I have observed Memorial Day since I was thirteen, after I lost my Aunt Linda. I would put flowers on her grave. Now, fifteen years later, I have quite a few more names to add to that list. I’m not going to talk about everyone I have lost because that list would be far too long (and kind of depressing in volume), but there are six people I am thinking of in particular this Memorial Day. So in no particular order, here are the people who I am remembering right now. And no matter who they were to me or how they left, when I think of them, I smile.
My Aunt Linda
I was always very close to my Aunt Linda, my mother’s sister, even if I don’t particularly know why. I think it may have been because she always seemed on the outside, looking in, and I connected to that. She was both intellectually and developmentally disabled. I have always hated the word retarded, and perhaps she was the reason why – she was the reason I learned the word so quickly. (It was often used in my family to describe her, so I hated it very early on, even before I knew what it meant, because somehow I understood what it meant.)
I always played games with my Aunt Linda, went on walks with her, talked to her rather than talk down to her. Her mind worked differently than the minds of other people, but it was such a wondrous place. She was a devout fan of ‘The Young and the Restless’ and ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and would tell me about them whenever I would call her, which was at least once a week. She also loved word searches and other puzzle books (I think I got this hobby from her). She thought about things in ways alien to others and for that people treated her like a child, like she was stupid, but against all odds she graduated high school, back in the 1970’s, and she achieved her lifelong pursuit of living on her own (for the last two years anyway). Whenever someone in my family would put her down, she would go outside by herself. I would always follow her, and started to get scolded, “Don’t encourage Aunt Linda when she pouts.” This was always met with a look of daggers (I hope at least, as that was my intention) and I went outside anyway, to talk with her. (I have never cared about what I am told to do, when I feel it is wrong.)
She died when I was thirteen. I remember the exact day that she died because on the morning she was found (she stayed with my grandma that night, so she died sometime early in the morning) was the same morning my shunt broke. I was in that familiar agony, I knew far too well, and yet my mother would not let me come home. The school nurse who had seen me through enough shunt surgeries had no doubt what it was, but instead I was told to stay in her office all day and try to rest. When I got home, I was told the news. I didn’t believe it and she was the first person that I knew well and loved who had died. There was a lot of crying and denial and that was on Monday. Thursday we put her to rest. I was the one who gave her eulogy, the only one. I told everyone how much she meant to me and how amazing, strong and intelligent she really was. I hope they understood. The next day, my shunt couldn’t wait any longer and I had emergency surgery to replace it.
My Aunt Linda reminded me that being misunderstood and mistreated does not define who a person is or what they can do. She was my first real loss, but all of these years later, thinking of her just fills me full of love, peace and gratitude. I was so lucky to know her the way that I did.
My paternal grandmother, Mary
My grandmother (my father’s mother) was the closest I had to an actual mother growing up. She was one of the two people I credit for teaching me the joy of books and reading, and it was something we could always talk about. She also tried to teach me how to knit, but it never took (I am just too clumsy, same story with learning how to crochet). I was over at her house often, and at times in high school more or less lived there. We always had Christmas Eve at her house, as well as Thanksgiving and the traditions of these two holidays that I hold dear were originally hers. She taught me how to make green bean casserole (and for the first 25 years of my life it was the only thing I could make) and every Thanksgiving I would help her prepare dinner for our entire family, while my grandpa watched TV in their living room. Christmas Eve is a much bigger deal (to me) than Christmas day. This includes a feast (similar to Thanksgiving, but different) and several small portions of homemade desserts, with more emphasis on variety (fudge, chocolate covered peanut butter balls, at least four kinds of cookies, brownies, lemon bars, you get the idea) than total quantity. She was always at every big event in my life and many of the small ones. She also always had M&Ms in a brass candy dish on her mantle and I became addicted to them soon after her passing. When I was sick, I always had a large bag with me, and it wasn’t because I love chocolate (though I do) but I think it was because of the calm I feel when I pop them into my mouth. The calm she would give me (seriously better than any anti-anxiety meds ever).
