Death / Funerals

Pall on Winter Break

When I think of him, holding her hand all night, I wonder, how much was for him, and how much was for her? In my mind’s eye I see the tiny towhead, from the black and white photos hung in her basement sitting room, in the house where everything was breakable. That house was sold years ago, but when I think of her, it’s exactly what I imagine. Most of her things have already been divided among the remaining sons, and whenever I go ‘home,’ I pile my suitcase on the green leather wingback chair that sat downstairs at grandma’s house, right below the giant oil painting of the grandpa I never met.

He was her baby.

She was his mom.

As crotchety and cantankerous as she was, she was his mom and he was her baby. And the night before she died, he held her hand round the clock. When my mom told me that, I went to bed holding my 3 y/o son and contemplated the inevitable fate that someday he will be sitting at my bedside, holding my hand, ushering me in to the other side. That thought alone was almost too much to bear. My sweet little boy, holding my hand to fall asleep, knowing that his mommy is right there, breathing into his blonde hair, is all the comfort he needs. And now, my dad, doesn’t have that.

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My grandma had been talking about death for as long as I knew her. Every year at Christmas, she would say something like, “this is probably the last Christmas with you all,” which became a running joke among our generation, because after ever fall, stroke, battle with cancer, she bounced back. My dad called her a ‘tough old bird,’ and I felt that it was the lifetime of bitterness that kept her veins pumping. Bitterness that I can’t judge. A daughter raised on a Colfax farm, widowed with a 15 year old song left at home, it couldn’t have been easy to live in her skin, or her wigs, or her horribly matched polyester pantsuits.

So when my mom dropped the bombshell, as I was on the way to her own family Christmas event (of which she couldn’t attend because she was sick), saying, “grandma died,” I was shocked. Sure she had aspirated something into her lungs, and pneumonia is terrible for people her age, I still didn’t believe it was even possible for her to die. But there it was, the dreaded phone call.

And yet, I have no emotion for the situation, save the sadness I feel for my dad who lost his mother.

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I’m on Winter Break from teaching, and her death reminded me of one of my favorite poems about death:

Mid-Term Break

BY SEAMUS HEANEY

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.
In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.
The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand
In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.
Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four-foot box, a foot for every year.
If her death fit this model, it’d be a 96 foot box, a foot for every year.

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On the phone, a few days later, my dad asked if I would be a pallbearer. Far from the traditional men only club, he thought it was poetic to have he and his brother, and the four of us grand kids (since my brother won’t be able attend) be the ones to carry her casket to the grave. I said yes, because deep in my body is a value of loyalty, despite feeling nothing toward this death. To support my dad, I will carry his mother’s body to be laid to rest. It will be a heavy burden for a short period of time. Unlike the lifetime left of him living without his mother. Violet Maxine, may you rest in peace.

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