It was a spring day after a cold New England winter. My grandmother and grandfather had returned to their Connecticut home after months being away in a warmer climate. My grandmother, who we called JJ or J, was busying herself around the house the way she often did. My grandfather was working furiously in his garage, the way he often did. J noticed her favorite flower, the forsythia, was in bloom. She walked down a little path outside of her condominium and took a little sprig off the blooming plant. It was not uncommon to see J with a flower she had stumbled across tucked into her front pocket. Before that spring day it was hard not to think of J when I saw forsythia, and after that day it is impossible not to recall her whenever I see this spring flower. J stepped inside to put her flower on display, and then walked outside again through the back sliding door. She pushed the sliding door open and descended the two concrete steps. They were barely six inches off the ground. J missed a step and lost her balance. She fell and the back of her head struck the top step. She instantly sustained a massive head injury. She picked herself up and walked towards my grandfather in the garage. She spoke to him with blood pouring out of her, over her face and body; telling her husband that she had fallen. My grandfather fell into sheer panic. He immediately called for an ambulance. In the interim minutes before the ambulance’s arrival, my grandmother lost her ability to speak. I do not know what transpired here during those horrific minutes for a couple that had been married for 65 years. I only know that it must have been the most awful thing they both had ever experienced.
I was working my regular Friday evening shift at the restaurant when I received a call from my mother informing me that J had fallen. My mom was nonchalant and requested that I stop by to check on my grandmother to support my grandfather because I was the closest to the hospital. I expected that my grandmother had a broken hip or needed a few stitches. My mother made this request of me because she lived five hours away. I left the restaurant with the anticipation of returning shortly before the busy rush. I walked into the emergency room and was approached by the hospital staff almost immediately. They referred to me as the granddaughter. I remember hearing: “the granddaughter is here. Have her come back.” I was led by a nurse that spoke to me quickly. “Where is your mother? Can she come here? You grandmother is seriously hurt. Your grandmother is going to die...” As those words left her mouth, I entered the treatment area. My grandfather was sobbing like a small child. He was coiled up in a chair near my grandmother. My grandmother was lying still in her hospital bed, but she was awake. Her head was bandaged with blood seeping through. I stood in the doorway. My grandfather stood up and clung to me in fear. He continued to cry. I looked at my grandmother and I felt like I could not breathe. These were my two pillars; they were the strongest unit I had ever known, and had been my anchors of support for my entire life. I can’t describe in words what J was to me. My grandparents were a constant in my unstable life. I miss my grandmother so intensely at times. I miss her presence, her humor, and her love. I still pick up the phone to call her, especially when I am a feeling lost and alone. I stood there, under that florescent light, looking upon my grandmother and facing the reality of her mortality. I ran outside the room and called the restaurant to speak to my boss. I was in shock. I repeated: “Oh my God, oh my god. This is so bad. I can't do this. There is blood. She is so bad..." He spoke calmly though my incoherent pleas: “They need you Heather. You are the only one there. Go back in. You have to do this. You can do this. They need you.”
I paced in the parking lot, stalling, trying to shake the image that was just put before me. I went back in. I sat alongside my grandmother, taking her hand in mine. I knew she was uncomfortable with me seeing her like this. My grandfather would not stop talking, and after a while, it became irritating to me. I felt like he was making her life about him. I fought off my own sadness, fear and disbelief as I sat on the edge of the hospital bed. I remember the sensation of feeling her skin. It was the first time I had held her hand since I was a young child. She grabbed my hand tightly and her eyes met mine. She spoke to me only through her touch and in her grandmotherly way. I wore a ring. It was silver with a large oval black stone. She spun it around on my finger and fidgeted with it. She had this habit with fiddling with objects. I carry on this trait of hers to this day.
I spoke calmly and intentionally: “Hi J. I love you so much. You are going to be okay, J. Don't worry about Grandpa. He will be fine.” I told her about my ring: where I bought it, what I did that day, what I was going to do tomorrow, and how long it had been since I had a cigarette. I continued talking, storytelling, attempting to achieve some normalcy for several hours. I was called out of the room by a nurse. She was on the phone with my mother, who had been in some denial. The nurse said to me: “You mom is not hearing me. You need to tell her she needs to come here now. Your grandmother is going to die. There is nothing we can do for her. You need to tell your family to get here as soon as possible.”
