In March 1973, my grandmother died. For awhile before she died, she lived with us, sleeping on a sofa in the rec room in our basement, and my brother and I used to go “visit” her there. My grandparents lived in Nanticoke, too far for Nanny to travel for all the appointments she needed, so she stayed with us. I remember sitting with her, reading the cards she’d received, looking at the little gifts her friends had sent; hard candies in a little round tin, rose-scented hand cream. I remember the feel of her quilted dressing gown, too, but not much else. After she’d been with us awhile, she went into the hospital, and we didn’t see her. Kids weren’t really welcome in hospitals back then, and I don’t think my mother liked the idea of us seeing her so sick. I was six, my brother five.
I have a vague recollection of the day she died: there was a phone call and then my parents were bringing my brother and I into the living room where we all sat together on the sofa and they hugged and hugged us. I don’t remember being sad. I suspect I was, but at six, nothing seems permanent, and Nanny had been gone for some time by that point.
When I was in my mid-twenties my Mum and I were talking about Nanny and she mentioned that the day after she died, she and my Dad took us to the carnival that came to the Centre Mall every March Break. I was shocked, how could you do that when Nanny had just died! What was wrong with Michael and me, that we still wanted to go to a carnival?! Because we had promised we would take you, because life goes on, because you were both too young to understand grief, to comprehend that level of loss, to understand what it all meant, she told me.
On October 19, 2003, my Mum and I left the hospital early in the morning and after I took her home and we made some initial arrangements, I drove home to tell John and the boys that my Dad had died. John met me at the door, the boys – Charles almost six, Max, three – were playing in the living room.
Charles knew something was up by the look on my face and he came right over to me. I sat down on the floor and told them I needed to tell them that Grandpa had died that morning and the rest of the conversation went something like this:
Charles: Grandpa died???
Me: Yes, honey.
Charles: Max! Bad news! Grandpa’s dead!
Max, looking up from whatever he was playing with: What? Grandpa’s dead? Oh no!
Charles: Can we watch Power Rangers?
Me: Of course, sweetie.
The first time I told the boys that story, they were horrified for the same reasons I was horrified by the carnival story. We were monsters, they said. Not at all, I told them. Because life goes on, because you were both too young to understand grief, to comprehend that level of loss, to understand what it all meant.
For the boys and their Grandpa and for me and my Nanny, the grief came later, once we could better understand loss. We grieved (and we still do grieve) not just for the person we loved, but for the time we never had with them, for what was taken away from us, for the unfairness of it all.
I used to think that the ache would disappear, that the hurt would fade but seventeen years later I’ve learned that grief is a journey without a real destination. Sometimes the road ahead is calm and smooth and other times it’s a goddamned wild ride, but you’re always on it.
So today, in my melancholy state of reminiscing and remembering and grieving, I think of how much my Dad my dad has missed in seventeen years. I think of how utterly unfair that he died so young – 68, just 15 years older than I am now. I alternate between rage and sadness, which is how grief often is, but in the midst of this I also smile to think how much he would have laughed to hear Charles announcing Bad news! Grandpa’s dead! and immediately segueing into the Power Rangers. Because really, what else needed to be said?
Life goes on, indeed.