Life as we know it

For my mother (all my family, I suppose, but she might like it more). Heavy, personal stuff, so if that ain’t your thing, move along.

It’s weird what the mind remembers, from particular times and places in our lives. Or the triggers that bring back memories or feelings or nostalgia, reminders of events past.

I wanted to write about my grandmother’s death at the time, how it was affecting me then, as if putting my thinking out there in writing would be therapy for an introvert like me, someone whose inclination is to withdraw rather than reach out. A couple of posts about the trip there served as a window, and now as I look back reminds me of how I felt then.

Writing for someone like me isn’t just recreational. Whether it’s journal-y like this, journalistic like others, or sheer fiction which is character-driven, I relate to what I put down, to what I write. This is me, in ways I struggle to communicate to others. I’m not a conversationalist. I have difficulty expressing myself. When I write, I don’t, and I wish I knew why.

*****

When my grandfather died, I was there.

I was younger, then, with braces on my teeth, fewer cares and more doubts to burden the mind. He was at home, with nothing else to be done for him. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s were twin menaces that had crippled him in his final years.

I didn’t know him, though. I knew the whisper of the man he had become later in his life, barely able to function. I’d only heard stories from my mother, or others that had known him earlier. When he could smile and laugh, and mean it. The pictures around their house seemed strange that way. Memories of a time I wasn’t a part of, and couldn’t relate to.  I understood what it meant- what HE meant- to those around me.

Myself, Dennis, and our cousin were out back playing basketball, being young enough to avoid the cares of the adult world, even as we were old enough to realize the gravity of the situation. Dribbling and shooting was enough to keep our minds away from it. The benefits of having fewer cares.

I took an elbow to the mouth, feeling a brace bracket come off a tooth- it poked my lip painfully, and we had to step back. Basketball had concluded, and we walked inside.

I remember seeing my mother first, about to mention I’d broken a brace, and the tears in her eyes, and knowing the finality of his death. I don’t really remember what happened after that. She might have said something. We might have hugged. The moment had come, and being too young to know, too separate from the man, I had the luxury of being apart from it.

The bracket could poke me for a while longer.

*****

Though I wasn’t there this time, it hit me harder. Is that strange? I feel like it is, in some ways.

Our grandmother- Nanny, as Dennis and I knew her- was someone we knew very well.  She was a kind, conservative, matronly woman, quick with gifts, kindness and fudge (the FUDGE, my goodness did we enjoy it), and as rooted in her faith in God as anyone I’ve ever known. She was a constant presence in our youth, as we grew up in Nova Scotia, us often visiting her apartment for Sunday dinner after church, or visiting with family there, her kitchen and living room open and familiar and welcoming. Her faith and godliness was only matched by her unconditional kindness and love, and willingness to give without a second thought. These are the things I remember about her, as much as anything.

In the final estimation, her taking ill was not all that surprising: it was later in her life, and Father Time is as of yet undefeated against people as they get older.  What it was doesn’t matter- but the prognosis was not good. We knew what it might mean.

Faced with this, after a suggestion from our aunt who was with her, I did what I did best: I wrote to her.

As I wrote, it felt odd- this was someone I loved, someone who was family, but someone separate from my life in the last little while, by both distance and perspective. Could I connect, in the way I so enjoy doing in writing?

Cognizant of a timeline, I opened up a window into me, in a way I might not have in other situations. I talked about how I continued to struggle with the idea of being an adult. About Dennis and I owning a house, and how strange that seemed. About successes and insecurities and hopes, and how I still wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I don’t know if I’d have been able to be that honest in front of her. While that might be a failing, I’m glad to have done this small thing. I know she appreciated it.

*****

Fast forwarding a little, but we covered the in-between.

The trip, the funeral, seemed almost like a memory, like I was apart from it. I spoke, I acted, I lived as if a man but didn’t feel quite THERE for most of it. The sorrow, while present, wasn’t the overwhelming, life-altering force I expected it to be.

Didn’t I know her? Didn’t I love her? But here I was, cracking wise and pushing on as if it was nothing. Was that me overcompensating?

Waiting in a room with family in the church, I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries and well wishes with some people I knew, and a lot more I didn’t.  There was strength in numbers, in being together, in having a unity of purpose. It was that strength that drove us, I suppose.

The minister came in, and I cradled my saxophone, as if it were a lifeline.

We walked into the sanctuary, and I was startled by the amount of people there. Or was it less the amount and more the presence of them, knowing that she’d touched them all? That there were stories I didn’t know, people she’d loved and cared for that I wasn’t aware of?

I felt strange sliding my instrument under my seat as I sat down in the front with family. The minister and others spoke in reverent tones, sharing stories, things they remembered about Nanny. I heard them, distant, still feeling apart from the moment.

