My Grandma Jeanne died last week.
Or, in the gentler words of my wise (and gentler) friend Sue, “I hate death.”
Even if she was in her upper 80’s and, as Lucy says, “That’s what happens to people in their 80’s.”
Even if she did die well, surrounded by loving family and as pain free as possible and before the horrors of bed-ridden Alzheimer’s irrevocably set in.
She died well surrounded by loving family and I wasn’t there.
She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there.
Death sucks and being far, far away from the people in mourning double sucks. I feel I said goodbye to my grandmother a few years ago when she descended into Alzheimer’s. I visited her in December. So it isn’t a lack of good-byeing. She will be buried beside my grandfather, the man she loved well for their 60 years of marriage and I wasn’t there for his funeral either.
It is a lack of being with. I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, “I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.”
Being far, far away means saying I’m sad and giving in to those emotions brings with it the burden of being afraid I’m communicating I want to go back for the funeral and the burden of being afraid that I’m communicating I don’t want to go back for the funeral.
Because ‘want’ is the absolute wrong word. Of course I want to be there and of course I want to be here, that is not the point. Or maybe it is. That is the fundamental reality of being an expatriate, of loving two places, of living in two worlds.
My family is entirely gracious in how they respond to whatever choices we make about when to return to the US and when not to but no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.
Part of me doesn’t go back because it is hard to take such long, exhausting trips. So expensive. Part of me doesn’t go back because leaving the other spouse here is really challenging. Part of me doesn’t go back when grandparents die because I’m holding on.
I’m holding onto the irrational fear that something surprising and bad will happen to someone younger. A parent, sibling, best friend. And the money will be gone, the time will be spent, I won’t be able to go. So it is almost like I’m saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. Inevitable when you love people, yes. But something to plan around now? No. It is pretty foolish and faithless, in fact.
I believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts, though the sting carries hope, and tonight as I sip my apple cinnamon tea, I salt the water with tears. Death hovers like a cold dark shroud and when people gather beneath it, together, they keep each other warm.
When someone you love dies and you are far, far away, you are outside that warmth of corporate grief and shiver and wonder if you are in the right place.
*update: I wrote this post the morning after she died. I wasn’t planning to go to Minnesota but then couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to, that now was the right time to go back. Thanks to the generosity of others and a kind-hearted husband, I will be with these (my) people for about 3 days.
*image via Flickr