I am sitting here watching my beloved Michigan Wolverines stomp all over Penn State, and I can’t help remembering Grandma. Six years ago today, I went to work extremely excited. I was leaving right after work to head home for the weekend. A friend of mine had given me tickets to the Michigan-Bowling Green game up at the Big House and I was taking my mom. I have been a Michigan football fan since I was a little kid and I went to BG, so the best of both worlds. Plus, my mother’s Alzheimer’s was starting to show more and more, so I knew such outings were quickly going to end.
Halfway through the morning, my phone started screaming, because I had forgotten to turn off the sound. I saw it was my aunt, and I cringed. I looked at my assistant and said, “I know what this means, but I will wait until after dismissal to listen to it.”
My grandmother was 95 and had just come down with pneumonia after trying to recover from a broken back. We all know what usually happens with people at that age who get pneumonia. I was just so grateful that I had made it home not even two weeks prior to see her for her birthday. In fact, she kicked me out after lunch because the Michigan-Notre Dame game was on, and she thought I needed to home to watch it.
After morning dismissal, I sat on the bench and pulled out my phone to listen to my voice mail. As I had feared, Grandma had passed away that morning. She got up, went to the bathroom, got back into bed and never got up again. I am still teary thinking about that moment, which I had literally dreamed about many times, sitting in that exact spot and getting that message.
I touched base with my father and made arrangements to miss the entire next week of work. It was going to take time to get everyone together to have the memorial service. My coworkers made sure I had food before I left and gave me their well wishes. I headed home and I fumbled as I tried to now pack for a full week instead of just a weekend. Robotically I got into the car and headed west, remembering Grandma and 33 years together.
Soon after I was born, my parents decided to take a new road in life, opening their own furniture business. They had actually met at Dad’s family’s furniture store. And for many reasons, Dad wanted his own. So, while they were building the store and apartment, we moved in with my grandparents and stayed for about a year or so.
After my parents started their store, I still spent a lot of time with my grandmother. If our parents were busy at the store, she would pick us up from school. Mom played the church organ, so Grandma picked us up after first service and fed us lunch, then we played games or read until Mom or Dad would come pick us up. She took us to the library and to Disney movies. I played dress up with her shoes until I outgrew them. I was fascinated by the differences between my city grandmother and my mom’s mother, who was a farmer’s wife.
As I started getting older, she was patient while I pored over family albums and asked a million questions about all of these people I didn’t know. My only regret is that I never wrote them down.
In high school, I still enjoyed spending time with my grandmother, which isn’t really a normal thing. My parents sold their business at the end of my senior year of high school and moved us 25 miles south. I still wanted to spend time with friends, and my grandmother let me stay over at her condo, even though I was coming in at 2 and 3 a.m. Our agreement was she wouldn’t tell my mother how long I had been out, as long as I didn’t tell my parents that her boyfriend was spending the night.
In college, I still cherished our family time at holidays. When I started teaching Montessori, I was at a school just a couple of miles away. We often got together for dinner. The only time we missed our dinner was on her birthday, September 11, 2001. We decided considering the circumstances, I was better off heading straight home as soon as possible.
That last birthday of hers that we spent together was extremely difficult. I knew when I hugged her goodbye and said that I would be back at Thanksgiving that we weren’t going to see each other again. And I remember the look in her eyes that said the same, though neither one of us would voice it.
Even after I moved to New York, I made regular visits back home. I never missed her birthday. We spent all holidays together. I would spend hours at her apartment, just sitting there. We would chat, but then sometimes sit in silence. In fact, after she died, she came back to me in a dream and told me I had to just sit there. We were just going to sit together, and if I spoke, she would leave. I opened my mouth and said, “But I have so many more questions for you.”
She replied, “I told you not to speak. Now I have to go.” And she vanished.
When my mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, I often confided in my grandmother, as I knew my father was also doing. She really became a surrogate mother for me at that point. We were so close, that when her brother took a turn for the worse, having contracted pneumonia after knee surgery at the age of about 88, I was the one chosen to deliver the bad news and to drive her to Hospice to say goodbye to him. When she passed away, I was nominated by the cousins to represent all of the grandchildren in a eulogy.
Losing my grandmother meant losing a part of who I was. She’s the one who taught me to love reading. She taught me to love taking walks in nature. She taught me to be strong and to help people. I lost a confidante and a friend. It also kickstarted the worst year of my life, losing my mother to the depths of Alzheimer’s, and my father then passing away eight months later. It’s always a tough anniversary for me to acknowledge, yet I do. It’s who I am. It’s my way of acknowledging my loss while celebrating her life.
I have moved on, of course, though I still miss her every day. It isn’t a choice. When life gets tough, you put one foot in front of the other and keep soldiering on. I think she would be proud of me and I still often feel her presence, especially at this time of year. I’m going to leave you with the poem that I read at her funeral. Thank you for remembering Grandma with me.
Grandma was grilled cheese sandwiches
And freshly sliced tomatoes.
She was a half glass of milk
And eating her bananas was a no-no.
Grandma was chocolate pudding fresh on the stove
And chocolate chip cookies in the oven.
She never seemed affectionate,
But was full of so much lovin’.
Grandma was Shirley Temple movies
And lots of board games.
She knew every single card game,
Even if not all their names.
Grandma was Disney movies on the big screen
At the local movie theatres,
Always eating all of my popcorn,
And never let me treat her.
Grandma never let me climb her trees,
But I blew bubbles in the back yard.
She never seemed to discipline me,
On my best behavior I worked hard.
Grandma was walks in the cemetery
Or around her condo’s block.
She would tell me lots of stories.
I loved to hear her talk.
Grandma was Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy
And Wimbledon with Federer.
Never interrupt her TV time!
All of us knew better.
Grandma was an avid reader.
She even dabbled as a writer.
My whole life’s aspiration has been
To be just like her.