Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Vignettes From Late August

On a Tuesday morning I gather up my children with all their necessaries and drop them off with my mom. I stop a couple of times to pick up three sisters and my dad. Everyone slides into my car, sharing some French fries from Wendy's and a few laughs. We are driving up to a small town in Northern Utah with a lake, and across from the lake a little white house, and in that little white house, my grandmother dying of cancer.

It is the day that my dad and his siblings will talk to my grandmother one last time about "options" presented by the doctor regarding the sudden appearance of stage four ovarian cancer. After a week or so of culling information and emotions and trying to put everything in its place, it's time to decide. My grandmother, widowed more than forty years earlier, decides against treatment. If it's her time to go, she is willing to go.

I have spent days agonizing over the idea of seeing her go through chemotherapy. When my dad tells us, I feel a deep sense of relief.

She greets us from her large comfortable reclining chair in the living room. "It's not that I don't know you, because I do," she pauses for a split second and then points to those of us on the couch "Bethany, Kimberly, Allysha," naming us in deliberate fashion, "but I want you to tell your grandmother something fun you've been doing in your life." So we do.

Later that afternoon as I wander around her house looking at various notes and quotes placed almost everywhere, the calendars sent as thanks for donations to various causes, her own artwork in frames hung about the walls, I can hear my father reading to her from a book of his own poems. "That is really good." She tells him. And she's right.

She's tired and drifts in and out of sleep, reclining in her chair. We look through photo albums brimming with memories. We carry on a conversation around her. Occasionally she awakens with some witty comment. Energy may elude her, but she hasn't lost her sense of humor.

The air is clear and golden. It is Eden right before the Autumnal equinox. It is evening and my uncle and aunts have wheeled Grandmother to sit outside. My dad and my sisters and I cross the road to the lake where we walk along the dike, admiring the beauty of this small valley, enjoying the quiet of simple conversation, the contemplation of life and death, the concentric circles that travel outward from a small rock landing in the water of the lake.

After an entire day unfettered by real-life demands it is time to go. I kiss her cheek and then her forehead. She smiles and says "oh!" as if she is just a tad bit embarrassed by the deliberateness of my affections. I tell her goodbye.

* * * * * *

Friday morning just as the sun peaks up over the mountains and spills onto the lake, surrounded by her sisters and daughters, she slips away into eternity. She dies in the bedroom just off the living room where she was born eighty years before. My brother calls at 8:35 a.m. to tell me. I am surprised, even as I expect it; I know it as soon as I see the call is from him.

* * * * * *

Later that same day I am at my parent's house sitting at the kitchen table. My sister is on the phone with my dad. She has shuffled through a binder of his poetry and finding what he wanted, is slowly reading each line of a poem so he can write it down. My brother-in-law and I are talking quietly, when suddenly our conversation is pierced by the emotion in my sister's voice: she is repeating the poem back to my father. As she reads, words about my grandmother fall slowly around us. Bethany's voice breaks and my eyes fill with tears. She and I are the two daughters who have followed my father into word-smithy. "The trouble with being a poet, " I say to my brother-in-law "is that the poignancy of life is sometimes overwhelming."

* * * * * *

"Guess what, " Ella says to Madeleine, "guess who died today?"

It's afternoon. Madeleine freshly home from first grade looks up, and Ella tells her the news. I don't step in, don't stop her; it seems like the kind of thing that sisters should tell each other.

Madeleine bursts into tears. As I calm her, holding her, talking about how happy Grandmother is to have moved on, and telling her about the funeral, Ella, possessor of this knowledge for an entire day, has moved on past the emotion. Madeleine states in an important tone of voice that this will be her first funeral. Ella replies with great energy "It will be my first dead body!"

Ben and I try our hardest not to burst out laughing.

* * * * * *

Once again, the next Tuesday, I find myself childless and heading up to Brigham City for the viewing. Ben and the kids will follow in the morning to be there for the funeral. As my sister and I approach the doors to the mortuary we say the same thing in unison. "Funeral homes are interesting."

Later that night all eleven siblings from age 13 to 33 crash in my uncle's basement for a family sleep over before the next day's solemn assemblies. We roll out sleeping bags and play games for an hour, laughing and enjoying each other's company. Just as we are getting ready for bed, our mom comes down to tell us to be quiet and to go to sleep.

* * * * * *

It is late afternoon after the funeral. I wander into my grandmother's pantry, newly organized by an industrious aunt. I take a small glass bottle half-full of home-dried apples from the tree in her backyard. Once home, I put them in my closet. During the quiet moment of a day I sometimes go in and take the bottle down from the shelf. I turn the lid, and lift it open. I take out a slice of apple and place it in my mouth tasting its tart sweetness.


  1. Very sweet and touching. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You are a true artist. . .beautiful. I hope I go like that.

  3. Yes, you are a word-smith. This is a touching story--or more like a little series of scenes in a play. Complete with comic relief from Ella.

    You don't say if your grandmother suffered much at the end but this is the way I hope to go...on my own terms and still able to recognize my granddaughter's faces.

  4. Thank you for living that story and waiting to share it until now. Your break must have done you well, and I enjoy reading your writing, again. I especially liked what you said, "The trouble with being a poet," I say to my brother-in-law "is that the poignancy of life is sometimes overwhelming."

    BTW, I have my Grandmas tin that she stored "grandma mints" still stored in the back of my cabinet for reminiscing, too.

  5. Thanks Allysha - that made me feel like Grandmother was here again. It reminded me how much I miss her.

  6. I miss her everyday, I keep picking up the phone to call...I want to tell her how delicious our tomatoes are this year. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. That was beautiful to read. Thanks for sharing.