In the western world today children don’t often have the experience of watching from near at hand while a grandparent slowly dies. It must once have been more common, as it was once more common for three or even four generations of a family to live together under one roof. When we came to live temporarily with my in-laws at the beginning of the summer, we never intended to provide our children with this sort of old-world experience. And yet that’s what they got.
In late May grandma was in the midst of a chemotherapy course – her third in three years – and we had hopes for another reprieve, one that might last for half a year. We hoped that once we had finished the sale of our condo and the purchase of a new home out of state, she might come and stay with us awhile. We wanted to bless the place with memories of her presence there, knowing that in the balance she wasn’t likely to be with us much longer. But the march of events is pitiless and without regard for our little hopes and expectations.
I wonder what shape these past three months will take in the lives of my son and daughter. Three months ago they walked with their grandmother in the marsh, watching the redwing blackbirds and swallows circling above the inky water. She was smiling and apparently well. This past week they saw her small withered body laid out in the so-called living room, the shape of her skull asserting itself beneath the skin. They stood around their beloved grandmother’s cold shell as we read prayers, and when it was over my daughter couldn’t look away because she knew she would never see her grandmother’s face again for the rest of her life.
We began mourning her loss weeks before her actual death. Inch by inch, my mother-in-law was slowly passing out of the room – that room of the living – and into the unknowable country that eventually draws each of us to its shores. She had seizures and couldn’t look at our faces. Even broth became impossible to keep down. She could hardly talk. Two more weeks passed during which all she could eat were small chips of ice. Finally she could no longer swallow. When she died we cared for her body at home in the room where she had left us. No one could bear the thought of strangers taking her away in a bag.
I expected my wife’s grief on the terrible day. I expected my father-in-law’s grief and the grief of my children, which nonetheless showed itself in unpredictable ways. What I failed to anticipate was my own grief. It had not occurred to me how painfully I would feel her loss. She had loved me as a son for seventeen years. I could do no wrong in her eyes, and her confidence in me as a husband and a father was often greater than my own. If I had ever failed to compensate her for the love she had given me, I resolved now to pay it with interest to her daughter and her grandchildren.