
I'm not sure whether she told anyone else, or she will, but it was at that very moment that I realized I hovered between the role of caregiver, parent, daughter, mother, and friend all at the same time, needing to hold it together for my kids, but allowing her to fall apart if she needed to.
I realized that my mother, at that moment, her mother's oldest child, needed to tell that story, of how she watched her mother die, and that I was the one who needed to hear it.
And it was at that moment as well that I realized when you become a mother, you enter into a line, a succession, a totem. You become but a pearl in a string - touching your children and mother, and she touching hers. A relationship not entirely symbiotic, yet unable to maintain stasis on its own. And she's now lost that pearl, that anchor. She's the last in the strand, and she needs the rest of us to stay whole.
That was a lesson I'd never expected to learn, a lesson I never knew I didn't know.
I sat up most of the night, thinking about all this, wondering whether she was able to sleep, mentally writing checks for bills and creating to-do lists between restless sleep. I thought about the sixty-plus years she's lived with the reality of her mother being but ten minutes away, and I hypothesized about the processes that occur after one loses her mother.
Though it will be difficult for me to hold back the memory, the emotion, of thirty-five years with my grandmother, her children need that release to find their own solace first.
And I am strong enough to stand, I hope, to allow the others to fall.
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