Saturday, December 24, 2011

Death of the Matriarch?

It was the winter of 2011. I was at work. I saw that I had received a phone call from my dad. The message was, “Hey, why don't you give me a call.”

I was pretty sure this was the call I had been dreading to get ever since my mom's mom had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease two years prior.

I sheepishly called him back, fully expecting to get the news.

I call, and get my mom, “Hey, what's up?”
“Grandma died this afternoon.”
“How are you holding up?”
“Oh I have my moments,” my mom said through the tears, “She asked Aaron to get her in her chair this morning because she wanted to look out the window. She hasn't been in her chair in three weeks, she's been too weak.”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, Aaron then went to check on her and she was breathing real hard. He got her back to her room where she passed shortly after.”
“How's Aunt Cheryl doing? Is she a basket case?”
“Oh, she's doing alright. Grandma did a good job of preparing all of us before she left.”
“When are the services?”
“All of us kids are getting together tomorrow and I'll let you know after that.”
“Ok, I love you mom.”
“Love you too.”

I had two days of work before starting my bereavement leave. I guess it was just business as usual at work, must not have exuded a state of mourning. I was actually back-handedly accused of abusing the bereavement policy when I told my boss I was going to take the full three days even though we weren't leaving until Thursday morning. Oh well, next time I'll come to work with tears in my eyes, or act depressed, or maybe I'll just wear all black for a month so that people know I'm still mourning the loss of a loved one.

The truth of the matter is that Grandma would have never wanted people moping about over her. The very thought that someone would shed a tear over her passing would have been enough to make her live forever. Even so, I knew that the distance between home and Grandma had maybe dampened the impact of the news of her passing. And that as we got closer and closer to the wake and funeral, it would become real.

The services were the end of the next week in Grand Forks, ND. A short six hour drive on interstate from our place. It's amazing how much you can process in the span of a six hour drive. Especially a drive of that magnitude through the flat plains of eastern South Dakota and North Dakota. There's not much to look at, and if there's no ice, you can pretty much set the cruise and go. This is what we did. As Corrine and the kids slept through the drive, I did think a lot about Grandma. I thought about her and my grandpa, and how they had been married 40 years before I was even born, 46 in total before Grandpa passed in the late 80's. And then I thought about how Grandma had lived so independently for over twenty years. I thought about a woman that came from a small family in rural North Dakota. How she married my grandpa and went on to have six kids, 14 grandchildren, and a whole slew of great grandchildren. I thought about how she had to endure my uncle Jeff's sickness and passing in 2003. I thought about how hard it would be to have to bury one of my kids. I thought about when she was diagnosed with ALS and how her charisma and passion for life didn't change. I thought about how an 86 year old woman that has been diagnosed with ALS could be the strongest person I've ever known. And it's that strength and passion for life that wasn't there when I looked into the coffin at the wake.

When we got to town, we quickly changed and went over to the funeral home. I was greeted with many familiar faces, relatives I hadn't seen since the summer of 2002 at our last family reunion at the lake. Many I hadn't seen since well before that. It is unfortunate that an event like this is what brings us together, but that's life I guess.

Corrine and I took the kids up front to see Grandma. It's an interesting thing, a Raymond family wake. The family member who has passed sits in the front of the funeral home while everyone else stands in the back catching up. There's always big stories, big laughs, and big characters. As I was saying hello to everyone, I wondered if Grandma was lonely up in the front of the building. Either way, Corrine and I made our way to the front.

We saw Grandma, she was all done up. I don't know if it was the rigamortis or what, but she looked as if she was made. Her jaw looked clenched, lips a little pursed. It's like she was getting ready to raise her crooked pointer finger and give someone the business. She did look good though. But she wasn't there. It was the same feeling I felt when uncle Jeff died. Here was a person that looked like someone I knew, but was void of all life, love, laughter, and everything that made them who they were. The sparkle in their eye, the tenderness of their embrace, all gone.

It saddened me to see my grandma laying there. The choke started trickling up into my throat. I held the tears back and started to the back. As I was walking back, I started observing the rest of my family. Here were aunts and uncles that had also lost a mother and grandmother. You could tell they had sorrow in their eyes, but it was tempered with the relief that Grandma was not longer suffering. And it was through that relief that led them so quickly back to the joy and happiness that Grandma was known for. As I talked with my relatives, it was as if Grandma were there saying, “It's alright, I'm ok, now quit fussing and go on living.” It was in this moment that I realized that my Grandmother hadn't died, that she does live on. Her spirit is one of compassion, love, and joy. It's because of the foundations that she laid by living how she did, that her family can laugh at her wake and funeral.

I wonder if this is how it was in the final days before Jesus' death? And I wonder if this is the reason that Jesus came back for so long after he died? And I wonder if this is the ultimate testament to a person's life, are people crying or laughing at their funeral?

I know all of our time is limited on this planet, some more than others. But when my final day comes, I know I want people laughing.


Grandma Peaches and family.

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