Today I went to my grandmother’s funeral. She died earlier this week. So this week’s blog posts are going to be split into the three parts of my day. I know there might be a better way to organize this, but in the past four days I have slept 10 hours so we’re going to have to deal with simple chronology.
My grandmother was 95. She was old. A few weeks ago, we wheeled her into Greensboro’s Steak and Shake where she ordered one 99 cent slider and a milkshake that lasted her three days. This summer, her doctor gave her four months to live. A few days later, my mom walked in on her counting down the months on her fingers. She was old and she was ready. But it’s still sad, because she was old and she was ready, but she was my grandmother and she was my role model.
She didn’t actually have a funeral today. It was a graveside service. She lived (weird past tense) in Greensboro and my family lives in Durham so we drove to the service today. My mom and I dressed perfectly for a graveside service. We both had on cotton black dresses, hers had white polka dots and mine had red stripes. We were the epitome of casual-funeral wear. My sister, on the other hand, wore a sleeveless light blue dress that screamed, “I want to be on the Styrofoam-littered lawn of a frat pre-gaming right now.” Anyway, we got to Greensboro just in time, greeted relatives of various states of sadness, and played something that resembled reverse musical chairs for the seven chairs not occupied by children and their spouses. And there she was: a little pile of ashes without an urn and in the cheapest vault. When you’re 95, the décor of death becomes a little bit less important.
My grandmother was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania a long, long time ago. I could look up the exact year, but don’t forget the whole 10-hours-4-days thing. She and my grandfather, an accountant, moved to Greensboro in the 1940s. She had four daughters and one son. The daughters have always been close, and are collectively referred to as “The Sisters.” They find the same jokes funny and they are all in various stages of turning into their mother. My grandmother was stubborn and fiercely independent. Less than a week before she died, she was moved from her apartment in the independent living building to the full-time nursing wing. She had really, really wanted to die in her own apartment. My dad got her flowers and she asked my mom, who was staying with her, to call my dad so she could thank him. She appreciated the flowers, but as soon as my dad answered she said “you have to get me out of here.” Even though her mind and body were failing her, she wanted to go on her own terms.
The graveside service was short. The woman who led it told The Sisters that she had a long version or a short version for services. The short version was the clear winner. It was what Gram would’ve wanted. So the service was brief, and hot. There was a basket of yellow roses that everyone ceremoniously placed on the headstone. The highlight of the day was my cousin’s five-year-old son grabbing a rose and tossing it down without a second thought. It was hilarious. After the service, we went back to my grandmother’s apartment, all 22 of us, for a time of fellowship, but mostly a time for The Sisters to force us to take a bunch of junk.
My last memory of my grandmother was last Saturday. She was in the nursing wing. The room was small. There were a few of her framed pictures haphazardly on the window sill. But that was it. It wasn’t her apartment, and it wasn’t her. When we got there she was sleeping, but woke up and was lucid. She remembered that I was a journalism major and told me she always loved my writing through the years. She told me and my sister to have fun at the football game. I tucked her hair behind her ear, kissed her on the head, and left. Walking away, down the nursing hall, there was this very palpable sense of imminent death, and so I made a bad joke, and a few days later my grandmother died.
Not everything in my grandmother’s apartment was junk. I mean, she did have no less than 30 brooches and a boxful of AARP calendars from over the years, but there was some good stuff. There were books, and stuffed bears, and costume jewelry. I walked away with a necklace, a couple of pairs of earrings, and a kick-ass cane that my grandfather used to use. It’s green and the handle is a goose head. It’s so awesome that it almost makes me want to expedite the aging process so I can use it. I also got a Beanie Baby from 1996. It was the weirdest shopping experience of my life.
Today was a hard day. There were tears, but it was her time. It’s cliché, but it’s true. It was her time and everyone knew it and everyone needed it. So it was a bittersweet day. When you’re 95, you don’t really have anyone left to grieve for you. At first, I thought that was devastating, but now I know it’s beautiful to be able leave the people you love in such peace.