Death, dying, passing away, losing loved ones…these are all words we use to talk about the unimaginably painful event of saying goodbye to someone we love. And for many of us…when someone we love has died, we treat it like a 4-letter word; we just don’t say it. We don’t talk about it. We don’t face it. We just plain do not deal with it.
But as we all know, death is, unavoidably, and sadly, a part of life for all of us, and one way or another, facing it is a necessary evil. I’ve lost more people in my time than I care to mention. And while perhaps some might say that each of those deaths should be treated with equal emotional response, the fact is that my personal connection to each of those people was in direct proportion to my response to their passing. We all know there are good, or healthy, ways to deal with death, and those that are not so healthy.
After losing several family members in the course of just a few years, it began to seem as though “family time” was always being spent in black clothing gathered in funeral homes or cemeteries. And then the unthinkable happened. My paternal grandmother, the great matriarch of our wonderful family who has been healthier than me my entire life, the life of every party, the center of every gathering and the source of endless joy for the Colvin Clan, was taken to the hospital on Thanksgiving, 2004. I had never known my grandmother to be sick so the call to go to the hospital came as a complete shock. She was 95 years old and I was sure she’d live forever. I had grown up in the same house with her, spent summers with our extended family vacationing on the same beach on Cape Cod that she had been visiting for 92 years. I had brought her to say goodbye to her younger sister, Helen, just two months earlier, two days before she passed away after a long illness. But Gram was different. She was stubborn and set in her ways and healthy (despite the never-ending string of cigarettes that clung to her lips like permanent extensions). She told wonderful stories of her younger days, stalwartly bulldozed through the grief that came with the passing of family members and most all of her friends. She looked at me with utter confusion when I tried to explain my migraines, having never experienced a headache herself. She was “too mean for the bugs to bite” her. Her Scottish ancestry made her “hardy.” She always claimed that as a child her parents had set her crib on the porch…all year ’round because “the fresh air’s good for ya.” And year round, till the day she died, she slept with the windows open, no matter how cold the New England weather got.
When she was hospitalized she was angry at all of us. It was “absurd” and she wanted to go home because there was “nuthin wrong with me!” I was terrified. I wanted to believe her. But the look on my mother and our family doctor, Dr. Asher’s faces told me the real story was very different. As it turned out Gram had suffered a mild heart attack and was dealing with congestive heart failure. While Gram was tearing off monitors and climbing out of bed to head home, my world was shattering around me. There was no time for that though. At that moment I had to help convince Gram to let the doctors do what they needed to do and to stop fighting them so much. There would be time for the pain and shattering to happen later.
That night Gram was admitted to the ICU (after QUITE a battle) and from that moment on she was not alone again for even the briefest time. Somewhere in me, in the parts of my heart and soul where Gram’s legacy thrived most fervently, I stubbornly refused to believe anything really bad could happen. I was still sure that in no time, we’d be bringing her home. One particularly wonderful nurse came in during the first few days and asked if he could call her Evelyn rather than Mrs. Colvin. She told him “you can call me a son of a bitch if you can get me the hell out of here!” That was Gram. Family members took shifts staying in her room with her. The ICU staff was wonderful about accommodating us and ignoring the usual visiting hours. My sister and I, in particular took on a great number of shifts. Not because we felt like we had to, but because we just couldn’t be anywhere else. Growing up with Gram had been such a blessing. We got to live with her, be surrounded by her amazing spirit and benefit from her stories and lessons everyday, unlike my cousins who only got to see her on holidays or when they visited our hometown or during the summers when we all went to the Cape. But that blessing came with a price. Not one I would ever trade, but a heavy one just the same. Two weeks after Gram was admitted, after a few hopeful improvements in her condition, she passed away with so many of us packed in her small hospital room. Windows open. I was holding her hand and hugging her from my seat by her bedside. Slowly, as tears fell, everyone began to move away, but I couldn’t. The thought of letting go of the very last hug I would ever have with my beloved grandmother was too much. I remember someone, my mother, I think, trying to pull me away and I pushed her arm away as if it were assaulting me. I just wasn’t ready. My sister was right beside me. One of my cousins said something to the effect of, “those poor girls, they’ve lived with her all their lives, this must be just killing them.”
My fiancé at the time, Mark, was there too, giving a respectful distance so we could all be as close to her as possible, but ready to catch me when it was time to fall into his arms. Some time later, I did release my stronghold on Gram. I knew that I too, had to let her go. We stayed at the hospital for a while; I couldn’t even guess how long. Time had seemingly stopped for me that day. As Mark drove me back to our home in Keene, NH, I told him we needed to stop at the grocery store. I needed to get hot dogs and yogurt. Everyday for as long as I can remember, and for many years before that, Gram had eaten an Oscar Meyer all beef hot dog and Dannon fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt 362 days of the year (excluding Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving). In her words she was “a creature of habit…only the best!” (The best referred to her chosen brands.) I’m not sure how many days I ate that meal for, but for a while, I once again had lunch with Gram each day. Perhaps it was just food. Perhaps it was a silly coping mechanism. But looking back, I realize now that the important part was that I coped. I felt the pain. I endured the loss. I allowed myself to cry and laugh and sit with all the many emotions that Gram’s passing evoked. Her death was the last healthy grieving I did. Afterwards, I put up walls, made denial an art form, and tried (and failed) to protect myself from the pain that comes with living. And I paid dearly. In the last year I’ve done some difficult work. I’ve undone some of the damage from denying the losses I’ve endured since Gram’s death, and tried very hard to live as best I can. It is a constant challenge for each of us, but one that we all, ultimately, must take on, even if it means eating hot dogs and yogurt everyday for lunch!