I’ve been wrong about many things. Most of the things I’ve been right about I learned from my mother.
I walk down an endless hallway lined with pictures of newborns toward Room 364. Babies are born here. No one should come here to die.
I know I’m not ready to lose my mother because I go from zero to anger in less than 60 seconds. Anger at preachers of sermons, writers of books, and posters on Facebook who appear to care about so many things but have yet to solve the world’s problems. At friends who feign sympathy but feel none of the impact of my grief. At people who judge me for failing to meet their expectations. At people who envy me because my airbrushed life seems too soft. At young people who think they are the center of the universe. At the shower for taking too long to get hot in the mornings when I can barely drag myself to work.
I’ve been grieving for so long I don’t remember much else. The last time I woke up happy to face a new day was sometime back in 2003 before I found out my father was going to die. We were living in a log cabin with a breathtaking view, and I was about to finish law school. I believed the best part of life was about to begin. Then suddenly I was grieving everyone I was ever going to lose in my life, and not just to death.
In the words of Lady Gaga, “Till it happens to you, you don’t know.”
Even then you don’t know. Grief is personal. It’s a spectator sport. Everyone watches you battle on in isolation from behind thick plexiglass.
Over the years, grief has taken a baseball bat to my knees, knocked me down for the count, then screamed at me to get up and keep going. Day after day after day. Loss after excruciating loss. Some public. Most private.
They say grief has stages. It’s not supposed to begin with anger. That’s how I know I’m not ready.
Thankfully, she isn’t either. By the time I arrive, oxygen has done its job and she’s back to pointing at each person in the room, asking who they are and nodding as she processes each identity over and over again.
She peers over my shoulder and sees my daughter hugging her boyfriend.
“What’s going on over there?” she asks, and we all laugh. It’s midnight, and the nurse on duty—a family friend—gently asks us to tone the party down a bit.
We gather around her to pray and then, one by one, we linger to hug her and exchange meaningful words, pats and kisses before leaving her in the watchful care of my sister, who will take the night shift in the recliner beside her bed.
Chelsea and I linger longest. Chelsea leans close to her face and sings to her in German, receiving a gentle caress on the cheek.
“Who are you?” comes the endearing question.
“I’m Chelsea! I’m your granddaughter.”
“Who’s that?” She points toward me.
“That’s Conna. She’s your daughter—my mommy.”
“Hmm. You look alike!”
We laugh. Chelsea begins reading her Bible verses from a plaque on the wall. She whispers along, finishing each phrase by heart while my husband videos the interchange from the sidelines.
She read her Bible through 39 times before she couldn’t see enough to read anymore. On good days she still picks up her magnifying glass and tries to read a bit more, perhaps trying to make it to 40.
I take her hand and, as always, she finds my ring. I put it on her finger and she poses for a picture, pointing at it with her other hand.
“Family,” she says. “I am blessed.”
Yes, she is. Severely crippled for 52 years, widowed for 11, now suffering from chronic bronchiectasis, pulmonary fibrosis, and congestive heart failure complicated by acute pneumonia, yet wise enough to know she’s blessed.
“You’re beautiful,” she says to Chelsea.
“You’re beautiful,” Chelsea volleys back. “Do you feel beautiful?”
“No!” she replies as if she’s giving the answer to 2+2.
“I love you, Grandma,” Chelsea whispers.
I lean down and echo the words in her ear. “I love you, Momma.”
“Hmmm!” she brightens as if she just won a pie at an auction. “You said the right thing!”
“We’ll be back in the morning to check on you,” I say, weary to know that I’ll be up even earlier writing responses to student papers on the latest business trends.
“Good,” she says. “God loves you. My love will encircle you, round and round. I’ll be up all night waiting for you.”
That she will.
February 29, 2016