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A Thousand Deaths
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My grandparents, Evans and Zola, with in the pigtails on my Papa's knee.

"You need to get to the hospital. Now." My boss, a middle-aged radio station host, stood at my desk where I was keying in radio copy into a computer.

My usual pale face, spotted in freckles from the summer sun, felt hot, ghostly white. He may as well have tossed a load of bricks into my chest. I couldn't move. "What is it?"

"Your grandmother."

I knew it was her before he'd said so. She'd been to a heart specialist in Enid a few days before, but my grandparents kept medical reports to themselves. All I knew was that her heart, the biggest one I'd ever known, was giving out. 

My motions were robotic. The short drive (all drives are short in a small town) felt like the longest in my life. I pleaded with God in a mantra I was afraid was too late to make a difference. "PLEASE DON'T LET HER DIE. PLEASE, PLEASE. PLEASE DON'T LET HER BE DEAD."

I'd volunteered to go with her to Enid as I helped her in the car. "I could hold your hand in the backseat," I'd said. She had insisted I should go to work instead. It was the summer before my sophomore year in college. I loved being back home, but my grandmother was no longer the spry young grandmother she'd been in the spring, though her age was much too young to be that sick, sixty. Her smile was weak. Her heart, weaker still. Her breaths were jagged and her eyes had lost their glimmer. I could still make her laugh, but I could tell that was painful for her, too.

On another doctor's appointment, I'd gone with her. I think I wanted to hear what they wouldn't tell me. Or else I hoped it was better than I feared. As we waited for the doctor, a spider descended by its silken web, directly above her head. My grandfather, "Papa", grabbed it and likely put it into the trashcan. I'd secretly wished it was a good luck sign, but then my worried mind took over. I feared it was an omen. In that room, I'd joked that maybe I should marry a chiropractor so I could get free adjustments for life. We'd both visited chiropractors - me for my scoliosis and her for what she thought was back pain, but was really her heart wreaking havoc. Her brown eyes met my blue ones, and she took my hand. "Marry for love," she said. I promised I would.

Papa met me in the hallway of the ER. Most of my family members had already arrived. My grandparents had three sons before they raised three grand-daughters, me, the oldest, and my two sisters. The middle one had just graduated from high school and my little sis would be a sophomore in high school. They needed her. We all did. Everyone was crying. Where was she?

My grandfather was a tall man, six foot three before his back bent with age, and I'd loved how he'd danced with my grandmother, who was five foot one, she on her tiptoes, twirling in our living room. Despite their height difference, they were a perfect fit. One look at him and I knew he'd lost his soulmate and I'd lost the only mother I'd ever really known. I knew what the expression, "a shell of a man," meant. He was standing before me. His eyes had the far-away look of someone so lost I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to find him again. 

"She's gone."

"No! I want to see her."

"It's too late."

I didn't believe it. It was my nature to believe you could overcome anything. My grandmother had taught me that. But death? I couldn't wish it away. I couldn't pray her back to life.

Looking back on it, I wish I'd been more insistent. I wanted to hold her one more time, before her body chilled. Before they took her away and pumped out her blood and filled it with a solution. Don't believe what they say about a body not being important. Our physical image and the mortal frame God gives us is instrincally linked to the human experience. I needed a final hug, but I didn't get it. Why the rush to move on to the next phase of death? I prefer the ceremony so many tribes use, slowly preparing for the journey our loved ones take from this life to the next. I needed time with her before they laid her in the ground. 

The next days passed in a blur. I helped Papa select the dress she would be buried in. It was black and white and floral, and in it, alive, she'd been a vision. She'd worn it to Mother's Day at my sorority just months earlier. I scribbled her eulogy while sitting on my bed. I rewrote it time and again. It needed to be perfect. There was no way I could tell her in death all the things I should've told her in life, but she'd known how much I appreciated what she had done, taking me and my sisters in so we wouldn't be split up in foster homes. Parenting for a second time when other women her age were enjoying the freedom of an empty nest. But she'd loved being a mama bird, and she had been good at it. 

I wanted to be strong, and people told me I was, but inside I felt broken - again. I'd feared losing her from the moment I'd moved into their house when I was four. I'd imagined her perishing nearly every night as I drifted off to sleep. Fifteen years later, my fears had won. "I told you so," Fear sneered. "You were right," I told it. "I'll always lose things I love."

The casket was pearlescent pink. My grandmother was a gardener - she wasn't afraid of soil in her fingernails - but she was also a girly girl. On nights she'd go dancing with my grandfather, she'd put on her high heels and her bright red lipstick. I loved her being surrounded by soft pink.

Grief isn't a one-trick pony. It's a thousand deaths, hitting you when you least expect it. I've lost my grandmother in big ways and small, over and over again as the years rolled by and I added children of my own. Watching my great-grandmother grieve - Your child should never die before you, she cried - and every member of my family hurting, could've turned my heart to stone, but I wouldn't let it. She'd shown me so much love that I couldn't throw it all away.

I've lost many loved ones since, and it doesn't get any easier. When my grandfather called me on his 77th birthday to tell me, "It's cancer," I was angry. He'd smoked for too long, and gave it up too late, only after the woman who would become his second bride told him she wouldn't be with him if he didn't quit. That was five years earlier. I'd watched as his own veil of grief had lifted, taking up music and performing in front of an audience, and it was beautiful to hear him laugh again.

It's been twenty years since I lost her, yet she's alive in me in the things I say to my children and the wisdom and mother love I'm passing down to them, which wouldn't have been possible if she hadn't shown me I'm worthy of love and that love, despite the pain, is worth it.




6 Comment count
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This is beautiful--thank you

This is beautiful--thank you for sharing your grandparents with us.

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Thank you


Thanks for reading and for your sweet note. Many happy returns. 

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So sad and lovely

Malena(such a lovely name!), This was s sad and lovely. I can identify to some degree as I was raised by my grandparents and lost my grandmother young. It's a tragic loss, but you have kept a great part of her alive in your story and yourself. Wishes for many blessings and much joy!


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Thanks, Marissa.


It looks like I've found a kindred spirit. So happy to connect with you and thank you for commenting. Grandparents can truly be a godsend to little ones. One of my best friends will become a grandmother to twin girls next week and I'm so thrilled for her new journey. 

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Thanks for sharing this.

A beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman. How good to think of her love and wisdom still existing on this earth through you.

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Thanks, Sue


Thank you for your sweet comment. Yes, I feel my grandmother's presence often and am delighted when I hear myself say something she said to us over and over again. :)

Hope you're having a marvelous spring.