When I was a senior in college, my active, healthy, and world-traveling grandmother felt short of breath and went to the doctor. In less than three months she would be gone; an inoperable tumor had snuck up her airway and wrapped itself around her lungs and heart. At first she was given five to ten years, but in less than a month it changed to six months to a year and within a few weeks four to six months. She always was able to exceed the worst case. When I was sick with my autoimmune disease, I felt parallels to her diagnosis in the fact that I kept exceeding the worst case and was written off as a lost cause quickly. The difference was I didn’t die (or I guess, I didn’t stay dead). I was given this incredible gift from the universe, but she was denied any such gift.
The three months from her diagnosis to when she actually passed away were gut-wrenching. I was in college, roughly an hour away, but made arrangements with my professors and work and often took time off to be with her as much as I could. Except for a short stint during Christmas she never left the hospital (not even on Thanksgiving). In early January she made the choice of hospice. It looked like she was going to leave us so I said what I had to say to her. I told her the only lie I ever told her; that everyone would be all right. I knew she was only staying for us and how much pain it caused her, tore me up. I didn’t think about what would happen when she made the call and know it had nothing to do with me telling her this. Being in the situation where I almost made a similar call… it is completely personal. I do hope that what I said eased her fears of what would happen to her family once she was gone. In truth, we all fell apart and more or less went our separate ways. During that particularly painful (and the yet the most treasured) conversation I told her whatever I knew of love I had learned from her. She told me she was proud of me. She was the only who did, and I knew that she meant it.
Her last few weeks I was always at the hospital – screw school. I would put the brave face on for her and my family and then sneak away to the stairwells to cry, but only for two minutes. It was just enough to let it out little by little but not too long to not be considered a bathroom break. I would regain my composure, make sure my eyes weren’t red and go back into her hospice room. I was the only grandchild who visited her there until the night she died. I always thought death was fast, but she took just over twenty minutes to finally fade away, from the actual time she started to die. Knowing she was going to die did not make it easier, but I wouldn’t say it made it harder either. I was able to tell her what I felt before she passed but drawing it out also prolonged the pain. Her passing taught me death can be drawn out and very, very tricky.
When she was in hospice, I gave her my copy of “Harry Potter 4: The Goblet Of Fire”. Again she loved reading, and she was the one who had introduced me to the series. She had read the first three books, but didn’t have the chance to read this one yet. I had a hardback edition, you know with the paper cover inserts. She used it as a bookmark. When she died she was on page 648 out of 752 pages. I brought a new copy of the book and keep the copy she used as one of my most treasured possessions. If we move, I don’t pack it, but handle it myself, carefully. I have never touched or moved the cover she used as a bookmark, making sure to leave it in place, but I often open the book to the last pages that she read. I don’t know why, but it comforts me.
To me my grandmother always represented strength, dignity and grace. Maybe it sounds weird, but these traits were only that much more apparent during her cancer battle and her actual death. The holidays, and the sleepovers and her smile and her laugh; her teddy bear collection and her love of Hearts and Solitaire are the things I remember. If I am able to even be a fraction of the person she was, then I have truly succeeded in live.
My paternal grandfather, Dennis
My dad’s dad died less than six months after his wife, who I just finished talking about. Two days before my grandma died he was diagnosed with an early stage of cancer himself. It was caught so early; it only meant a simple surgery with little hospital time. But the thing about any surgery or medical trial is that you have to want to live to continue on – and he just didn’t. When anyone asks what happened to him, I always say he died of a broken heart, because he did. He gave up and never left the hospital. It wasn’t until the end that he seemed to change his mind, but by then, the refusal of breathing treatments, being bed bound for five months, and everything else already took their toll on him. There was no turning back. My grandmother had been his life and he was just anxious to join her.
As much as I miss him, I am probably most at peace with his passing, because in some ways, it was his own choice, but not a situation he created. When I think of him, like everyone else I remember and have talked about, I don’t think about his end. My grandfather led an amazing life. He was a famous private investigator, there are movies and books about him and his cases; he rescued so many women and children over the decades and fought for the wrongfully convicted with a zeal that made him a local celebrity, and depending who you were, a pain in the ass. I like to think my intuition and ‘take no shit’ came from him. He came off gruff at times, but was a total sap who would dress up as Santa on Christmas Eve when we were young. He was an amazing person and I was lucky enough to call him, Grandpa.
- Link to the movie that was created about him: Divided by Hate.
- An article in the Spokane Daily Chronicle about one of his arrests.
There are three others who mean a great deal to me, but I am going to save them for tomorrow. Who do you remember this Memorial Day?