This week I finished the novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by poet Ocean Vuong. There was so much to unpack in the beautiful masterpiece that was that book (you can read my review here – no spoilers), but one thing that triggered my subconscious. The narrator has a close relationship with his grandma, and it made me think about my own grandmother. I was lucky enough to have close relationships with both of my grandmothers, but the following is about my maternal grandmother, who in 2018 left her painful and deteriorated body for something much better.
She was waiting for me, and that was the realization I had when my mom let me know that Mimi was declining fast and now receiving hospice care. When we got there, she was in her bed and though I’d never seen someone dying in person before, it was evident that this is what was happening to Mimi. She hadn’t eaten or drank anything since Monday, and by this point it was Friday. I expected her to have a breathing mask and/or IV, but she didn’t. She was shaking a little back and forth, and her eyes were slightly open but cloudy. Her mouth was devoid of her dentures, and her breathing was labored. My sister and I sat on opposite sides of her bed and told her close to her ear, “Hi Mimi, it’s Elizabeth.” “Hi Mimi, it’s Emily.” When she heard Emily, she tried to say her name and a tear fell from her right eye.
Since my other grandmother passed in 2016, I had grieved partially by reading every book I could get my hands on about death, dying, and what happens to our bodies in the process. I felt more prepared to be with Mimi. It wasn’t creepy or weird or anything… it was just.. her. I also knew that even though she couldn’t respond, she knew we were there, and she knew who we were. This was a huge blessing since she’d been suffering with dementia for years, and really declined in the last few.
Emily and I spent some time talking to her, recounting memories amidst big heavy tears and sobs. We both spent some time by ourselves with her. I thanked Mimi for taking me on my first trip out of state to Arizona on a plane, because it ended up changing my life and gave me a heart for travel. I thanked her for paying for my piano lessons, and I told her I recently got my piano tuned, finally.
I told her about the three big lessons she taught me: 1) you have to like what you see in the mirror; 2) there’s something good in everybody; and 3) everything happens for a reason. In going through infertility, I really hated remembering that last one. I refused to believe in my darkest days that God not giving me a baby was for a reason. I’ve since healed enough to come around. Lastly, I told her that if she needed to go, it was okay. I felt a release and an acceptance that she was going to die soon.
After releasing some emotion and having separate time with her, Emily and I washed her face with a washcloth, put on some night cream (even though she had lost so much weight, she had almost no wrinkles! we told her she’d be happy about that), and put on some lip balm. Out of muscle memory, she puckered her lips as if she were putting on her rose gold Mary Kay lipstick she always carried in her purse. We also used a swab to moisten her mouth and she seemed to appreciate that. We held her hands, and when she got too warm we put her arms outside of her blanket. We made sure to monitor her because if she got too agitated we could call the nurse to administer medication.
Eventually we left, and it was hard. It was actually Emily who encouraged me to stay longer. But I was glad in the end to have taken care of her, though it would never be equal to all the times she took care of me. Emily and I told her that we’d gotten her ready for bed, and that for her to get some rest and we’d see her in the morning.
As we were leaving, the hospice volunteer came and for the few minutes we spoke with her, I sensed she had such a deeply compassionate and sweet spirit. She said she just loved Eileen, and couldn’t wait to get off work to come see her. She said she was going to play her some gospel and praise & worship music, and I was grateful that she’d have a companion for the next few hours.
At around 3 in the morning, my mom came into the room where Emily and I were sleeping and told us that Mimi had passed away around 2:30. Did we want to go see her one more time before they took her away? She wanted to make sure to ask us just in case. We said that we were okay and that we didn’t need to go.
And then we wept, for Mimi’s passing, and for the realization that she waited for us. And for that I am so grateful.
If I were to choose a playlist of songs to make up the soundtrack to my biography, at the very top of the list tied for first place there would be classic rock and Methodist hymns. The top artists would be Heart and Charles Wesley. The former as a nod to the music I was raised and the latter as a testament to the music that played over and over in my head after church on Sundays. Both formed my spirituality.
