The Things We Leave Behind


“Will she live to be 100? When’s Greatma going to get out of the hospital?” Clearly, my six-year-old didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him.

My own voice was soft but firm. I didn’t mince my words. “No, John. Greatma is never going to leave the hospital. She’s going to die. She’s very very sick, and she’s not getting enough oxygen.”

He stared at me with his eyes wide. Normally, he’s precocious with lots of questions, but he stayed quiet. His brother and sister were already in bed, but I’d let him stay up to finish a Lego project. The two of us were cleaning up the family room when the phone rang. It was my husband calling from the hospital.

After I hung up the phone, I turned and told John. “But I didn’t get to go and say goodbye,” he said wistfully.

I had no idea what to say. “It’s okay John. We didn’t take you guys to the hospital because we didn’t want you to get sick. Hospitals aren’t a great place for little kids.”

“Why would I get sick?” Sometimes I forget he’s a little kid, and that little kids think people go to the hospital to get better.

“Hospitals have a lot of germs, but it’s okay John. It’s okay.”

“Are you going to die?”

“No, John. Greatma was 95. She had a full life behind her. Mommy’s still young. Ish.”

Thankfully, he didn’t ask any more questions about death that I was completely unprepared for. “Can we cuddle before I go to bed?”

“Sure.” I didn’t need any more reminders; cleaning up the house could wait.

And so the death-watch finally ended. My husband’s grandmother went into the hospital ten days ago with the flu, pneumonia, and tachycardia. (We later found out the tachycardia was due to a heart attack.) My mother-in-law was told she’d probably be dead within 24 hours. So my in-laws have spent the last ten days constantly at the hospital, watching her struggle to breathe and seeing her body covered in bedsores. Waiting, just waiting.

The truth is she started talking about wanting to die six months ago. She’d already outlived her husband by nearly twenty years, and spent the last two years in a nursing home, unable to care of herself, and an entirely different person than the woman I first met thirteen years ago.

She was from a different generation; a proud woman who bore her burdens silently. She was quiet, stubborn, modest, and humble, with impeccable manners and taste. Extremely old-fashioned, she never changed the name on any her bills. All of her mail still came to Mrs. Richard Smith*. I was never really able to know her because she was too proud to get her hearing aid adjusted, and my voice was outside her range. She could usually hear my husband, but with me she would just smile and nod. True communication was always just out of reach. By the end though, she was stone-deaf, and couldn’t hear anyone. Even seeing her great-grandchildren had stopped making her smile. When we visited her on Christmas, my husband told me it was probably the last time our children would see her.

I don’t really know if there’s an afterlife or not, but I like to think there is. I don’t want to think life is entirely without meaning. And I hope that Grandma is there, reunited with her husband, at peace and wearing a beautifully tailored green coat.

Addendum: I hope all of you had a good holiday, and my apologies for being a terrible blogger recently. We are currently living with my in-laws and don’t have Wi-Fi. This makes keeping up with blogs difficult, as well as comment responses. I’ve also been struggling with a nasty case of writer’s block, where words seem empty and meaningless. Thanks for being patient with me.

*Smith is a fictive last name, but she was a very private person.

**The photo is my property, but isn’t of her.

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23 Responses to The Things We Leave Behind

  1. Wonderful post. I met my great-grandmother (we lived on the West Coast, she in the Midwest) on her 100th birthday. She was strong as an ox, and had lost her husband quite a few decades before. She lived on a farm and did everything for herself. In the next few years time wore on her, and she eventually had to be placed in a home. She hated losing her independence, and now that I’m older, I understand that she wanted to die after being removed from her home. In a way, it made me feel much better about losing a woman I barely knew, but who meant so much to me.

  2. lexiesnana says:

    Beautiful post.We too have had to explain death to our little ones recently.It is a hard job and they do get scared that someone else might die.They do get over it in their own time and I think that having such good parents as you sound to be will get them through it just fine.I loved how you showed us what kind of person Grandma was.It is inspiring.

  3. It’s so nice that your son got to know his great-grandmother. I knew mine well, and until she died when I was 10 she was one of the most important people in my life. So sorry for your loss.

  4. The older I get the more I realize that we’re completely missing the boat by making (unintentionally or not) or elders an invisible generation. My grandmother is 92, lives hundreds of miles away, and is one of my favorite people in the world. I just booked a trip with my mom to go and see her in April, and after reading your (gave me goosebumps) post, I’m so happy I did. I’m sorry for your loss, but truly appreciate your honesty.

  5. El Guapo says:

    Just what you expres in the post proves she lives on.
    In your and your husbands memories, and everything you picked up from her that is passed on to your childrem.
    So so sorry for your loss, L&L. I’m glad you and your children have good memories of her.

  6. Carrie Rubin says:

    Sorry to hear of your husband’s grandmother’s passing. It can be difficult to discuss these things with children, but it sounds like you handled it wonderfully.

