My grandmother died this morning. At the time of her death she was 4 days short of 92. She is survived by her husband of over 60 years, her four children, her four grandchildren, and her two great-grandsons. My Auntie called inconveniently as I walked home from morning teaching, still in admin mode, and we spoke on the phone. “Your Grandma went to Heaven this morning”, she said, as though I were 5 and unaware of the intricacies of death, rather than an adult who has been to eleven funerals in the last four years. As though Grandma was popping to the shops or being moved to a different ward. It took me a moment to find the fact inside my Auntie’s phrase. There was a beat. “Oh. Okay. Thank you for letting me know.” I said, as though a meeting had been pushed back. My Aunt sounded a bit odd; there was a sense of being lost. I don’t know what becoming motherless feels like, but I suppose there is a certain shock even when you know it’s coming and you’re in your fifties.
My Auntie waited for a moment – for what, I don’t know, maybe she expected me to show more emotion – but in truth, I had long ago accepted my grandmother would die. I had pondered her death many times. She was already into her 60s when I was born, and so I always thought of her as old. And look, old ladies die, they just do, I grew up in an old persons home and none of them are still with us (RIP). I took my third long haul trip when I was five, to visit my grandparents in Kenya. At one point my grandmother was tasked with looking after me, and as I had recently learned about age, I asked her how old she was. She lowered her voice conspiratorially and told me, to which I, shocked, said “Oh Grandma! Are you going to die soon?”, which apparently most offended her. Yet it was just two years later when she was first hospitalised with a potentially fatal disease. As the youngest of her grandchildren I didn’t fully understand the gravity of being told to give her a “big hug and a special goodbye”. Miraculously, she recovered from cerebral malaria (only 20% do) and lived another 21 years (albeit with dementia). Until today. Still, an entire lifetime more.
My grandmother lived a remarkable life. She grew up in rural Oregon, from the age of ten acting as a surrogate mother to her four siblings after her own mother died in her early thirties. She put herself through college, found a sponsor to send her to Thailand, lived in Vietnam and Malaysia, got engaged after knowing my grandfather for 9 days, and remained married for over 60 years. She was born into, and lived in, what was presumably a very segregated and racist America, decades before the Civil Rights movement. She was dirt poor and lived in a log cabin; I have been to the (still rundown) village in Oregon where she lived as a girl. She was a devout Christian her entire life and worked hard to serve Him in the way she felt she needed to. This is really where we differed. She was the kind of Christian who knows a fearful, almighty God who can singularly punish, whereas even as a child, I knew multiple gods in my own family (God, Allah, Vishnu) and I always thought of them as cheerful friends both to me and each other. But my grandmother was not strict with it, at least not to me; God’s presence seeped into everything she did but it was easy enough not to mind it. And she was not a stern woman. She had this childlike innocence about her even as an old lady; a mischievous twinkly smile, and a joyous, girlish laugh. She was resourceful and thrifty, and even though she was kind-natured and thoughtful she had a tenacity about her. She must have had a certain drive in her younger years in order to get to where she did, but this is something I surmised rather than saw first hand, and in that she reminds me of my mother.
In the time that I knew her she was a caring woman. The few years I can remember her pre-illness I remember her things more than I remember her: her strangely oppressive house in Wales; her collection of bells; her handmade dresses from her years in Africa; her piano. Childhood me spent so many hours at that piano, carefully folding back the double lid, feet dangling above the carpet whilst I sat on their rigid stool with a lift-up top. I spent long summer afternoons sifting through the reams of music my grandmother had. The majority were hymns, which I overlooked, but she had an impressive amount of old-fashioned single sheets and American popular song from the first half of the century. I would sight-read based on the picture of the front cover, unknowingly introducing myself to early jazz. My Mum texted me after she died, ‘she knew you the best of her grandchildren and she was grateful for that’, and I felt a weird sense of guilt that my core memories of her consist of sheets of music. Doubtless she remembered our conversations far better than I. She spent her last ten years in the Isle of Wight (and most of those in a care home), but the piano is still in the living room, although rarely played these days. On top of it sits a framed photo: me graduating a Master of Music.
