Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Life Goes On

Life goes on, dear readers. It must. Although part of me feels like life should stop, at least for awhile, it’s good that it doesn’t. It’s good to have to put on a party dress, go to a wedding, focus on something else for awhile. I still miss Grandmom every day. I still have moments that steal my breath, like when I came across her name in the contacts list of my phone. I know I’ll keep having moments like that, I know they will hurt. I also know some things I can do to help. Here is a partial list:

Working on the novel. After a two week hiatus from the novel, I returned to it. Reading about the De-da character in my book, who is mostly based on my Grandmom, is difficult. De-de is very ill in the book and Laura has to say goodbye to him and that all hit a little too close to home these past few weeks. So I moved on to other parts of the book, and happily worked on them, feeling the satisfaction I always get from writing.

Looking at art. Carl and I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I was delighted to discover an entire wing I never remember exploring before. It was Disney-esque in its recreation of a medieval French monastery, an Indian temple, a Japanese tea house, transporting us to different times and places.

Booking travel plans. My aunt, uncle, and cousin invited me to join them on a Mediterranean cruise, and after some hesitation and guilt about taking a fabulous vacation without Carl, my loving and generous husband gave me the cruise as a birthday gift. I felt that elation I get from the possibility of new places, of adventure.

Surfing. I went surfing last weekend, which helps for the reasons it always helps—keeps me in the moment, gets me out of my head, into my body, into nature. And last weekend I had one of those magical surfing moments when I saw dolphins playing nearby as I sat on my board. Dolphins are one of the things that make me know that God is with me.

Writing. I have some new writing projects, an article idea I’m developing and trying to sell, some job opportunities I’m pursuing, all of which helps.

Unpacking Grandmom’s things. I found at least temporary homes for all of Grandmom’s things in my house. The more I use them, the less it stings to see them. Someday I know it will make me happy to see them, even if I’m not quite there yet.

Exercising. Most helpful is the hip-hop dance class I’ve started attending at the gym, which is great fun.

Seeing Grandmom. For a year now I’ve been driving Grandmom’s 1996 Cadillac Catera. It was one of the most extravagant things she ever bought for herself, and she was so pleased to give it to me. I’ve always felt close to her riding in it, and now that she’s gone, sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I can almost see her sitting shotgun, journeying with me, just as she always did, as she always will.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Things Left Behind

Last Thursday I went to Grandmom's house for the first time since she died. It was difficult to walk into her house knowing she wouldn’t be there, that she would never be there again. But being there helped me to realize that she’s really gone, because there is no way I would be rifling through her dresser or her closet if she were alive. Even still I felt a little weird about it.

But I am grateful that I could bring some of her things home with me—a Waterford crystal vase, a gravy boat and butter dish, some baking tins, cloth napkins, pretty kitchen towels. It felt appropriate to fill in the gaps in my kitchen with things from Grandmom’s, first because she would never want anything to go to waste, and second, because we shared a love of cooking and entertaining. I think wherever she is, she’s tickled that I have her rolling pin, muffin tins, apron and gravy ladle. Best of all I found a cookbook that was obviously well-used and loved, published in the year after she was married. I like to imagine her as a young bride, trying new recipes, learning to cook as I have, from a book.

It stung a little to find so many gifts I'd given her. The cross I had brought back from El Salvador hung right over her kitchen sink, the napkin holder from Mexico sat on the table. I was glad to see evidence of how much I loved her in her house, pleased to see that she cherished my gifts, but also saddened. I didn't want to take them, because they belong with her, but since they can't be with Grandmom, I packed them up and found places for them in my house, along with the shamrock plant I had brought her for St. Patrick’s Day this year.

The hardest moment was finding the birthday card she had already bought for me. Of course she would have bought my card a month in advance. She hadn’t signed it yet, but she was never one for writing long messages, rather selected a card to speak for her. It's yellow with white flowers and glittery touches. In the center of the front is a picture of a yellow rose, and the message: “For a wonderful granddaughter: watching you grow has been like watching a flower blossom. With every year, you’ve changed in so many beautiful ways.” The inside continues, “This just comes to let you know that one of the best things in life is and always will be having a granddaughter like you to be grateful for, to be proud of, to love.”

Bitter bittersweet, these posthumous love messages.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Post Mortem*

After writing my last post I went back to the hospital. There was just nowhere else for me to be. So I sat with Grandmom, my mom, her brother Mart, his wife Marian and their cousin Dottie. We stroked Grandmom’s hair, we held her hands, kissed her face. We talked to her, we reminisced, we ate chicken salad and chocolate cake. At 7:00, I put Jeopardy on the TV, for Grandmom, even though none of us was watching it. Around 8:30, my mom and I left. Grandmom’s vitals hadn’t changed much in the hours we had been there. We knew the end was near, but no one knew when it would happen. She died within minutes of us leaving.

A song just came on my ipod with the lyrics, “When your mind’s made up, there’s no point trying to change it.” I’m smiling because this describes Grandmom perfectly, even in dying. She decided she was ready to die, and she did. Amazing, the will she had. This, too, I’ve inherited from her.

