My sophomore year of college I wrote an essay for the student newspaper about May 27, 2012, the day that I ran my last track meet ever as a senior in high school and also the day that my grandma lost her battle to brain cancer. In high school I had run the 400 meter hurdles, and the metaphor I went for was an obvious choice. I expounded on the parallels between my track career and my grandmother’s life, about obstacles, about triumph and failure, victory and defeat, the exhilaration of it all and of course the inevitable end. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but looking back, I don’t particularly like the column. It wasn’t anything profound–just the typical banalities about death wrapped in cheap symbolism.
I want to say something to mark the five years but I still don’t know if I have anything significant to say. I could go the usual route. I could talk about her devotion as a mother and grandmother, I could express my admiration for her marriage of 58 years, and I could talk about all the memories I have of her, from the breath mints she kept in a glass on the table to the time she called my house fretting over the Linkin Park lyrics I had posted to Facebook. (I’m pretty sure she thought the lyrics to “In the End” were indicative of a serious depression. I was just referring to my crush who had fallen for another man). I could talk about all of this, but the truth is I’m 23 years old, and I’m writing this as I sit in my parents’ basement eating leftover pizza and drinking a cup of coffee with too much cream. What do I know about life, never mind death? What can I possibly say to mark the anniversary of my grandma’s death that isn’t cliched and uninspired?
I think a lot of us know our grandparents more as embodiments of traits than we do as actual people. Grandmothers are typically doting and nurturing; grandfathers are the tough, no-nonsense types who busted their asses their entire lives and never took a handout. I knew my grandma, sure, but I knew her in the way that a grandson does. I knew her as a constant presence at Christmas, a phone call on Thursday nights an hour before Survivor started that I never wanted to answer. When she passed, I lost Nanny, but the world lost a mother, a sister, a wife and a friend–they lost Mary. And I realize that loss was much, much harder for them.
The week she passed was the hardest of my life. I cried twice. At the wake, when my maternal grandma was pushed into the funeral home, and in church as my dad gave the eulogy. People talk about the pain of saying goodbye to someone you love but they rarely talk about the pain of seeing those you love break down, and the powerlessness you feel in that moment. For me that was the hardest part. It was difficult accepting my grandma was gone but I understood that she was no longer suffering, that the brain tumor that had twisted her into someone barely recognizable could no longer harm her. It was harder accepting that these goodbyes are a part of life, that I would have to do this again and again and again, that I would lose people as a best friend, as a son, and possibly as a husband. It seems impossible.
I’ll leave the account of my grandma’s life to those who had more time with her than I did. I only knew her for the last quarter of her life, and for much of that I was a child. But speaking as a grandson, I can attest to the overwhelming sense of love. It’s crazy to me that a person can love you so much, that she was so invested in me. Every moment of my life mattered to my grandma. From the early dirty diaper days to self-absorbed high school nights of Linkin Park lyrics, she cared.
I won’t end this with “Tell somebody you love them before it’s too late” or “Live every day like it’s your last.” But I will say this: Appreciate it. Notice it. Even on the days when it feels like nobody cares, recognize the people who support you one hundred percent. They’re the people who make life worth living.
Love switches bodies