*Ed. Note: Written in October 2015, but I’m working on transferring my essays to one location.*
My grandfather died this week. He was 90. Of course I’m sad, but I can’t cry yet. I haven’t been able to look at the fact that MY grandfather died this week. I haven’t gotten past the other death: My grandmother’s husband of sixty-some years died this week. I can’t think about me yet, because I can’t stop thinking about her.
He died in his sleep. They were both asleep. In separate beds because he can’t make it up to their bedroom anymore and his breathing aids are big and loud. I don’t know when they last shared a bed. Maybe ten years ago. She woke up. He didn’t.
For ten or so years, she’s woken up, walked downstairs and made him breakfast and gave him his morning meds and all of those things. For twenty five years, he was retired, waking up the same way every day. For forty plus years they’ve been in that same house, waking up that same way. For sixty some years they’ve been waking up in the same house most every day. For sixty some years, they’ve rarely been apart long. For sixty some years they’ve gone through everything together. Six children, three miscarriages, five or six wars, three or four economic crises, ten plus presidents, multiple complete shifts in social, cultural and political eras, terror attacks, burying a grandchild, the fear of possibly having to bury two other grandchildren, grief, joy, births, deaths. All together. Every morning. Eggs. Coffee. Blood sugar test. Check this. Test that. The Price is Right. Football games. Evening news. Prime time drama. Late night talk shows. Go to sleep. Wake up. Same thing every day for years.
And then on Thursday morning, she woke up and went downstairs to get him. Had she already made breakfast, or did she check on him first thing? Did she have eggs and toast for him that she left sitting there while the police and ambulance saw to the technicalities? Did she throw them out hours later? Did she remember to eat breakfast? Did she spend the morning grief stricken before a neighbor sat her down and got her some lunch?
How did she find him? How long did it take for her to realize he wasn’t waking up? Did she walk up to his bed and know by sight? Or by a feeling in her heart? Did she say his name a few times before touching his shoulder to rouse him only to feel a cold she’d never felt any of the times she’d touched him before?
Did her heart break? Did she cry? Or did she let out a sigh of relief? That her husband of sixty some years was freed of his suffering, of his “mortal coil.” We’re Catholic and they have always believed fiercely. These moments help you see the comfort of religion. When my mother’s mother died, I couldn’t find that comfort. She was a fierce agnostic; she hadn’t attended Mass save family occasions since her son died at nineteen years old. There was no comforting thought that she was “with her Father now” because we knew she didn’t believe or want that. While I don’t share my grandparents’ belief, I find comfort knowing that my grandmother can find comfort in that. That maybe my grandfather can return to his robust post-enlistment shape when he first married my grandmother, not the decrepit, constantly pained and suffering body he was trapped in, the body that couldn’t even gather sufficient oxygen for him on its own.
I haven’t been able to mourn for myself yet because I can’t stop thinking about these hours. The hours between when they said goodnight on Wednesday night and when she ate her next meal after finding his body. I can’t mourn for myself yet because I can only think of her. Her devotion and love to the last second.
Sainthood is an odd concept, but something I’ve always been fascinated by. It is something like a mathematical formula, requiring x number of miracles times y percent sacrificed divided by the natural log of the person’s piety. If the sum is greater than 1 than you become a saint. Nothing is a miracle anymore though. We have a scientific explanation for all miracles now. So what is a saint? Now it’s some public figure who devotes their life to good work for the meek and such. But to me, it’s this woman.
This woman, who for sixty plus years has put her family ahead of herself. Who raised six good, kind, respectful and loving children as best she could. This woman who buried a grandchild who she couldn’t save from drugs with prayer. This woman who lost babies several times but kept her family together. This woman who was married to a man who didn’t treat her like the precious, incredible woman that she was. This woman who has gone to church every Sunday that she could. Who has followed the words and teachings of Jesus, not the religious right. This woman who has spent years taking communion to elderly less mobile than her who can’t make it to church. This woman who was there for her husband when he became one of those elderly. This woman who is devoted to her grandchildren — the faithful ones who love Jesus, the agnostic ones, the Muslim one, the gay one, the transgender one, the two recovering addicts, the ones who have wandered for years and the ones who have done everything right, the Mensa genius and the car mechanic and the autistic one— she loves each one of us unconditionally. That is a saint to me.
When I think of unconditional love, I think of her. She has never loved me despite my wanderings or my queerness or my sickness or my addiction, nor because of it. She has loved me because I’m her grandchild. Period. Full stop. I have never doubted her love for a second.
And my grandfather, for all his flaws, was just the same. I don’t doubt for a second that he loved me and all of my cousins and all of his children up until the last labored breath left his body. He always told me he was proud of me. I’m so glad I got to tell him I had a good job before he died, but I know it doesn’t matter. He would have loved me regardless, and he always did, even at my worst. He was a good man who did the best he could with what he had. He built a beautiful and diverse family with a foundation of love.