My grandmother passed away in 2002, just a few months after my grandfather died. They were one of those couples married for nearly 60 years, and for one to be gone meant the other would follow shortly behind. Even though they had their troubles through the years, and even though my grandmother was quick to roll her eyes at him, he took great care of her in their declining years. She had a degenerative disease called myasthenia gravis, which slowly robbed her of strength and muscle control. Walking became nearly impossible. Holding her eyes open was a chore.
While I had a deep, enduring bond with my grandfather, one I've written about before, I also had one with my grandmother, though maybe less obvious. While my mom worked 12 hours a day in Dallas, I stayed with my grandparents until I started school. My grandmother was a serious woman who could sneak in a sarcastic one-liner so fast it would knock you flat with laughter. Of my grandparents, she was the disciplinarian, quick to nip bad behavior in the bud with a lightning-fast flick of a fly swatter. No harm done, but it made an impression. She was also a busybody...always cooking, cleaning, tending, crocheting, gardening, or reading. I come from a long line of readers, even if my matriarchs typically appreciate non-fiction and biography more than fiction.
She struggled in the final months of her life...in and out of the hospital with respiratory distress because her muscles were weakening, breathing was becoming much harder. The night she died none of us were with her in the hospital. It was just another day. She had been blowing me kisses the day before, mouthing words and winking. After my mother left the hospital for the night, she passed away quietly, alone. That's the way she would've wanted it. No fuss. Just finality. I remember how stunningly beautiful she looked. As if her face was illuminated. No more pain and struggle.
As we were preparing her funeral services, we found her book of questions and the answers she provided. My private, don't-focus-on-me, grandmother actually took the time to answer questions about life growing up, her favorite flower, her scads of siblings, how she learned about sex. That last one was a hoot. Something to the effect of...
"Janie Franklin told me all about sex. I just couldn't believe she was telling me the truth and people actually did that."There's not much to do in the days leading up to a funeral once the decisions are made. We spent lots of time sitting at the kitchen table talking with visitors, convening with family, and accepting all the food that came through the door from neighbors and long-time friends. That little book of questions made us laugh when we passed it around and poured over her responses. It made us smile and appreciate her all the more. We learned things we never knew...things she probably thought were unimportant but that made our hearts ache while we laughed.
I never really thought my grandmother would take the time to fill in that little book. I remembered her receiving it...a Christmas gift, I think...but I never saw it again. That's because she had stashed it away with a little bit of her personality and wonderfulness tucked inside for us to find...and to cherish. It is truly the greatest book she ever shared.
In the years since, I've gifted a similar book to my own mother in hopes that she will share things I've never learned. And I plan to do the same for my own family. There's no way to measure the opportunity to revisit someone we've lost and bask in their memories, to learn what remained unsaid.
If you're interested in seeing what kind of book I'm talking about, it was something like this. (Not an affiliate link or anything.)