I was thirteen, almost fourteen, when I lost my paternal grandmother. It wasn’t the first taste of death that I’d had (my great-grandfather died about four years earlier), but it was the closest one. I can’t say I was particularly touched by her death; the woman wasn’t a huge part of my life, and she and my father were very distant. But regardless of how much or little I loved her, she was still my grandmother, and it was to some degree sad.
What touched me more was the last time I remember actually seeing her. It might have even been the last time I saw her. It was in the hospital, probably late April or early May 2006. She was lying in one of those mechanical hospital beds, which aren’t as comfortable as you would think. The tubes and IVs made the fifty-nine-year-old woman look even sicklier than she would have if she had been in her own bed.
Visits with her were always awkward and weird. I didn’t know what to do or what to say, since her and I had spent maybe five collective hours together, just her and I. I’d spent a few nights at her house, but it was always with my cousins. Not only that, but after spending so much time in hospitals myself, they always gave me an uneasy feeling. Needless to say I hated visiting her, staring at this woman I really didn’t feel for, but knowing that it still hurt to see her dying.
After some amount of time standing in the corner of the hospital room as my father and some combination of his three sisters (I don’t think all four of them were ever there together at there at the same time) made some kind of small talk, we said our goodnights. When it was my turn, I was at a loss for words. I don’t remember ever actually telling the woman that I loved her, so what else would I say in the moment?
“I hope you get better, Nana.”
For whatever reason (maybe it was some naivety or unwillingness to grasp the truth), these words actually came out. My grandmother had pancreatic cancer. I think somewhere in the back of my head I might have known she wouldn’t get better, but I cannot be sure. I don’t even remember the emotion with which I said it, be it sincerity or awkwardness.
“Has no one told her?” I remember her asking. She looked, in particular, at my father. She then looked back at me. “I’m not getting better.”
There was probably some honest recognition in her voice, but for some reason, I almost remember there being a melodramatic tone. As if she were trying to make me feel bad that she was dying, and was proud of it. Whether this is the actual case or not, I can never be sure. I know I started tearing up, though. At thirteen, having someone tell me they were going to die, and soon, was hard to hear.
But what really makes this memory stick out in my head was the fact that I didn’t know what to do. If this had been my mother’s parents, I might have wrapped my arms around them and lost control. If I had had the time, I might have done that with my paternal grandfather. (He died within three months of being diagnosed with cancer, so there was too little a time of suffering to even begin to come to terms with him dying.) But combined with the fact that I didn’t know how my father was reacting to his negligent mother dying, I wasn’t even sure how I should act.
So I just silently looked down at my hands. I think she said something about how it was okay, or how she was sorry to upset me, because I remember nodding. When I finally escaped the room, I avoided eye contact with either parent. I didn’t want them to see me cry. Why, I can’t even begin to tell you. When I got to the car, I climbed in the backseat and shed a few silent tears. It was nighttime, so I knew as long as I kept quiet, they wouldn’t know.
She died some time later, on May 15, 2006. It was the day after Mother’s Day. My father called me shortly after I got home from school. He was at work, so I have no idea how he took it, but I only cried for a short time. Maybe five minutes, before the kids of my mother’s at-home daycare crowded around me and made me laugh. I remember feeling horrible for laughing; my grandmother had just died, I shouldn’t have felt happy. I kept trying to mourn her, but the feelings felt exactly how they were: forced. To be honest, those five minutes are all I can remember crying over her. But every time I pass the house she used to live in (which I do frequently), though, I think of that time in the hospital, awkwardly telling a woman dying of cancer that I hoped she got better.
April 24, 2014