My grandmother passed away last year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Today, sort of, but not really because it was actually November 23rd. But I know that it will not be that exact date that is significant to me. I will always think of it as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. She had had a stroke three days earlier, on my grandfather’s birthday.
Most of my family was actually relieved by her passing. It is a strange thing about life, that we spend so much of it warding off death, but then there can come a time and a circumstance when death becomes a relief. My grandmother was way up in years, and had crippling dementia, living in the skilled nursing section of an assisted-living facility, hours from the nearest relative.
We went to visit there for Thanksgiving once, years ago, and it was by far the most depressing holiday experience I can recall. I don’t know how to fully articulate what it was that was so upsetting. All I can really say is that few things are more sad to me than being old and alone.
It is only in retrospect that I have been able to consider that perhaps you are not lonely when you can’t remember you’re alone. And perhaps the situation as it was was the best if could be for my grandmother. The people there cared for her well, and beyond that, they adored her for who she was in the present, without the heavy burden of the past between them.
But at the time, all I could see was a starkly depressing example of you reap what you sow. My grandmother was a terrible mother, and so it would follow that none of her children would want to care for her, or even be near her often.
For all of my adult life, I have accepted this idea of my grandmother, and I am not really challenging that now. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s actually debatable. But it is only recently, and mostly through conversation with my father’s youngest sister, that I have opened myself to the complexity of her situation. As my aunt puts it, there was not a lot of support for her being a good mother.
My grandparents first child was a son, named after his father. He died at the age of four, from complications following an appendectomy. The family has never recovered.
My aunt worked for years in pediatric hospice. Her mother, already stricken with dementia, would frequently ask her what it was that she did again. And whenever my aunt would tell her, my grandmother would seek clarification–so you help people whose children are dying? Then she would inevitably pause, and say something like, wow, that would have been so helpful.
This story chokes my heart every time I think of it. It makes me think of her, not as I knew her, as a grandmother, but decades before, as a young woman, a young mother. It speaks of her pain, a pain that rippled outward, spreading like a virus to her five surviving children, who even to this day, have not all been able to reconcile with each other.
My grandmother was dealt the greatest sorrow a woman can know, and she had no grief counseling, no support group, no hospice worker. She was not even allowed to speak her child’s name, because it conflicted with the stoicism my grandfather used to deal with his own grief. This is a hurt I cannot fathom.
People need help finding their way out of devastation. When that help does not come, some sort of poison is always created. This is not a justification for anything, but it is a part of the family history that cannot be ignored.
Ironically, one of the most enjoyable nights I ever spent with my grandmother was on that same depressing holiday vacation, after all the holiday business was over, and most of the family had left. We went out to dinner with my sister, an aunt, and a cousin and her daughters. There were four generations having girl talk, and it was a a rare and special moment.
Beyond that, I do not have many tender memories of my grandmother. She used to take my sister and I to the movies, and I remember being impressed as a child that she could actually knit a whole sweater. She sent checks on my birthday. She never spelled my name right. She was a fierce bridge player, and as I have heard from other people, a very loyal friend.
And if something was good, to her, it was just maaaarvelous. Thinking of that always makes me smile. So that is what I will choose to think about when I remember her on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.