I stayed with J for a number of hours until they admitted her into the hospital. They said it could be a matter of hours or even days before she died, but that her level of consciousness would drastically decrease. The only thing they could do was make her comfortable as possible. One by one my family arrived; each one going through the same grieving. They said the same things to my beloved grandmother: a declaration of their love. We were all turned inside out, and unfortunately, these terrifying moments ravaged our family for years to come. My grandfather and my mother did not leave my grandmother’s side for five days. They grew weary and lethargic. After the first forty-eight hours of visiting and grieving, J became unconscious. I remember her last moments of consciousness. While the priest from her church read her the last rights, J became noticeably agitated. This led me to believe that J never fully understood how devastating her injuries were. On the fifth night at the hospital, J left us. I entered the dark room to the eerie sound of her breathing heavy. I never thought that the sound of breathing could sound like death. She was in a comatose state. My sisters and I left that evening and stood outside in the hospital parking lot. We stood out in that dark lot, and the wind picked up. We looked towards the eleventh floor, and saw a shadow move across the window of my grandmother’s room. It was our mother. The wind picked up. It was a warm spring wind, and we heard the night birds calling out. The birds grew louder, almost as if they were yelling, and they flew over our heads in a peculiar manner. We knew it was our JJ saying goodbye to her beloved grandchildren. She would refer to us as her chickadees. We stood still in that moment, knowing she was leaving us. We lingered there, hugging each other, longing to reach our mother in that darkened room. The next morning J took her last breath.
It was around noon and I was there in the hall outside her room as I had been in the beginning, five day earlier. J finally stopped breathing; the silence was deafening in the air. My grandfather called out for his daughter. My mother stood outside of the room in the hallway, she asked him for a moment to compose herself before returning. She knew that her mom had moved on. My grandfather became infuriated at the idea of waiting even a minute for my mother and then something snapped in my tenacious grandfather. He had always been a controlling, angry man. I believe that J kept him together, and kept him gracious. They pretended that he was not angry man. She kept him reined in, and in the moment she was gone, he flew out of control. My grandfather tried to instill a sense of responsibility in us; yet his standards were out of reach. He promised us love; yet it was always conditional. He promised forgiveness; yet he always reminded you what you did. J constantly softened the rough edges of my old Italian grandfather. When my mother denied her father in that one moment, he held this against her. He acted rashly, and had no one to keep him in check. He never spoke to his daughter again.
What transpired over the next three years surprised everyone. We let my grandfather mourn, and assumed that his anger would subside. Instead, he became angrier. He slipped farther away, and saw his family less and less. My grandfather went to the cemetery every day. As I write this, I try to find compassion for him. I believe more than ever that the accident and his sense of loss and pain after it was the worst thing my grandfather had ever experienced. As I have gotten older, I have finally started to see my parents and grandparents as separate human beings. As I have let go of my need for them, I have stopped seeing them through a child’s eye.
I would call my grandfather, and he would sob uncontrollably over the phone. He would say he wanted to die, but then his tears would quickly turn to venom and he would blame my mother, my sibling and eventually me for his pain, his life, and what we never understood. The last time I spoke to my grandfather was a couple of years before he died. We spoke over the telephone, and I found myself almost immediately defending my mother to him, and asking him to just be my grandfather again. He wanted everyone to agree with him, and to share his anger. I did get angry, but I was not angry with him, I was angry at him. As my voice grew louder, he threatened to write me out of his will. I told him that if that was what he wished, then so be it. I said that his money was not worth the love that I wish he saw I had for him; the love I wished he would return to me. It was not worth the pain he was caused my mother and family. His money would most definitely not bring my grandmother back.
Months went by, and one by one each of us were shut out, except for those who were strong enough to ignore his rants and rage. We were written out of his will. It had been the proverbial carrot that had been dangled in front of us for through our childhoods. My grandfather had claimed he would always take care of my siblings and me. His anger towards all of us led him to default on those promises. They became false promises. In the end, my grandfather left me nothing monetary-wise in his will; however, he did leave me a dozen things to learn, to grow from and to not be afraid of.
