Six Thanksgivings ago, I spent the holiday week with her. We ate Taco Bell because no one was around to tell us not to. We took long drives in her new car, pretending it was only to admire the mountains, forgetting our destination was the oxygen wholesaler.
We sat in the dusky dark of her living room, TV at an ignorable volume, and had the slow easy, inconsequential chats of family and old friends. Talking with her was a waltz. A lovely, warm, thick like honey waltz through Sinatra and terrible bosses, the challenge of relationships and celebrities, books and the husband she loved more tenderly after he was gone.
At night I laid in the guest bedroom and listened to her hold her head and moan almost imperceptibly in pain.
They don’t tell you, she said, that chemo makes your bones ache.
And I couldn’t imagine anything more horrible, more unfair and tragic than my beautiful, fearless grandma hunched up on her couch, cradling her own head and crying under the assault of drugs that were supposed to rescue her from this damn disease.
In the daytime, we talked positively. Always.
I thought she’d beat it. She was too strong, too good, too optimistic.
But then, five thanksgivings ago, she was gone.
Twenty years ago, she taught me to play Gin Rummy at a Formica table in a narrow aluminum cabin on Green Mountain Reservoir. We’d sit in the warm kitchen, or out on the back deck, watching the hang gliders drift down the other side of the valley, into the gut of the Rockies. And she’d nurse a Coors with one hand and keep an endless ledger of our games with the other.
In the whole rest of my life no one has indulged my appetite for games, for silly Rummy the way she did and that simple generosity earned her a fiercely guarded spot in my heart no time or distance could erode.
One of the last times I talked to her, she had just been delivered bad news. Spreading cancer and diminishing odds. And we agreed the situation was “shitty.” That was how she spoke, which only made me love her more.
She wasn’t really milk and cookies and bible verses. She was a sharp wit and cold beer, chicken and dumplings, moxie and a love of crocheting. She was elegant, plain blouses she had slowly pinned and sewed and years of quiet journaling. She was tai chi and painting lessons, independence and pale lace-lined dressing gowns that still smell like her. She was all enigma and comfort.
A night or two after we learned she had died I wrote in my journal “I can’t help but think that the brightest bulb in the marquee of my life has gone out.” So dramatic, so self absorbed.
So oddly accurate.
To know her was to have her focus. To feel sincerely that she was your most loyal supporter, wisest adviser, most adoring cheerleader.
Now, I miss her hands most of all. You can’t imagine the softness of her skin, softer than suede or cashmere. Dryer lint – this is the only comparison I can make. Her cheeks, her hands, her arms, they were all so linty soft you lingered in the hugging, in the squeezing hello and goodbye. My mom has that same ambrosia skin and sometimes, even five years later, just a moment of pressing my cheek to hers still chokes me up.
One Christmas a decade back, my grandma sent me a book of poetry by a newspaper columnist she had read all her life. I’d never have guessed we shared that interest, but the book was beautiful – love sonnets to Colorado and its slate blue mountains and the golden Aspens that shook and shimmered silently while we buried her five Octobers ago.
This time of year will always be her. I will talk to her out loud even more often than usual and will ache for her suddenly in the early brave colorings of these long green trees.
Death has a way of sainting people, of framing their best portrait as the final word on character. I don’t know if that gesture is a gift to the legacy or the living. But it is a comfort nonetheless.
To me, she will remain the picture of gentle strength and endless grace. She is the resilient woman who raised three dynamic and compassionate daughters and two tender sons who were good uncles and better fathers.
I don’t know how well I really knew her. But I loved what she showed me and I am content to imagine the rest of her privacy was just as sweet.
I don’t think we’ve overbuilt her monument.
And I still can’t believe her song is gone so soon.
I love you Grandma Jean.
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