Then, the time came- the minister called us up to play. I felt my saxophone under my seat, reaching for it instinctively, even as I felt the anticipation, the nerves that always came before playing.

Didn’t matter how much we’d practiced, I would never be ready for this.

*****

There was a strange, circular feel to it- Dennis, myself and Kate practicing together again. The last time we’d done it, it was for Nanny’s 80th birthday, and we’d played a selection of music together. At that time it was joyous, and celebratory.

We’d never played as a group before, but it came together then as naturally as anything we’d done. Dennis and I still had the same chemistry we’d always had, his clarinet and my saxophone trading parts and moving with the natural ebbs and flows of a particular hymn, supplemented by our cousin’s piano (who proclaimed that “she’d never play alone again!” to some chuckles and mirth).

It’s funny. I remember playing through junior high and high school, and how much Nanny loved hearing myself and Dennis play. I remember almost resenting it at times: feeling obligated to drag out my instrument when she visited, teenage angst and lack of perspective making any response a reluctant sigh. Though Dennis and I, dutiful sons, would usually step up to the plate and do it. But now, anytime I play, I think to myself that I need to do it more. That this is a gift, and it is meant to be appreciated and shared.

*****

I wasn’t thinking that as I played then, at the funeral. I certainly didn’t resent playing, as I had at times before.

“It Is Well With My Soul” is a song I’ve done enough that I could do it entirely on instinct, and it was that which buoyed me, the enormity of the moment weighing in as our instruments echoed through the church. I wonder how Kate and Dennis felt, even as we moved into the second verse and Dennis and I traded parts, as we had done so many times before.

It was at some point in the second verse that I felt the sorrow, and I had to clench my eyes shut to stop tears, feeling it more keenly than I ever had before that point. It wasn’t that I didn’t know before that she’d died… but for some reason, I felt it more then, playing one of her favourite hymns,  as the church joined for a final chorus.

After we finished, I sat down with my cousin and my brother, numb,  feeling quiet as the service continued, glad for the distraction, knowing that conversation would push the sorrow back up. That it would give a thinking, grieving mind traction that it didn’t need.

*****

Bugs in the fall.

That is one of my memories from the graveside ceremony the next day, at a small church in Moncton, the kind of church and graveyard you see in movies. The swarms of bugs added to the unreal, somber feeling, of someone close dying, of a church I’d never been to in a city I couldn’t remember with a lot of people I didn’t know.

I remember the shuffle of cars as more people arrived at the unnaturally small church, more than would likely come for a service. Letting the more elderly people have closer spots so the walk was less taxing on them.

Cripes, the bugs- at the end of September? Really? Who of us would have thought to bring bug spray to a funeral?

The memories of this, too, are scattered- hugs and whispers of  “she’d be proud of you”; Dad, I and Dennis surrounding Mom as her sisters’ families did likewise for them; Dennis stepping up to help one of Nanny’s friends walk to the grave and lay rose petals (I nearly lost it right there, what a man); learning that the pastor doing the ceremony had been one of Nanny’s kids when she was a youth leader.

It’s hard for us to see the impact we have on those around us when we’re alive, and on occasion, that’s a real shame. Especially for someone like my grandmother, who was as kind and generous a soul as I’ve ever known, demonstrating love and selflessness in the most biblical way possible. Does anyone ever really know? Do we ever appreciate them enough?

*****

It’s still strange, thinking of her as not being there anymore. The finality of it is more pronounced, even over the distance that separated us for the majority of my existence.

I wish I had a good way to tie this off. There’s a lot I associate with my grandmother: Faith, kindness, an active kitchen, a gentle manner and kindness that hid an ironclad will to do what was right, and a devotion to God that I always admired. I didn’t know her like some did, but I see her absence not just in my own sadness, but others who feel it more keenly than I do.

She’s the type who wouldn’t want to be missed, which is precisely why I SHOULD miss her, and remember all that she was, to me and others. This is me trying to do that, I suppose. With her passing more in perspective (but not yet forgotten), I wanted to remember it, and to pass it on, in the way that I do. By writing, and sharing.

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One thought on “Life as we know it

  1. Karen

    Thank you for sharing. Mom would be pleased to know that her faith showed so clearly through her actions. She loved her grandchildren dearly and enjoyed sharing celebrations. Your music, especially when you played hymns of faith, was wonderfully sweet to her ears, because you were praising God through your talents. It is clear to me that your talent in writing is also a special gift. I write this comment with tears of gratitude that you can express your feelings in this way, and tears of shared remembrance. Any time I get discouraged, I remember where Mom found her strength – God loves us.

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