At one am on Monday morning, my grandma died.
I know that's not the usual way to introduce things like this, but it's what happened.
I didn't even find out about it for another half and hour, when I heard sobs coming from my mom's room, and I left off reading fanfiction in the wee hours on a work night to see what was up. When I saw her face and the phone my first thought was for my dad -- he works night shift as a police officer, and there's always a niggling thought when something goes wrong while he's gone that he won't come home. My mom took my hand and had me sit down with her, and asked the doctor on the phone to please hang on a minute.
"Lindsey, Grammy had a heart attack."
Shock and surprise. If I were an omniscient narrator I might say they were written on my face, but I'm not, and there was no mirror nearby, so I can't say. I hugged my mom instead, and tried to think about where my shoes were because we were going to be heading for the hospital right away, and Momma was in no condition to drive.
"Where is she now? Kaiser?"
The first response was a hiccup and an Oh, Lindsey. Then came the kicker:
"Lindsey, your grandma passed away."
That was not expected. Grammy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over twenty years ago. She spent the first ten years trying to ignore it completely. Despite the fact that complications associated with MS killed her baby sister, and difficulty walking and with fine motor coordination forced her into early disability retirement before 50. Despite the fact that she walked with first a cane, then a walker. It wasn't until she had a bad attack in about 2001 that my mom and aunt finally convinced her that she could no longer live safely on her own and that it was time for the Avonex injections to stabilixxe her condition and prevent further deterioration. She sold her house in Vista, CA (that she was so proud of herself for being able to purchase outright, in cash. It was the only house I ever remember her living in, and it had high ceilings and green carpeting and freezing white tile in the kitchen. My sisters and I used to visit and sleep in the bed that had been my mom's as a kid and dance to silly records in the dining room and read "Poo-Poo and the Dragons" and "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" to each other from the shelf of my mom and aunt and uncle's old books in the back bedroom. There was a dollhouse in the garage with Barbies from the 1970s and homemade doll's clothes and Giss-cat, who was terrified of children and spent the whole time hiding under my grandma's bed or outside hunting blue jays and mice in the ravine behind the house. There was a collection of prom-dresses in the closet with the mirror-ed siding doors in Grammy's room, and she finished and painted the red, wood bair chairs my sisters and I used at home until we were tall enough for real chairs in her garage. It was the first neighborhood I'd seen that had a block of mailboxes clustered at the corner instead of individual ones at each house, and it was a treat to take the key and race across the street and come back in by the front door, which was around the side of the house and rarely used. She always greeted us with an open garage door when we came to stay.), and came to live with us in Northern California. It was crowded, and we were not always appreciative: I already shared a room with my middle sister, and now my grandma had to share with the baby. For a while, they actually shared a large double bed because it fit better in the small room, before everyone involved decided that baby sister thrashes too much in her sleep and they managed to fit two twin beds in there.
She didn't walk again after that breakdown. She tried to get up and down the hallway a couple times a day with the walker, but in reality she'd been confined to a wheelchair for the last ten years. It had to have been infuriating, but I rarely saw that until the last few years when I came to see her as an adult and a friend, not just the grandma who nagged about homework and taught me to sew and told the most fantastic bedtime stories about Hortensia Grimfrackle the troll and her friend Gertrude. Both my parents worked and Grammy couldn't get in and out of the house, let alone drive anywhere, so she rarely got out. It was practically a festive occasion, being schlepped to Vallejo for doctor's appointments or spending an entire afternoon wandering Target or Walmart for new clothes or fabric and treats for whoever didn't come. She loved Butterfingers -- the bitesized ones -- and she'd give us money for movies in high school, only asking that we'd tell her all about it and bring some Butterfingers and rootbeer home for her.
We clashed. Not as badly as my middle sister and she did, but sometimes I'd give her the silent treatment for days. Eventually I'd break, and I'd spend a whole evening in her room, sitting on the other bed, telling her all about the assignment in English or History class and asking her to proofread the assignment. Sometimes she'd go stay with my Aunt and cousins for a couple months, and it was different without her. There would be no one home when I came home from school, and I couldn't get my papers proofread because she couldn't figure out e-mail until recently, let alone the tracking options in Word, even with someone more tech-savvy standing over her shoulder, practically guiding the mouse. She liked to hear about what I was reading, and she loved mystery novels, especially the Cat Who series and Dick Francis books. I'd always ask if she wanted a copy of a novel she'd particularly liked from the library, and the response was always "No, I've got it in storage." Everything of hers was in storage. There was no room for a lifetime's worth of belongings at my parents' or my Aunt's, and she wanted her own house to put things in as she liked them. She finally bought the house two doors down from my parents last summer. Esgrow closed and plans were being made when she collapsed in October.