After three years of angry living, seclusion and not moving one thing of my grandmother’s since she had died, my grandfather was diagnosed with stage four terminal lung cancer. He was told he had three to six months to live. We were certain that this would somehow change our ninety-two year old grandfather. When someone is told they are going to die, they have months to make things right, or, at the very least, to make peace with others. They have a chance to give and receive love, and, most importantly, to forgive and be forgiven. None of these things took place. My grandfather continued to isolate himself, except for continuing contact with my brother who he made the executor of the estate. My grandfather’s possessions not only controlled his life when he was alive, but they dictated his life at the time of his death. My sister took care of my grandfather for a long period of time. I am not sure how she was able to tolerate his conduct. I am certain she did it out of love, and perhaps a little guilt. In the end, my brother was the only person who my grandfather put in charge.Despite the countless hours my sister spent by his side. This may have been a generational thing; my patriarchal grandfather would only want a man to handle his affairs at the end of his life. I went to his home a month before he died. I brought my son along, feeling certain that he would open the door once he saw his then eight year old great-grandson, and his granddaughter. I had phoned him several times, and each time he hung up on me. We knocked on the door and he slowly opened it. The room was dark and damp behind him. His face was sunken, and he clutched the layer clothes around his frail and thin body. He looked into my eyes. I looked at him and said: “Hi Gramp, it’s me and Elijah. We just want to come in and tell you we love you grandpa. Please.” As the words left my mouth, those once sparkling blue eyes I had looked into my entire life looked back at me. They were dull, the whites around them were gray, and the life behind them was dead. He looked coldly at me and said: “Go away.” His voice crackled with anger and bitterness. He slammed the door in our faces.
My Grandfather moved in with my Aunt, who was a nurse in a nearby town. She made a temporary hospital room for him in her home. As his death grew closer, my mother and I tried to see him several times. He refused, and on a snowy, freezing, mid-January day, he died. I will always remember the contrast of the two funerals. J’s funeral was on a spring day in April. She had requested the week before her death to have a bagpiper from her church play at her funeral. The bagpiper started amid a long field to the left of her grave site. He slowly marched and played, walking towards the hole in the ground. As she was lowered into the hole, he then veered off and walked off into the distance, the ominous drone of the pipes echoing for several minutes. My grandfather’s burial, it was something else. It was frigid, grey and unsettling.
I drove home from his funeral, and as I pulled into the frozen driveway, my car literally broke in half; it was as if the car itself embodied all the pain and torment that I was feeling. The front axle made a loud crack. Years earlier, my grandfather had made the observation that I had such bad luck with cars. I would often go to them to ask for help with yet another car repair bill. My grandfather said: “Heather, when we go, our car is yours.” My grandfather gave his car away a few days before he died.
I have worked hard at sorting through the emotional mess that my grandfather has bestowed upon me. I have tried to forgive him and have resisted the urge to internalize it all the way I do. When I stand in line with my food stamp card, when I drive my undependable car, when I struggle as waitress who can’t afford to go back to school, when I think about all the instability in my life because of how I barely get by, I think of my grandfather. There I am, standing in line at the Stop and Shop grocery store, asking myself: “Why didn't you love me? Why did you trick me? And why the hell could you not see how hard my life is?”
My grandfather’s rejection incited many of my own demons. I do battle with them every day. Unfortunately, my grandfather’s legacy of disenfranchisement has carried over to my brother. He has turned his back to his family, especially to his mother. He keeps his children away from their grandmother. I am uncertain of his motivations, whether he is driven by money or resentment or some other force. I only know that he is a long way from home. I try and step out of the box and see him as something separate: not as my brother, but as some other person who may be in tremendous pain, and, like my grandfather, cannot handle it.
On the 24th of April, it will be the anniversary of the death of my grandmother. In over four years I have not been to the place where my grandmother died, the place that she called home. It was a place that two of the most important people in my life came to their deaths. Tomorrow, their four grandchildren will re-enter the house. The house has been closed up for over a year. The home that was once full of life and love now sits still in the dark and damp. The four grandchildren were left the contents of this house. We will find pictures of ninety years of life, visions, and memories. I have such an intense recollection that it sometimes frightens me. My memory sometimes seems to operate separately from me; it is overpowering, and something that I cannot control. I can go back to every sound, smell, sight, and feeling in a split-second from so many moments in my life. This ability will make tomorrow’s visit very hard for me.
I have tried hard to not get smothered by any of the money issues of my grandparents’ estate. I never fought to get money from the estate, to find out about the car or to get “stuff.” It is not who I am, nor do I have the drive for it. I do need to find some closure. I know I need to be stronger than my brother and grandfather. I need to learn to contain my emotions, to not react and not to lash out. I hope to find something of my grandmother’s that I gave to her, something that I never knew that she held dear. I want to try to reconcile with my grandfather, to continue to learn to forgive him and to let go of both of my grandparents. I want to forgive my brother and accept others people in all of their sadness and the choices they make in their lives.
I will go to the house with my eyes closed, my heart open and my soul in tack. How I will leave I am uncertain. I may be heavy, filled with resentment, or feeling hurt and loss. On my way out, I will walk down the path that my grandmother walked down four years ago. I will pick a sprig of forsythia and I will leave it on my grandfather’s grave.