Grief swirled around me like the dense gray fog that had rolled in on Monday morning. I sat down on the moist earth, grass browned from the frigid Chicago winter, and talked to my grandmother's grave.
"I'm here," I told her, "I may have been gone physically but my heart never left". Mary and Bernadine, my grandmothers who stayed behind in the western Chicago suburbs as we pulled the Uhaul on to the highway, bound for Arizona in 1981, are still inhabiting my soul.
I was approaching my sixth birthday when I lost the first one, quick and painful, to a heart attack. I have spent years as an Emergency Room nurse now, trying fervently to prevent others from feeling the sharp sting of sudden death, like I had when I was pigtailed and carefree, making my way through kindergarten. That sting has subsided some, like I'd doused it in lidocaine, but the hurt of loss at that age isn't curable. Time is simply a patch placed carefully over the wound, shrouding and protecting it until it's not quite so raw. That is, until you can function as a grown human, a deep fear of death attaching itself strongly to your ribcage, to be drug around silently and then reappearing with each new loss or trauma, clawing at you from the inside.
I lost the second at the age of 40. Less than a year ago. So many more years of phone calls and letters, more kisses and stories and love to share. I can't say that, at this age, that it stung any less. The loss of her is fresh, open, tangled up with guilt and not being able to see her as much as I'd have liked. Not able to care for her in her last years, being the only nurse in the family, eats at me. She was 1,800 miles away. It blessed my soul that she knew the joy of a new generation; I recall the smile and the outstretched arms when, in 2004, she enveloped her first great-grandbaby, my sweet boy, into her arms. Later, two great-granddaughters would be introduced, and just last year, another great-grandson. Generations that existed because of her.
Back in Chicago this weekend, I was stricken by grief, suddenly, violently. It took my breath away. The last time in town, last June, we buried my grandmother. The familiarity of my surroundings pricked at my heart. I couldn't go see her. The goodbyes were done. I couldn't go to my other grandmother's grave, it is several hours away in southern Illinois. And yet, my roots are dug deep here. 35 years in Arizona, but my debut into the world was HERE. My first memories, being pulled by my Dad on my sled down the hill at the end of our street, the sloped back yard at one set of grandparents' house, where I picked little daisies and twirled in my hula skirt in the scorching and humid summers; the broad garden in my other grandparents' yard, now withered and grown over, where I picked cucumbers, rinsed them in the hose and enjoyed their crispness standing there in the grass.
So much life has happened since those years, rolling by in a blink, packing experiences and joys and hurts one on top of another and landing here, nearly 40 years later. The buildings remain, the people don't. Time has stolen them and returned them to the earth, me sure to follow.
I want to talk to my grandmothers. I want to ask them how they felt at this age; watching their babies grow and make their own choices, how their physical bodies wound down and how they felt about life; did they feel like they missed anything? Did they have unfulfilled dreams? Did Gram maybe want to be a physician and not a stay at home Mom all those years? Did Nana want to run more restaurants and be a businesswoman? Did they wish they had had better opportunities? Did they have regrets? I'm sure that I'll have the answers some day, but by then, I'll have moved on beyond the earth; I'll maybe have little granddaughters wondering who I was, what I thought, what it was like to raise their parents.
I'm thankful that I was able to go to my grandmother's house, talk to my uncle, pick up pictures that my grandmother had kept; of me, my Dad, my brother. Little angel figurines she surrounded herself with; two of them coming home with me, one for my daughter, a reminder of the lady she barely knew. A heart shaped pin, that I'll wear often, because she called me her sweetheart. Little connections like sharp electrical currents reaching through time and generations and death, connecting us. I'm thankful that, on the solo nights in my aunt's house, while she lay recuperating in a rehab facility, I found letters in my other grandmother's loopy cursive. They were letters of love and the latest gossip sent from Arizona, while she was visiting for the birth of my brother, sent the day before she died. Her words initially haunted me, "I'm not feeling well", punching me in the chest, her not knowing that before that letter would even reach Illinois, she'd be gone. Then her words made me laugh; at the time tears streamed down my face; I still missed her so much, but her next words made me laugh straight through the tears:
Nothing has changed.
I rifled through pictures upon pictures. Cards I'd sent and were signed in kindergarten print, my yellow and weathered birth announcement from the local paper in 1976, perfectly preserved. My beginnings, laid out bare, to be shared with my kids. Realizing how much I was loved, being the first grandchild on both sides, and how grateful I am that I got to know those two amazing women at all.
I sat on the floor and let myself feel. Feel their presence in that place; the place we'd all been born, the place they'd lived and died. Grieving that they're gone but knowing that I will always carry them with me and that, as long as I'm still here, so are they. Because I will keep their sweet spirits alive, talk about them, and, when I come back to visit, I will make the effort to visit where their shells lie. Just because they're not physically here, doesn't mean I can't still love them.
And so, in a couple of days in Illinois, I danced with ghosts. The ghosts of them, the ghosts of me that still live there, somewhere. I let the past creep out from the walls and surround me. I felt the soft earth beneath me, as tangible and real as they'd always been. I kissed my grandmother goodbye, even if it was on the cold, marbled stone that has her name engraved upon it. I told her what I'm up to, what I wish I could ask her, what it's really like being with Jesus every day, is time irrelevant?
Someday, I'll know. But for now, Mary and Bernadine travel this road right along with me. They feel the warm Arizona sun; see the messy house full of kids and voices and love. They're in the eyes of my daughter when she smiles; in the laugh of my growing son. They're in my hands as they grow older; in the smile lines on my face, in the appreciation that I woke up with breath in my lungs and joy in my heart. I'm still here, carrying on. Appreciating. Laughing. Loving.
And always, taking them right along with me, no matter where I go.