I awoke on a Saturday morning in January suddenly perplexed about my long-planned trip to South America which was coming up in a couple of weeks. “I can’t go!” I thought, “What if Grandma dies while I’m gone?” It was a strange thought, considering that my grandma wasn’t ill. We’d all known for years that she could go at any time on account of the fact that she was well into her nineties, but this sudden urgency was very strange. While I was still lying in bed, the phone rang. My grandma was dying. They’d given her 24-48 hours.
I scrambled searching for flights, calling my siblings and my mom and trying to figure out what to do. Faced with the choice of flying out a day later on the next available flight and possibly seeing or possibly missing my grandma (who was no longer responsive) or flying down in two weeks when the family gathered for her memorial (and seeing, possibly for the last time all together, my far-flung aunts, uncles and cousins), I decided to stay home.
My sister, who drove up from Los Angeles to be at my Grandma’s bedside, got me on facetime so I could talk to her. Amazingly, she responded. She couldn’t open her eyes, but she was clearly trying to speak. I told her she didn’t need to say anything, that I knew that she loved me, and she settled back against her pillow. I was able to tell her that I loved her just so, so much, that I was so happy for her that she was finally getting to go home, and I was able to thank her for loving all of us so well. My sister and I, and the others in the room, sang a her a song. Singing was her favorite. I was desperately hoping that someone would be singing when she died, but I could see that I wasn’t going to be the one to do it. As long as I was on the phone, everyone felt the need to interact with me, and it made everything less peaceful, so I said my goodbyes, thanked my sister and hung up.
I sat at home. It seemed impossible to go about normal weekend business knowing that she was passing. So I canceled my plans, I prayed a little and eventually decided that the best way for me to engage the moment was to sit and write a memory of Grandma. This is what came of that:
As I write this, my grandmother Sarah Elline is fading from this world. This is not sudden; she’s ninety four and has been fragile for several years now, and her memory started to betray her long ago. But, indelibly, Sarah Elline is Sarah Elline.
I have a theory that we become distilled with age, that our essence becomes more pure as we lose the energy and wherewithal to maintain artiface. In my grandmother’s case, she has become almost unbearably lovely. A Mississippi belle to her very core, she has always been a beauty with a razor-sharp wit, a quick laugh, and no small amount of sass. She represents to me the finer things. Lipstick. Music. Storytelling. Massive family gatherings with her many children in her sprawling home. Cornbread. Collards. Beans with bacon. Of course, she is human and flawed, but from my vantage point, the rough edges seem to have dropped off with time, leaving only luminous beauty, kindness, love, and yes, sass.
Having lived in San Francisco for nearly ten years and in Canada for three, my visits are few and carry much weight. Each time I see her, I know it could be my last.
A couple of years ago, shortly before she had to be moved from Grandpa and Grandma’s House to assisted living, I was in California for a visit and came to see her for what turned out to be my last time in the home where I had formed most of my memories of her. I heard her health was going downhill and she would have to move soon. I heard that the day before she’d forgotten that her husband, sister and two sons had died and was wandering the house looking for them. My aunt warned me not to mention any of these things, not to expect that she would know me.
I nodded and headed down the hallway – the same hallway that I’d sleepwalked as a ten-year-old with the chicken pox (and which, when I woke standing confused and disoriented in her bedroom in the middle of the night, rather than sending me back through to bed, she traversed with me, turning left at the kitchen to fix me a midnight supper).
Pausing at her bedroom door, I knew that however philosophical I tried to be about this, if I walked through that door and this woman who I knew absolutely adored me did not recognize me, I would be crushed. There were days when I could take it, but this just wasn’t one of them. I braced myself and opened the door. I was immediately greeted with a sweet and slow “Hiiiiii honey!” My throat tightened a little with gratitude and relief.
We chatted. She knew who I was but was fuzzy on most of the particulars. She didn’t remember that I’d gotten married, so I cozied up next to her on the bed and showed her a picture of my husband. She pronounced him handsome. She looked at one of the photos sitting on her dresser and asked, “Are those your children?” “No, Grandma,” I said gently. “Those are Nancy’s children.”
We were silent for a moment. Then, unexpectedly, she looked at me with such tenderness and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry that your Daddy died.” Our eyes held each other in a completely lucid, present moment of shared grief. As is often my wont, I reached for words when they weren’t necessary and halfheartedly offered, “He’s in a better place.” She looked at me archly and countered with her classic Southern air, “I don’t see how it could be all that much better without his mother.” I conceded the point.
Mary Poppins was playing on the TV.
“I remember this show,” she said, and began to hum-sing, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”
“The medicine go down,” I joined her, “The medicine go down.”
We continued our duet with the tv buzzing in the background. When it was finished, she smiled and sighed, “Beautiful.”
I have just gotten the news that she is home. That she quietly breathed her last surrounded by her children, grandchildren and others who loved her. They were singing Hallelujah at the moment that her body released her.
I imagine her stepping across that threshold, ancient and childlike, eyes gleaming, face open, arms outstretched, awaiting the embrace that makes all things new.
And I imagine her walking those streets a young woman, tangerine lipstick, hair meticulously coiffed, demure white heels and a crisp, knee-length white dress, the lines of her stockings perfectly straight against her calves, eyes flashing with wit, laughter and a touch of sauce, a song welling up from somewhere deep and tumbling unconsciously over her lips.
And I think she was right. I think Heaven just got better.