Somethings ‘happened. A life thing. My grandmother passed away last weekend, in a moment when I was 8000 miles away, likely on a bicycle spinning in the sunshine through olive groves and vineyards. If not, its quite likely that I was laughing with friends about something silly or vulgar, or enjoying a great meal. Heck, I might have even been sleeping and digesting a great meal or picking my nose.
The point is I was doing anything and everything but recognizing that this was the last minute of a full life for her, and one of so many moments in a full life for me.
I’ve always believed that the mystery of the universe worked in a way such that it would have sent me a sign in that moment that she took her last breath. Shouldn’t I have looked at my watch, seen a dove alighting, had a moment where my human and genetic energy was connected to hers and recognized that something was changing? Well, I didn’t, and one moment she was here, the next….not here anymore.
She had been sick for some time, my grandmother. But she was the type of woman whom was hell bent on survival. She had a work ethic like no 86-year old woman I’d ever fathomed and right up until last summer insisted upon working at one of the amusement parks not far from her home as a ticket taker. It wasn’t a strenuous job, but it got her out in the sun, and let her talk to people, and set her hair, and do those sorts of things that keep one going like taking things from people — tickets in this case. When she wasn’t at the park, she’d work in her garden and complain about weeds, harass the tenants in her rental apartment about mowing their lawn, or go shopping….usually to buy out the stock of cotton swabs at her neighborhood CVS store. Just in case the ear wax apocalypse came to pass, she wanted all of us to be ready.
These little determined inconsistencies have made me laugh in the past days, but the more I process her death, the more they anger and sadden me because, as determined as she was to survive, I feel as if she had a true diffidence towards LIVING.
My grandmother and I were not close, as grandparent/grandchild relationships go. She wasn’t the type of Granny who showed up with candies so that she could lure me onto her knees and whisper things in my ear when I was a wee one. When I was growing up, awkward in my adolescence, she never told me what a smart or lovely girl; I was and instead criticized me for being too skinny, or awkward. She didn’t keep cats, or knit blankets, or bake pies that were to-die-for-delicious, but she did have a doberman pinscher that would drool and show angry teeth when we would come to visit. Of late, I don’t recall her smiling with kind eyes when I talk about wanting to someday have children of my own, or being excited for us when we have an adventure anew. Instead, she’d shake a crooked finger at me and scold me for….something. The mashed potatoes being too cold, probably.
We didn’t talk about her adventures in life, or what it was like to be young, one of 12 children raised by polish parents straight off the boat on a farm in New York. I know she had great stories to tell about my grandfather, and my mother when she was a sweet little girl, but she kept them to herself. There was no outward excitement about life, growing, changing. About connecting. But just as I believed that the mysterious universe was meant to send me a sign when she left her life for somewhere else, I believe that every human being has enthusiasm for humanity — I believe we all love our children, we all see beauty in an amazing sunset, we all have a place in our hearts – an affinity- for family. My grandmother’s greatest accomplishment might have been keeping hers hidden from the world.
Not long after I heard the news of her passing, I went for a run in the quickly-changing-golden hills near our apartment in San Giovanni. The hay has been baled now, and the winds are changing. The grapes are ready for harvest, dripping from the vines and so birds can be seen in masse flying above the fields hunting for a nibble. The leaves are sprinkling the green hills with gold, and the sunsets seem even more magnificent laced with the burning scents of deadfall. I ran past an abandoned abbey deep in the forest, along truck tracks through the olives and cypress that seemed not to have been used in ages. As I ran through all of this beauty, I found myself thinking of her and – at last – having an emotional reaction to her passing and running as tears filled my eyes and ran down my sweaty cheeks.
I imagined that she was one of the birds swooping over the rolling hills, mingling with the other ecstatic bodies, and up into the belfry of the abbey, being moved by the vibrations of its ringing bells. I imagined the power and freedom she must feel as a bird now, and wondered if she remembered all of the gates, locks, and secret rooms of the life she used to live. I imagined her smiling, even laughing at the earth below — seeing the world, as we all surely want to, free as a bird. I wondered if she had been happy, was happy now. I wondered if she had regret, and if she was living out those desires. I wondered if she had been conflicted and hoped if so, she had -at last- found peace.
I’ve thought of her more and more as I run in the quickly arriving fall – maybe its the empowerment and freedom that I feel moving through the forest that connects me to this image of her in flight? Regardless, in these moments, I’m hard pressed to say that what I’m feeling is a grief – sorrow can’t possibly be so electric. Instead, I’m excited for her…wherever she may be.
lead photo by Mary Ann Reilly