My sweet Grandma Donna passed away on July 14th.
A few weeks before our wedding Grandma sheepishly asked me if she could show me the dress that she wanted to wear. It was white lace, and some said it was too bridal and she was scared to “steal the show” so she thought she had better ask me if it was OK. She pulled it out, covered by a flimsy dry cleaning bag, the original tag from the last cleaning still attached. She said, with great pride, that she had worn it when she and Grandpa had walked my mom down the aisle at HER wedding. Then she wore it again at her 25th wedding anniversary party (26 years ago!). She spoke of this dress with such a sparkle in her eyes and there was never any doubt from me that she should wear it at my wedding, too. I even convinced her to pull it out of the bag to model it, and she did, proving that it still fit perfectly and looking like she hadn’t aged a day.
The speed at which her cancer returned and took her life baffles me. At my bridal shower on April 30th, she was her usual self, chatty and goofy and cracking jokes. By our wedding on May 28th, she was so ill she probably shouldn’t have come, but told everyone she would not miss it. She had to leave early but she was there and the effort she made for us still brings me to tears. She was admitted to the hospital soon after and on June 28th we were told she had just hours to live. She did surpass that timeline by a couple of weeks, and we were blessed to have lots of quality time with her during those days.
In the time after the wedding until she was moved to palliative care, I was fortunate to see Grandma almost every day in the hospital. To have that opportunity was such a blessing but at the same time I found myself leaving our visits with regret over missed opportunities for more meaningful conversations with her. I have always despised small talk but there I was each day, asking the same mundane questions, ones that I’m sure she was as sick of answering as much as I was of asking them:
Did you see the doctor today?
What have you eaten?
Do you need more ice?
Are you too hot or too cold?
I desperately wanted to ask the deep stuff, like:
Are you scared?
What was the happiest moment of your life?
What’s your favorite song, dessert, season, movie?
I thought we had so much more time, as we tend to do in life and all of a sudden I felt like I was scrambling to know her even better, down to every last detail about who she was. She said to me a million times, “Don’t make your life revolve around me. Don’t make coming to see me at the hospital your whole world.” I finally had to tell her, “You ARE our whole world.” We literally wouldn’t be here without her and she was far too humble a person to ever understand the impact she has had on us, and on the many others who knew her.
Grandma was easily the most content person I know. In a world where the grass tends to look greener on the other side and people constantly try to outdo each other with material possessions and grand achievements, she held true to herself and the simple life. I never saw her express jealousy of others or waste time on stuff that didn’t matter. Her family, and caring for all of us, was all she needed. Her life was not without struggles but I never saw her cry for herself, not once.
She was always very hands on, right from when we were small. I remember her taking us everywhere and teaching us things; how to bake bread, how to tend to a garden, how to collect eggs from the chickens, how to sew. A very early memory that stands out to me; I woke up one morning on the farm to find two prematurely born lambs nestled in a cardboard box in the kitchen. She taught me how to feed them with bottles and keep them warm and why both were important. When they died despite our care and I asked where they were, she explained gently, but honestly, what had happened. She did not shield me from the truth, even though it would have been easy with how young I was; she saw it as a learning opportunity. Looking back on it now, she was a huge mentor for us. Even as we got older, if we showed even the slightest interest in anything she knew how to do, she was excited to show us whatever she could to help us learn.
Grandma was exceedingly thoughtful. She wove rugs to match every grandchild’s bedroom and always tried to make you put on scratchy knitted slippers the second you walked in her front door so you wouldn’t get cold. She was an incredible listener; during her first bout with cancer I brought Big Mac meals to the chemo lounge because she detested the hospital food. While we ate we looked at books from the community pile and pored over one with crafts made of dried flowers. I had remarked on how beautiful they were and at my next birthday several months later she gifted me with a book almost identical to the one I had admired that day. It was an old book and probably not easy to come by. When I came to visit her after she first got admitted, every staff member already knew all about me, from where I worked to what I had made her for dinner the last time she came over. She was always so proud and unconditionally loving, even when you did nothing noteworthy; the kind of pride that is so fierce it makes you blush a little bit.
Grandma had always been so robust and healthy, with a natural youthfulness about her. My grandparents have always stayed active, travelling all over and tending huge gardens together. To see her vibrancy fade away so suddenly was shocking and even now it still doesn’t feel real. Before she died I felt like the Grandma I knew was already gone and I was mourning her even before her death. It was a strange feeling. Even while sitting at her death bed with her, I’d still be imagining her doing dishes in her kitchen or weeding the garden in her cutoffs as if nothing had changed at all.
This loss comes not only with heartache but it brings up so many fears about the future, especially regarding the health of my mom. Cancer is such a big part of our history now and we have yet to find out if genetics play a role. All of that weighs on me heavily some days and it’s a rabbit hole that I try to avoid venturing down because nothing good can come of it. Throughout her battle my Grandma kept reminding us that she was fighter and at the end I made sure to tell her how brave she had been. Even though she did not beat the disease, it still did not win. Cancer isn’t stronger than our memories or the love we have for her.
I got to spend some time with Grandma the night before she died. She saw me and acknowledged me, although she could not speak by then. I got to hold her hand and touch her hair and kiss her cheek. I got to tell her I loved her one last time while she was still on Earth and it is an experience I will cherish forever. Many people do not get the chance to say a proper goodbye but I did, and I am so, so grateful.
Now it’s time to figure out how we can honor her, and help her legacy to live on. I’m going to keep making her famous rhubarb cake. I’m going to learn how to make quilts with my sisters. I’m going to listen to her favorite radio show on Sundays. I’m going to remember that my contributions to the world don’t always have to be loud and grand to make a difference. On hard days, I’m going to reflect on how she would have handled things, with great strength and a giving heart. As I get older and start to understand more of what goes into housekeeping and marriage (never mind what raising five children would entail!), I can’t help but feel in awe of her and how she lived her life. I’m so proud to have known her and to have been a part of it.