  7. Julie DeNeen says:

    Very moving post. I’m sorry to hear of your family’s loss. The way you handled it with your son was wonderful. Hang in there. Life without wi-fi? MY GOD ID NEVER SURVIVE.

  8. It’s always hard to lose a family member, no matter how long they got to live. Sorry for your loss

  9. That was a lovely and heartfelt post. My condolences on the loss of Greatma – my grandmother died at 96 – and it was conflicting. She was wanting to go (for the same reasons your note above) but it was hard letting go.
    I hope the words start to flow again – write when you are ready or it will feel empty.

  10. I was wondering where you’d been the past few weeks. I’m glad you’re doing alright. Sympathies for your loss. You expressed it all so beautifully. Even without the ability to directly communicate with you, she seems to have made quite an impression, and you seem to have learned her well. I hope she’s with her husband in the fancy green coat, too.

  11. I’m so sorry for your loss. Wonderfully written piece.

  12. Beautiful remembrance of a life well lived. I am sure Greatma (I love that shortened version) is at peace, wherever she may be.
    Also, I miss you! I hope you’re back to the Wi-Fi soon.

    • Thanks Jen! Yeah, I have not been much for blogging recently. Can’t even put a finger on it. I’m writing on occasion, but not finishing or posting anything. Mostly just tweeting cuz humor in 140 characters is so much easier than real writing.

  13. jimmydevious says:

    Hey, that was so weird that you posted this when you did. I swear like just two-shakes-of-lambs tail before I saw your update, I thought, “Hmmm, haven’t heard from Mistress Lunchmeat in awhile.”

    Funny how that works.

    I am sorry for your family’s loss though. Seems to be a part sadness and then relief that the “battle” is finally over with.

    Oh, and one more thing, yeap, there IS an afterlife. How do I know? Because I’ve been there, more than once actually, and “they” come over HERE and find me all the time too. Probably shouldn’t admit to that publicly but it’s true.

    Quick story: (I promise!) I had this very strange dream I was in this old neighborhood (think early 40’s-50’s) walking down the street at noon on a hot summer’s day, and even though I had never been there before, something felt oddly familiar about the place. I got about halfway down the street, when I hear this heavily Southern-accented young woman’s voice. “Hiiii there! It’s mighty warm out today, how about you come in the shade ‘fer a spell and I pour you a glass of lemonade?”

    I turn to the sound and sure enough, there’s this pretty young blonde woman in a classy summer dress standing at the threshold of her screened-in porch, looking like a model out of one of those old Good Housekeeping magazines. Have no clue who she is or what’s going on, but I know I’m in a dream, so I’m like, what the hell, I’ll have some. Go on the porch with her and she brings out a fancy crystal pitcher and glasses on a tray. As we sip lemonade and make small talk, I’m trying to figure out WHY I would dream something like this up…she IS very pretty, and younger than me…is this a fantasy sequence??

    Then all of a sudden ,she leans forward as she’s sitting across from me, with this mischievous grin on her face and says, “Still haven’t figured it out yet, have ya’ Jimmy?”

    (Wait, how do you know my na-??)

    Before I can even utter a sound, she then says, “Here, let me help you”

    And I close my eyes for just a split second, and I see the face of my late Grandmother, at age 80…ish as I knew her…her blue eyes matched perfectly to the young woman’s in front of me. “Na-NANNA?? Is that you??” Says I,

    Young woman’s face turns beet red and she giggles pleased with her practical joke as she replies nodding, “Alright then, I GOT you good…. run along now!”

    Flash forward two or three days, and my Mom’s showing me a package they had just got in the mail from my Aunt. My Aunt had been going through some of Nanna’s old things, when low-and-behold there”s a picture of Nanna from around 1942…ish after she had just gotten married the first time at about 20 yrs old, one we had NEVER seen before, and I about had a heart attack when I saw it…you guessed it…SAME young faced woman I saw in the dream. Shit-you-not! 🙂

    I tell you, the afterlife’s real!!

  14. raeme67 says:

    This was a very touching memorial. Glad you are back blogging again.

  15. L&L,
    I’m so sorry that your family has lost Greatma. Even though it sounds like she was ready and prepared all of you, thay doesn’t make it hurt any less when it finally happens. It should, but it doesn’t. Your words brought comfort to your son when he needed it, just as his presence brought comfort to you. The words that you are sharing now will keep her alive in all of your hearts and give her life for all of us. That is how life continues. Let that bring you whatever comfort it can. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful story with us. I hope that it begins to bring you healing.
    Sending love, light, and healing.
    ~Amy @BettyRants

  16. I hadn’t seen anything from you for a while, so I came to check. I totally get the burned out feeling. I’ve had that myself a lot lately. Hope to see you soon but understand needing a break (and also being away from computer access). BTW, in case you see this comment – do you find it somewhat liberating to be away from computer access?

    (Oh and I liked the post too.:D)

  17. Write when you feel the need; it helps.

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