Top: Visiting from either Abbott or Mount Holyoke, my grandmother enjoys an innocent
night with granddad in the Beta house at Brown, 1951. Bottom: Honeymooners at 21.
Y'all know me, sometimes I just have to write. And I feel like this is a post 10 years in the making. This morning I woke up to my phone ringing. That's usually a bad sign right off the bat. It either means that I slept through my alarm (check) and/or it's bad news (also, check). Essentially, the same thing happened when my brother died (the sleeping through my alarm thing), except at that time, my mother was there to tell me in person instead of at the other end of a cell phone connection. Today, I preferred her tone of voice, which was strong and accepting as she told me her mother was gone. And I don't know why, but this time I relished the distance to recover on my own... (Maybe I am an adult after all?)
My grandmother's death early this morning was not tragic. It was not sudden. It's been on our radar since I was in college when we first learned that she—a newly minted chronic cougher—had been diagnosed with a degenerative lung disease called Pulmonary Fibrosis. As it runs its course, this mysterious, incurable and random disease causes scar tissue to build up in the lungs until (slowly, eventually) the exhausted person passes away. That's what happened this morning at 4:30am with my mom, her three younger sisters, and my grandfather gathered around Meem's bed at home. I'm sure that nearby you could find a half-finished New York Times crossword puzzle on a lucite clipboard, her shiny laptop, and a giant stack of books. This is how she ended her days, and I can't really be sad about that.
My Meem rocked a portable oxygen tank for many years, and the past few she was hooked up to one of two big, noisy compressors in my grandparents' home in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the beginning, it was an emotional battle to convince her to use a walker to save her strength, and an even bigger struggle to tell her that she could not safely drive a car with her constant light-headedness. Last year, she gave up going out for her weekly hair perm appointments. She stopped going to the grocery store and decided to forego lunches and dinners out at the club. She also reluctantly complied with our wishes and took to zipping around their house on a motorized scooter. When I came to visit, I'd sit at the kitchen island doing work, and she'd ride past waving like the Queen of England on parade, always on the way to her office to check emails and print things for my semi-blind, tech-inept grandfather. (Did I mention she knew how to use a computer before I did?)
Tragic? No, but it has not been easy. They argued a lot, my grandparents. My granddad has achy knees and hips, limited vision in both eyes, double hearing aids (he can thank that life-long duck hunting hobby of his for the near-deafness). Obviously I never asked, but I'm guessing that as a couple, they assumed he'd go first. My grandmother cooked. She planned. She sent us birthday cards and organized our giant family get-togethers. She faxed things for him. She emailed on his behalf. She printed the University of Virginia football and baseball schedules or news articles and left them on the kitchen counter with "the important parts" underlined or annotated. She ordered his clothes and decorated the house for the proper season. She made the home, literally.
Her sweetheart since around age 13 in Pennsylvania, Granddad did was he still does: He brought home the proverbial bacon, poured the Dewars (hers) and Grey Goose (his) promptly at 6pm, and removed shrimp cocktail from the plastic grocery store packaging to put it on good china for their enjoyment. Most importantly, he loved her dearly. As it became clear that this disease would kill her, they both got angry and controlling and annoyed at each other, neither one accepting but both passive-aggressively afraid. We started calling their house "The Bicker Barn." It didn't really become any less appealing, it just took some getting used to after years of their loving calls of: "MOOSE-ay!" and "HOT-say!" to each other across the house. (Nicknames are so weird.)
When I visited in May for my birthday, things were significantly different. Like my mom, I found both grandparents to be calm, strong and accepting. The last time I saw them together, they were sharing sections of the Sunday Times over coffee at her bedside.
It will be strange to visit without hearing her call to me from her bedroom or the back porch. Watching Wheel of Fortune will never be the same. I won't expect birthday or Christmas cards anymore, it's just not Granddad's thing. If he wants to say hi and ask how "Ralph Law-ren" is going, he'll pick up the phone while watching ESPN or Fox News on closed captioning. He'll be fine. He has been ready in his own impatient way. He's a people person. He has amazing friends, and of course he has all of us. My mom and her sisters have each other, and my cousins and I have the many holidays and vacations we all spent together at Virginia Beach, Wintergreen, the Greenbrier, and in Charlottesville at tailgates or paddling around their backyard swimming pool.
Most importantly, we all have the goofy, funny, behind-the-stuck-up-cocktail-party-scenes view of our grandparents as a couple: Two entirely self-made, traditionally successful, intelligent people unconsumed by "society" or expectation, but entirely in love with each other and stubbornly set on helping everyone around them to live happier lives. In this, I think they have succeeded by teaching us that truly hard work, considerate actions and strong relationships (romantic or otherwise) matter more than anything. I'm so thankful for them both and the legacy their love leaves for us.
An early summer morning. Crossword puzzles. A stack of books. Four adult daughters. A loving husband. And a quiet goodbye from soft bed in Virginia. Not a bad way to go, not at all. Miss you already, Meem.