In the House of an Angel

A few weeks ago I took another step towards saying good-bye to my grandmother. My grandmother died last June, at the wonderfully old age of 97. She died while living alone, in the house she had lived in for over 50 years. The only house I had ever known her to live in, and the place where , when I was a young girl, I would spend any weekend I could. Every Friday afternoon I’d call my cousin on the phone and ask her to meet my sister and I at Grandma’s. It was a ritual weekend for us. A weekend that began with packing our matching overnight suitcases that Grandma bought us, loading them with clothes and Barbies, and heading to Grandma’s. Saturdays we spent the day in a Barbie marathon, followed by lunch served outdoors in the patio, and maybe a trip to the grocery store, where Grandma could be easily persuaded to buying us something special. Saturday nights were spent staying up late, playing cards or Chinese checkers, watching The Carol Burnett Show”, and finally falling asleep in her spare bedroom. The house was small, but the heart of the house was huge.

Even into her last year of life, my grandmother enjoyed playing a game Chinese Checkers with her great-grandchildren.

This same house where my large extended family spent every holiday. Never mind that the tiny kitchen did not have a dishwasher, or that the dining room could only seat 8 comfortably, or even that there was just one bathroom, my grandmother’s house expanded to fit anyone who stopped by for a Christmas tamale, a bite of Easter ham, or her ambrosia salad at Thanksgiving. It was also the house with the bountiful apricot tree which shaded our small wooden playhouse with the dutch door, and the flower filled backyard which my grandmother cared for.

Helping my grandmother tend to her garden. Circa 1967.

Flowers from my grandmother's garden.

I have countless memories that were made in the house that was nearly unchanged throughout my life. Since she died, the house remained vacant, but my mother made weekly trips to begin thinning out my grandmother’s belongings. In January, we had a huge garage sale. I thought to myself, how my grandmother would have hated it. Little by little, the house emptied, until it was finally ready for the market. When it was listed by a family friend and realtor, the house sold in less than two weeks. It was a cash offer. As is. My mother, who had grown weary of the process of settling my grandmother’s estate, was relieved. And sad.

Escrow closed quickly. Suddenly, I had only one weekend to move out a couple of things that I wanted to keep. On a warm Saturday afternoon Juan and I took our van and drove to my grandmother’s house for the last time. I found the spare key in its usual hiding place. I walked inside and noticed the carpets had been cleaned, but the house emptied of furniture, and its walls stripped of photos and decor, showed years of wear. As I walked through the house looking around I felt sad yet strangely comforted. Even though the house held all sorts of memories for me, it was no longer the home I knew. With my grandmother’s passing, the heart of the house ceased to exist. Juan followed me around taking pictures of the rooms with his iPhone. I told him I didn’t need photos, but he insisted that I would want them later. He continued taking pictures, the music from Pandora radio on his phone playing. As we moved into the kitchen I began looking at it for the last time. So many meals prepared here, so many visits spent at the kitchen table, chatting and reminiscing. The last time I saw her alive, one week before she died, I said good-bye to her as she sat at her usual spot at the kitchen table, with the TV on and a stack of newspapers close by.

One last look around the kitchen that remained unchanged after all these years.

I opened the kitchen cabinets looking for anything left behind. Nothing. Not even any of her handwritten notes, or newpaper clippings she kept taped to the inside of the cabinet doors. As I looked inside the last cabinet I noticed a lone news clipping taped to the door. The words from a song by The Beatles, and on the last line, a reminder to me.

The only remaining newspaper clipping I found taped to a kitchen cabinet.

And then I became aware of the music that was playing from Juan’s iphone, “The Arms of an Angel\” by Sarah McLachlan.

It was as if she was there. It wasn’t scary, a little eerie maybe, but mostly it was, well, perfect. I had come to say good-bye to the house and walk through it one last time, but suddenly I knew that even though I would probably never return to the house that held so many memories, those memories, and my grandmother would never leave me. The memories of all that we shared would carry me through the moments I would miss her. I said good-bye to her house, but not to the memories and love that we shared in her home.

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Lunchtime Stories, An Epilogue

Two weeks ago today my grandmother died.  I haven’t really been able to write about it, because it’s taken me awhile to process it all.  Even though she was 97 years-old and had lived a long, full, life, and I knew she was declining physically, I wasn’t ready for her to die so suddenly.