When I graduated high school, I found out that she'd set aside money for my education. She was invested in it, more than I am, really. She always asked questions, and she listened as I explained concepts she'd never had the opportunity to even learn the basics of. I made a point of doing a head count in every new class and practiced drawing the layout of my dorm room and classrooms and campus because those were vital details to her. We used to joke about 20 Questions behind her back, because she wasn't satisfied until she had a complete mental image of the environment. She never got to see Reno. I was trying to figure out the logistics of showing a woman in a wheelchair around the hilliest campus I know of when she came for my graduation, and it's a little heartbreaking that she'll never see a place that I love so much with me. She gave me her old Mazda two years ago, and it still rattles on (or squeals really. The serpentine belt that runs all the auxillary stuff likes to complain.). She compared every vehicle she ever rode in to that little grey car, and none of them really stacked up favorably in her opinion.
She was the person I told most secrets too first -- she was great at keeping them. I liked to try to guess what my Christmas or birthday present would be, and it was impossible to drag any details out of her. She would have been the first person I told if I were in a serious relationship, and she was the only one who never gave me any grief about not having a boyfriend. She divorced my grandpa in the early 1980s, and I think she understood better than anyone that being single can still lead to a perfectly fulfilling life. I ran my change of major and term project ideas and the fact that I was forming a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance at UNR despite being raised Catholic by her first, and I only wish that she'd had a chance to meet more of my friends. She was the least judgemental -- even if a little old-fashioned -- of all my grandparents, and I think she would have loved the girl that I'm planning to take to Gay Prom next month.
When she collapsed in October, I found out and cried while in the De La Mare library, and was on the road the next morning to see her. I spent the whole weekend with her at the hospital and couldn't belive that the bright woman I loved so much had been treating her body so poorly over the last few months. There was nothing that I could do for her, and I knew it. The nurses were fantastic, and I gave her a haircut, which made the physical therapy doctor laugh when she came in. I had to go back to school, and called every few days to catch up on progress. By November she was out of the hospital and staying at a care home about a mile from home. The staff were great, although she liked to nitpick the little things that weren't up to snuff, and when I came home at Thanksgiving, she was practically back to her old self. By Christmas, she was chafing at the bit to get back on her feet. There was talk about moving into the house down the street versus staying where she was, and she wanted the independece, although everyone expected her to be around another twenty years and need to plan care for the long term.
Despite the fact that I came home this spring ostensibly to spend more time with her, I rarely went over more that one a week, and the last time that I saw her was on my birthday, when baby sister and I brought over Chinese food and had a small party in her room. That was over two weeks ago, and I'm still kicking myself for not going to play Scrabble with her Sunday. I thought there was still lots of time.
The worst part of the whole thing was not having to tell baby sister at two in the morning, nor seeing the body at the hospital with a breathing tube, looking for all the world like a small wax model or a horror movie zombie. It was seeing my mom breakdown, and my dad sniffling. My parents are strong people, and I can count the number of times I have seen either of them express extreme sadness, and I just wish that I could take everything off Momma's shoulders and send her to bed. I miss my grandma, and I can't imagine what my mother's going through. Momma was her emergency contact, and she slept through the first call from the care home, only waking up three hours later at the second call from the doctor. It's been really rough on her knowing that we were so close, but that my grandma had to spend her last hours alone, without any family at her side. She was probably scared until she lost conciousness.
I don't believe in any sort of an afterlife, so I don't hope that she's gone to a better place. She never wanted to be in the ground, so she's going to be cremated, and we're going to have a memorial lunch with her kids and grandkids and surviving brother and sister and their families next Friday in La Cañada, and my middle sister is flying in from upstate New York to be there. There's not going to be a service, I don't know if the ashes will be scattered or placed in a wall or left with family, but I know I don't need remains to honor her memory. I don't need a place to put flowers on her birthday and Christmas, and I know that I will always love her and that there is no way I will ever forget her.