I had imagined her death, when it came, to be a grisly relief. Finally, the family could take itself off pause; there would be no last-minute alarm bells; no more last rites that turned out to be penultimate rites; no more guilt and shame for living so far away; no more arguments at the care home. All the pain ends. But it didn’t feel cold and grisly. It felt warm, I felt happy in some weird way. In the many (well, few, I suppose, but it feels many) deaths I have encountered, they have all felt like a shock, a tragedy, like an irreplaceable broken vase on the floor. There was a physical brutality to the news; there were details about the catastrophe that suddenly stopped the young, healthy body, and there was a horror to it that I experienced on a primal level. In my previous experiences, all of these other things – guilt, shock, anger, confusion – got wrapped up into the news of death and somehow became part of it, so that the stages of grief were swollen. Getting to the point where the only thing left to be processed was the actual loss itself takes some time. There were all these other hurdles to tackle; the awful circumstances or the pending autopsies or the ongoing police investigation or the psychiatrists report. Barriers that initially distracted us from truly feeling the loss.
My grandmothers death was not like that. The only thing TO process is the loss. We are straightforward and mercifully uncomplicated in our grief. It is a death decades in the making. She was 91, she had been ill, she died without pain and (we can only presume) at peace. We will say goodbye to my grandmother on the 20th November: the day Jo died, the day of Pete’s funeral, a day already so full of Death in my mind that it is both astonishing and inevitable that my Grandma’s service would fall on that same day. I am to read something about her and play some music. That’s what I tend to do at these things. My heart broke when I heard, not for me, but for my Great-Aunt, (my grandmothers youngest sister), now the only surviving child of her parents and stuck out in Salt Lake City, unable to bid this final farewell alongside us. My Great-Aunt was just 2 when her mother died, and now she is the last person alive to have known her at all: the last small fraction of her family. I know how to mourn my grandmother, but I don’t know how to mourn that.
I have seen Death as an unwanted guest, an inept force, and strangely often, as an equal, (no doubt a stance related to my childhood belief that the assorted gods were personal pals). When my friends died, I was so sure somebody had fucked up, and the only obvious fucker-upper was Death themselves. I imagined Death a work experience teen, as incapacitated as us, looking at the scene and going “Shit! I’ve completely ballsed it up!”. Collapsing to the floor in waves of sorrow that matched ours. But in thinking of my grandmother’s death, I feel relief, gratitude; I feel anticipation for a fond farewell. How strange. I did not know I would ever find Death kind. But both Death and I are older than our hysterical counterparts from a few years ago. I picture Death greeting my grandmother kindly; helping an old lady from her chair and wrapping a blanket around her shoulders. Leading her gently out of the hospice room that had been her home for 7 years, and going somewhere else. My grandmother hasn’t walked in years, but Death will have means for that, and I trust my Grandma is in safe hands. I did not know I would feel grateful for Death in this way, for taking over when I can do no more, for helping where I can’t.
I don’t know where Death leads my grandmother in this imagined scene (which sounds ridiculously schmaltzy and childish written down, even if it is true). I don’t know you go when you die, but my grandmother spent her life’s work serving Him, trying to follow His word, to reach those pearly gates and reside eternally in Heaven. In some ways she has been preparing for this her whole existence. It brought me a comfort that I cannot fully comprehend; that even though she was past the point of coherent thought, if she’d had any awareness that she was dying she would have known that her next stop was Heaven. I mean, I don’t know that, but she would have. Maybe that’s how it works? I don’t think religion works in the way my grandmother did because I don’t think it’s the Gods who control death; Death is it’s own, autonomous being. Death comes for everyone regardless of what you thought or believed. And I can’t imagine Death having all these separate arrangements with the various almighty beings; pulling out a notebook of reports and receipts, like a travelling salesman with pay on leave, it just doesn’t fit right. Death probably just takes you where you want. What a nice thought, that we may end up wherever we most wanted to go. I hope she never fears again, and I hope Death continues to be kind and gentle on whatever path they’re on together. And we, left behind, will do our part to pack up the remnants of a life well lived.