I have written about my grandmother before,  here, here and here, and I have finally added her own story to this blog, here. Last March my grandmother fainted while my mom was with her. My mom called the paramedics and my grandmother was admitted to the hospital. They conducted all kinds of tests, including an ear-splitting MRI.  While she was getting the MRI,  I was allowed to stand next to her and pat her feet as she was slid into a tunnel of bright light and screeching sound.  The test was intended to determine if something happened inside her brain. In the end, the doctor’s had one diagnosis– she was old. She may also have been dehydrated. The remedy was for someone to be with her, making sure she was eating and drinking fluids.  But, the doctors didn’t know my grandmother. She was independent, feisty and above all stubborn. My mom tried to get her to move in with her and my dad. She refused.  We hired some people to come to my grandmother’s and take care of her. No way. She kicked them out. We hired Meals on Wheels to provide the food and a daily visit. She didn’t eat their food and barely acknowledged the visit. In the end, we all realized it was futile. She was not going to accept our help, and the only thing that would make her happy and keep her alive was to let her live her life on her terms. Independently. She said she didn’t want to be a burden on anyone, yet sometimes it did feel like a burden, the worry and care-taking that was involved in letting her live alone.

About a month after her hospital stay we had a family meeting to discuss how we could take care of grandma. My uncles, my mom, my brother and I each agreed to visit her once a week and bring food and sit down and have a meal with her.  My day was Friday. On Fridays I went to her house for lunch, or I would go over after work. We would sit together and I would eat with her.  I would bring her food I knew she liked. Fresh pineapple, a pastry, coffee and donuts. The salt-free, healthfully prepared Meals on Wheels would go untouched. We would visit. I recorded her stories, and I would sometimes sneak a photo of her, because she did not like having her photo taken. She probably hated getting her picture taken as much as she hated doctors.

Even though I spent nearly every weekend with here when I was a child, it had been years since I spent so much time with her on a weekly basis. Sometimes, it seemed like an inconvenience to have to drive to see her and race back to my office, or visit her on my way home from work on a Friday evening, when I was anxious to start my weekend. But, I did it and with each visit, I felt happy about the time we spent together, and glad that I had taken the time to see her.  It’s funny, I thought I was there to take care of her, but really, I think she was still taking care of me. She would protest when I would get up to wash the dishes, throw out her trash or do any household chore. She would make me feel cared for, and I would leave feeling loved, and grateful for the time we spent together.

On the last Friday I spent with her I could tell something was wrong. She seemed tired and weak. Usually she was anxious to go outdoors and sit on her patio so we could visit. On our last visit I asked if she wanted to sit outdoors in the warm sun. She said she would rather stay inside. When I asked if she felt okay, if she was tired, she replied, “No honey, I am not tired, I am old.” I tried to take her picture but she wouldn’t let me. When she wasn’t looking, I did it anyway.

The last picture taken of my grandmother, two days before she died.

The day she died,  I was at work when my dad called to tell me that my mother had arrived at my grandmother’s for her Monday visit.  She found my grandmother. She had probably died at night, alone in her house, the way she wanted. I left work immediately and went to her house where my parents and my uncles had gathered.  I was sad that she was gone, but I also felt at peace. These past several months when I visited her, took her for drives, brought her donuts, those visits allowed me to have peace in this sorrowful moment. I knew that her insistence that she live alone, as challenging as it was for all of us, created an opportunity for us, to spend time with her, to care for her, and for her to care for us. As sad as it is to imagine her spending her last few moments alone, I know that dying in her own home was what  she wanted. It was the reason she had so fiercely resisted all our interventions.

She did things on her own terms. And so,  it seemed fitting that during the funeral mass, my cousin surprised the priest when he read a poem by Emily Dickenson, instead of the New Testament scripture that was pre-selected and indicated on the program. The organist missed her cue and the deacon kept looking through the program to see if he’d missed something. Even I didn’t know what was happening since I had never heard the Gospel According to Emily Dickenson before. But, when it dawned on me what my cousin was doing, I laughed and thought how much my grandmother would have loved that.  The priest seemed equally exasperated when, as the mass was ending, and it became apparent the priest wasn’t going to allow time for my prepared eulogy, my father yelled from the first row, “Wait! There’s a eulogy!” The priest just threw up his hands at that point, and I sprang from my seat to get to the altar before I lost my window of opportunity. The priest didn’t seem to know what to do with us, these grandchildren who wanted to do things in their own way. I know that’s probably the way my grandmother would have wanted it too.

My grandmother in earlier days.