My great-grandmother died when I was eleven-years old.
I was in the bathroom–brushing my teeth–when my mom gave me the news.
“Grandma Mary has passed away.” She delivered this so casually from the doorway, she might have been telling me that we were having chicken pot pie for dinner.
She sat down on the toilet seat, gauging my response. I continued my dental hygiene routine.
More elaboration was required. “She passed away in her sleep. A heart attack, I guess. No pain at all. Very peaceful. When you really think about it, that’s the way to go.”
We had just seen her at a tedious family reunion the day before. Semi-burnt barbecued chicken and sun-warmed potato salad, accompanied by endless rounds of badminton and family gossip. I tried to sit in on the adult conversation, but my mom ordered me to join the other kids. “Why don’t you act your age for a change?”
And so I found myself in the midst of a terrifying race. My horrible male cousins were chasing me around with a piece of raw chicken, threatening to rub it in my hair. I was running as fast as I could, begging my legs to move faster than ever. A coif soaked in poultry juice could only lure mosquitoes and flies. Most likely my mom would force me to ride home with my head hanging ou
t of the car window. Yet another brutal hair washing-and-combing session would ensue. No thanks.
I wound through a series of parked cars, hoping to confuse them. I jumped over a tree stump, before ducking under the badminton net. My lungs were starting to hurt. I wondered if a surprise asthma attack would save me. No, these monsters were not capable of sympathy.
Alex–the one closest to my age and a full head taller than me–was only a few inches behind me. Six, then five, soon three. Faced with the increasing likelihood of a disgusting fate, my mind reeled into panic mode. A blood-curdling scream escaped from my lips. “Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”
Every adult turned in my direction. Aunts, uncles, grandparents. My mom and her most recent boyfriend. My glamorous grown-up cousin Rebecca (formerly “Becky”).
“Oh, for Pete’s sake! Leave Abbie alone. She’s such a good girl.” A stern finger-wagging was added for emphasis. My loyal defender was Grandma Mary.
She was always the one to extol my virtues. While I was convinced that I was awful, beyond redemption…downright bad, she was there to remind everyone that I was a “good girl.” When I helped her bag her groceries at Jay’s on Thursday afternoons, she proclaimed my greatness to the checkout girl. “She’s always thinking of others. So helpful!” At family dinners, she reminded everyone that I was the sort of girl that washed dishes without being asked. I gleefully carried laundry baskets and vacuumed her green shag carpet. Best of all, I was quiet, frequently holed up in a corner with books and paper dolls. I tiptoed through her house. And I had never damaged a single bit of her beloved bric-a-brac.
I pictured my Grandpa Harry, waking up to discover his wife cold and still beside him. His partner for more than fifty years gone forever. I could feel his terror, his silent assurances that she would be just fine. Modern medicine–paramedics, doctors, and machines–would fix her. Or maybe this was not real. Maybe he was still asleep. Eyes closed and opened again with force. She remained lifeless. He stumbled to his feet, racing for the phone in the hallway. Realizing that he did not know the number for the hospital, he called his daughter instead. “Caroline…something is wrong with your mother. I don’t know what to do.”
I crumpled into my mom’s arms. The sobs came so hard, I thought my throat might be bleeding. My mom rubbed my back awkwardly. We were not a physically affectionate family of two.
“It will be okay…seventy-five is a long time to live…saw so many things…most kids don’t even meet their great-grandparents….she will always live in your heart.”
The sort of sentiments one hears over and over again as the death count grows. But I didn’t know that then. This was my first loss.
It’s funny how the statements we find comforting upon the passing of an elderly relative only intensify the pain of losing a young person.
“Twenty-seven is a long time to live.”
“He saw so many things.”
“It will be okay.”
No. No. And no.