My grandmother passed away yesterday.
She was 86, she had congestive heart failure, a weakened valve, and her kidneys were failing…it was not a “surprise” in the strictest sense of the word.
And yet we’re stunned.
My parents were teenagers when I was born, and they needed help. My grandparents were part of my guardian team from the beginning, and by age 12 I was living with them full time.
Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother; she was a stay at home mom and then a stay at home grandma, so her main “job” after I came along was…me.
I went most places with her before I was school age. The bank, the bowling alley (her favorite place), the grocery store. She took me to the library religiously and let me wander the aisles at my own pace (a testament to her patience–I did very few things quickly as a child)…she read to me, she told me stories about her childhood, she let me into the details of her friends’ lives (we never used the word “gossip”)…I helped her make dinner.
I desperately needed stability as a child, and my grandparents were the source of it.
And as a thank you, I gave her and my grandfather some merry hell as a teenager. I scared the shit out of her on a few occasions–one memorable event entailed me listening to her cry and rant (while wrapped up in a blanket, because she got cold when her nerves were taxed–I inherited at least some of my dramatic flair from her) after it was discovered that I’d snuck out of my bedroom window. (My grandfather nailed my window shut after that, and only told me recently that it had been my grandmother’s idea.)
After reading a story I wrote as a child, and asking me MULTIPLE times if I was sure I’d written it, and not copied it….she became my biggest fan. She made a point of subscribing to magazines when I joined the staff (even if it was something she had no interest in) and she’s the only person who has ever said that she could “hear” my voice when she read what I wrote.
She’s also the only person that has ever told me, “I love you too much.”
It’s funny, as a parent, to see the things in your children that they get from you. I have five kids, and I can see elements of myself in them, and I can also see flickers of other family members–their dad, my dad–sparks of kindred mannerisms, attitudes, dispositions…either inherited or transmuted by some kind of tribal osmosis.
When I think about that phrase of my grandmother’s, I love you too much, I realize that she is probably the person I should blame for my gaping wound of a heart.
I love people too much sometimes.
I’ve spent the better part of a year plodding away from a heartbreak that was probably barely a blip on the other person’s radar.
I felt like I was teetering on the brink of madness during several extended periods when my kids were little, I was so terrified that something would happen to me and leave them motherless, or even worse, that something would happen to one of them and I’d have to go on living, because the others would need me even more.
My first experience with existential dread was realizing, as a child, that someday my grandparents would die. I’ve spent decades trying to prepare myself for that fact.
It hurts, to love people deeply.
And my grandmother did hurt. She did get betrayed. She did feel it when her loved ones were in pain, sometimes to the point where I would not tell her things, just because she would become SO HYSTERICALLY EMPATHETIC (see “dramatic flair” above) that it was concerning. (And also annoying, if you just wanted some advice or a pat on the back).
But she would insist that she wanted to know. Even though it would seem as if she was going to have a stroke, she would insist on me telling her details of what I was going through.
“You’re my heart,’ She told me, on more than one occasion.
I can call all of these things up in my mind’s eye, I can hear her laugh and I can hear her say my grandfather’s name in an extremely irritated tone as if she’s right here.
But it’s over.
When I told my grandfather I needed a picture of her for the obituary, he didn’t hesitate for a second; he went to his bedroom and got my grandmother’s senior photo.
“This is Jerrye,” he said. “This is how I see her.”
They were married for 68 years. To be honest, we all thought they couldn’t stand each other. From my earliest memory, they’ve never slept in the same room and I never saw them kiss or exchange a tender word (although I heard several other types of words traded back and forth).
But my grandmother’s final hours were spent saying, “Don’t leave me,” to him, and now that she’s gone, my grandfather, the stoic to end all stoics, is the definition of bereft.
“When you’re with someone for that long,” he told me, “They become part of you.”
He could still see her as a young girl. He could remember vividly the first time he saw her, at a skating rink in their small town.
Life goes quickly.
Time is precious and people are not here long enough. It’s worth it to love them too much.