I had some happy events over the weekend, beautiful distractions from grief. I had a house full of some of my favorite people on Saturday, who showed up with food and flowers and love and children and even a tiny Corgi puppy to play with Nalu. Then yesterday, we had a wedding shower for my brother’s fiancĂ©e, Karen. Helping to plan for that, prepare, shop, set up, host, participate, and clean up were all good things to do this week. I wore Grandmom’s pearls, the ones she told me she wanted me to have during our last talk, and I touched them a lot. When the bride opened a gift from Grandmom, I wanted to scream and cry, but I didn’t. I sneaked a look at the card, just to see if it was her handwriting—it was—but I swallowed my grief. Instead I focused on making the bride feel special, loved, and welcomed to our family, because that’s what Grandmom would want.

Tomorrow is the funeral. I’m looking forward to the gathering of family and friends, the shared memories of this amazing woman. My in-laws are coming tonight, and I am grateful for that, another happy distraction. Every day, hundreds of times, I’m grateful for Nalu, my joyful little puppy. I’m grateful for my large and supportive family, and especially for my cousin Julie, who has always been more like a sister. I’m grateful for my Grandmom Owsik, who is not only still living and healthy, but an almost daily part of my life, living as she does just down the street from me. I’m grateful for upcoming weddings and births, for friends and their babies, for the many emails, messages, prayers and phone calls.

I understand now the usefulness of outward symbols of mourning, like wearing black for a year. I wish I had a sign that told people, “I’m a little fragile right now, not quite myself.” Since I don’t, I improvised, spending four hours and a king’s ransom at the beauty salon on Friday to make myself blonde. It was something kind to do for myself, and also a way to manifest physically how different I feel inwardly. And like acting your way into better thinking, I find that I can look my way into better feeling. I may not feel light-hearted and summery, but looking it brings me closer.

*Dark humor is part of the Irish heritage handed down to me from Grandmom.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


My Grandmom is lying in a hospital bed, 10 miles from here, dying.

I hate typing that sentence. I hate that it’s true. Even today, all evidence to the contrary I hope it’s not. She’s fought off so many previous illnesses, isn’t it possible she could pull out of this? Possible perhaps, but unlikely.

Last Friday, when it seemed like just another hospital stay, I visited with her. We had an hour of girl talk. I showed her pictures of Nalu, and all the babies in my life, and we chatted about the weddings coming up this summer and the showers, and all the other news I had for her. She looked great, had plenty of energy, seemed optimistic. Right before I left she took out her dentures and I had a sense of foreboding. Her face collapsed in that hollow old person way. She looked vulnerable in a way I’d never seen before and I didn’t like. But I shook it off as a momentary thing. She was ill, but this wasn’t it.

Unfortunately things took a bad turn over the weekend. Her breathing got increasingly difficult, and she said she was ready to go home. Not to her condo in Media, but to God. When my dad broke this news to me on Monday, over a bad cell phone connection, I was shocked. “No, I just saw Grandmom,” I said. “She was fine. She was planning on coming to the wedding shower on Sunday, to the shore this summer, to Richie’s wedding in August.” I thought it must be some terrible mistake. But slowly the news penetrated. When my mom said that if I wanted to say goodbye to Grandmom I should go the next day, I knew this time was different. No one had ever said that before.

I cried and cried. Nalu did her best to cheer me up, acting goofy and mischievous, but even as she leapt and spun, fighting with her stuffed monkey, the tears streamed down my face. I was not ready to lose Grandmom. I didn’t care that she’s 92 and that she’s ill and that I’ve had her for 33 beautiful years, I still was not ready.

And how could I say goodbye? What could I possibly say? I was really scared. Right until I walked into the hospital room to find my Grandmom alone. And then it was just me and Grandmom, just as we’d always been. I told her everything that was in my heart—that I didn’t want her to die, but that I understood that it might be her time; that at least I knew she’d be with my Grandpop, with her sisters and her beloved nieces who had left us too soon. I held her hand, and she held mine, transmitting warmth and strength to me right through her skin, a love transfusion.

I told her I was grateful to have inherited her Irish charm, and her stubbornness. I recalled for her that she had taught me the word stubborn when I was girl, having called me it when I was misbehaving. Though I understood that she was frustrated, I still had to ask, “What does stubborn mean?” We laughed at the memory and she told me, “Some stubbornness is good. It will help you in life—help you to make the right choices and stick with them.”

I thanked her for writing down her recipes for me, for teaching me how to make her classic Sunday roast beef dinner complete with homemade gravy. I thanked her for her mother’s serving platter that she gifted to me, and the teapot that her mother-in-law had given her when she’d gotten married. I told her how I cherished the memories of when we were two single girls together, sharing rooms in Ocean City and in Ireland. I told her how I treasured our times together in Media, going to mass and coffee with her and her girlfriends. I thanked her for being a great example to me of how to be a feisty lady and a kind lady and a compassionate lady.

And after I told her everything I had to say and listened to everything she had to say, we just sat together, holding hands. A few times I looked up at the TV, which was on without sound, and saw professional wrestling, which just adding to the surreal feeling. Grandmom is dying and WWE is on TV.

I went back to see Grandmom with Carl last night, and she was in a morphine fog, still with us, but not completely, on her way out of this world. I still hate it. I still don’t want to lose her. But I know that I loved her as best I could, that she knows what she means to me, that I showed her every chance I had, and that is an amazing comfort.

I’m holding on to gratitude like it’s my life jacket. I don’t want to lose her, but how amazing that I’ve had her for 33 years, that we’ve been so close, that she’s taught me so much, that I was able to say goodbye. These are gifts and I will suck all the sweetness I can from them, to temper the bitterness.

Good night and God bless you, Grandmom.