The day, thick and heavy with grey drizzle irritates like a soaked wool blanket. My restless children cling to my sides, whiny and needy from being inside all day. I shiver – trying to shake off the damp creeping from under the gap in my patio door. I shake – trying to free myself from the children. My task of the week – toilet training my 2-year-old – was a failure, cleaning up messes off the floor, dragging rugs out to the porch to be hosed off, and washing his hands after playing in his own pee. A true holiday beckoned. Starting the next week – my husband was planning on taking time off from work – with promises of exploration and quality time with the kids. They’d been off of school for weeks and while the first few weeks of being home – trips to the zoo, and parks had been fun (and I patted myself on the back) – the summer now dragged its feet. Like a defiant 2-year-old, the pouty weather had turned us all sour and impatient. I stare out the window. My Texas mind is unable to calculate how it could be this cold and rainy in August. Then, the phone rings.
My phone never rings. Our house phone is a Belgian number (I don’t even know) and is also connected to our Skype account. A handful of people in the U.S. have our Skype number. Half the time I answer and a Flemish voice speaks back. Wrong number.
“Hello? Hello?” I shout above the nagging children at my sides.
“Hi Ca-leste. . . it’s Daaad,” my Dad’s West Texas twang drawls from the other end of the phone.
“Oh hi, Dad,” I start, cheerful for the diversion, then I blink. My heart sinks. I stare out into the grey. I know what’s coming.
The call we’ve all be waiting for. My Grandma, Helen Willaphene Beran, has moved on into the next life. Peacefully, in her sleep. She’s gone. I nod into the phone, fight tears. I hang up, and they flow. I pour a cup of tea and sit on the covered porch, staring into the rain. The drizzle falls on the grape leaves. They sag under the weight. My children are running around inside. I shut the porch door. They follow me outside anyway.
“Mama, you sad? You crying?” my 2-year old cocks his head and furrows his tiny brows at me. With a balled fist I wipe away tears.
“No honey, I’m fine,” but I’m not fine. I go into the house, pass the china cabinets full of Grandma’s hand-painted china, turn on Grandma’s lamp, and collapse into a chair. I stare between the clock and the window. The clock and the window. The key turns and wet shoes shuffle into the marble foyer. I shout to my husband. He enters and I tell him she’s gone.
Just as he processes the news, our three noisy children see and attack him. “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” they shout, jumping around him like the baby birds they are. I think this is the hardest part about grief with children. Just when you want the world to be still and quiet for just one moment, your world continues to hurl you forward – unwilling and fighting. We sit them down and tell them the news. My daughter goes into a fit of tears, “I didn’t get to say goodbye,” she wails. Even my son, who is five says “We won’t get to have G.G.’s special chocolates!” and I smile. Memories have been made.
We all knew it was coming, Grandma hadn’t been well for years. Unable to walk or care for herself, she grew frustrated with her situation. She was tired and depressed, but always happy to see and hear from us. With every visit I always wondered if it would be our last – even when we had moved back to Texas for those 18 months. When we visited her in March, I snapped beautiful photos of us, but there were tears in my eyes. I knew it was the last time. As I waved goodbye and “hugged her neck” I cast a final glance. Her profile was solemn, slumped slightly forward in her wheelchair, with the sun from the skylight above radiating over her. My Grandma looked like an angel.
When my Dad told me there wasn’t going to be a funeral, that he’d rather just bury her himself, my surprise was fleeting. I nodded into the phone and smirked a bit.
“Now, I don’t want ever’one flyin’ from all ov’er to come look at my deaaad body,” I imagine her eyeing my Dad with that no-nonsense look of hers. “Now. I’ve said my goodbyes and that’s that. Don’t you dare make a big fuss over me, you hear me. . .” I can picture it clearly – her elbows rest on the arms of her wheelchair. Her hands, fingertips together punctuate every word. She then folds them together over her stomach in conclusion and casts a sideways glance in his direction.
“Alllright, Mama,” he drawls, “Whaaatever you want,” he says back and shrugs. He leans back in a chair, his own hands up in surrender, “Thaat’s fine. Thaat’s fine.”
Dad asked me to write the obituary for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and I was honored. I reviewed the current listings, followed some common formats, but then added my own flair. It was published on Sunday, August 12th. She had chosen the photo – a black and white portrait of her when she was a young beauty – just 18 years old.
The next days, I talked to my Dad and my mother a lot. I was sad – a longing feeling to be at home in Texas tugged at me. But all her things were with me in Antwerp. Her furniture mocked, but comforted me. “But I didn’t get to say goodbye,” my daughter still protested.
“Yes honey, but you know that bed you sleep in every night? That was G.G.’s, she slept in it too and she gave it to you.” I hold her shoulders and gaze into her eyes. “So every night when you go to bed, you know what? She’s giving you a big hug and kiss goodnight. She’s watching over you as you sleep every night, I promise sweetheart,” and I give her a big hug. She is satisfied with this answer.
The day my Dad buries my Grandma I talk to him – before and after. Everything goes smoothly. I nod into the phone, tell him I love him and he wishes me a good night. My husband and I ascend the stairs and into bed, but I’m unable to sleep. I pick up my pillow and climb into my daughter’s bed. I lie next to her and turn my back. I pat my eyes with tissues. I imagine Grandma giving me a big hug too. I sleep until morning.
There will be good days and bad days. She had a beautiful long life and she was ready to go in the end. She told my parents many times that she could have sworn her mother had visited her – and I believe she had. She’s reunited with her family – four brothers, mom, dad, and her husband. She’s hanging out with old friends that have long been gone.
I will miss my Grandmother. She was always my go-to person who was always happy to hear from me. She always made me feel better about myself. During my time back in Texas – I remember it was at the end of a really bad day – I was frustrated with kids, husband, parents, life, whatever – I told my husband I’d be back in a bit. I sat in the car I debated – where to go? The library? Call a friend? Starbucks? And then it dawned on me. I drove to CVS, grabbed a pack of those tiny bottles of wine and a package of Kebbler cookies and headed towards Grandma. At 8:00 p.m., I sat in her room, taking notes, sipping Sutter Home and munching on Fudge Stripes. She talked and I wrote. Pages. I came back home filled with love in my heart and stories in my hands.
She loved my crazy children no matter how rambunctious they were. She laughed at their sprints down her assisted living hallways, dodging wheelchairs and walkers. She waved away my demands for them to be quiet, “Everyone around here is deaf anyway, let them scream,” she say with a chuckle.
I always believed in the funeral – the goodbye. But I also believe that the spirit lives on. As I gaze at my daughter – I see so many features of myself, but of her grandmothers and great-grandmother, too. She’s artistic and beautiful, sensitive and strong. So many times my Grandmother told me, “I’m just so happy you have my pretty things,” and I just laugh.
“Of course, Grandma! Of course I’ll take care of them!” Perhaps to many, they’re just ‘things’, but to her and to me, they were a way of life – of homemaking with simplicity and beauty. These are the lessons I’m instilling (consciously or not) to my daughter as well. I’d like to think that my daughter will still be sipping out of hand painted china teacups when she’s a mother, too.
As we go through our holiday – exploring Belgium days after her passing, I see little hints that she’s still with me – an angel sculpture in the bathroom in Mons or a roll top desk in our apartment in Dinant – both just like she had in Lubbock. She will still speak to me in strange, but comforting ways and I am receptive. I miss her. I love her. But she will live on – within me and around me. I’m sure of it.