I owe so much of my literacy development and my mad sight reading skills to having to read out of a hymnal in church. From the tender age of five I was singing along to hymns in church accompanied usually by the organ. We sat in the third row towards the center, so I generally wasn’t within the proper angle to see the organist plugging away at her work, but I was mesmerized nonetheless. If I remember correctly, I sat between my grandma and my mom. Or sometimes between my grandma and my sisters. If I remember correctly. But for sure I knew that my grandma was on my left, at the ready with Mentos or Winterfresh gum.
We would mark the hymns ahead of time with little ribbons by looking through the bulletin. I remember the anticipation of singing a hymn I loved. I adore hymns for so many reasons, only one of which is how beautifully the chords move through their progressions and carry a swelling and then fading melody. Then of course how many verses rhyme. I especially love the way that it’s easy to harmonize – the only question for me is which note I start on. To find this I hum along while the introduction is played and that usually sets me straight. I love to be a sole chorus of altos in a sea of sopranos and tenors and basses. I love hymns so much that I may have swiped a hymnal from the church I grew up in, and still have it on my shelf to this day. Truthfully, I probably borrowed it to practice songs on the piano and then forgot to give it back.
Hymns were my prayers, and some 30 years after beginning my formal journey in organized religion, I realize that. In the fine print below each hymn, you can see from where and when the words and music originated. My favorites are the ones where the words come from a translation of Latin from the 9th century (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) or when a hymn was written during a pivotal moment in history like the Civil War. But it doesn’t have to say “written during the Civil War”; I know that the years of 1861 through 1865 bear significance. It meant a lot to me that I was also singing the same choruses as my spiritual predecessors from ages ago.
I often committed words and music of hymns to memory. This will happen after you sing something so many times. Not only does repetition play a huge part, but so does the context in which you sing the hymn. We know from modern brain science that the body remembers first – whether an event was traumatic or not. It makes pathways from sights and smells, warmth and cold. This is how I made memories with hymns. I know that “For the Beauty of the Earth” is usually sung in the spring, with spring banners and colors adorning the church, trying to decide if I would wear a raincoat to cross the alley to church or just run for it. Memories of Christmas Eve hymns like “Silent Night” are laced with the scent of tiny candles blown out, and during the late service my belly would be full from a dinner with family.
Just like Scripture I’ve memorized (which by the way, isn’t much: I kind of suck at memorizing just words out of context), hymns will come back to the forefront of my mind at different times. During this time of Advent, the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” plays in my head over and over. I find myself searching for the newest renditions by artists like Piano Guys and Gungor. I listen, and satisfy that craving for a comfort that’s enveloped in a minor key, Thys and Thous, and a predictable rhythm. I also find nuances I’d never noticed before and appreciate the song through fresh ears.
Many years after my first foray into church, I decided to begin attending a new church of a very different denomination than the one I grew up in. This church did not sing many hymns during their worship services, and if they did it was accompanied by drums and lights and not a lot of harmonies. To my knowledge, the only organ was a small one that hid in the corner of the platform, collecting dust.
In that tradition I learned many different types of music and worship that were much more “extroverted,” or so it seemed. Hands raised, voices crying out, sometimes even with non-English and non-other-known-language utterances. Lots of repetition of the same phrase became a very emotional thing, and as a teenager who had always been moved by music (apparently I was rocking to the beat by 8 months old) I took it all in.
However, it was odd to me at first. I never felt so much emotional while singing in church before, not unless it was at a funeral. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t emotional about God, however, or didn’t care as much or wasn’t as “saved” as my new fellow congregants. I know that now.
I slowly picked up on the culture of the new church – one of valuing extroversion, that revered people’s willingness to pray out loud in front of people. We held hands, and I learned to pray out loud very long prayers. With lots of Lords and Gods and Jesuses. I think I prayed like that because to some extent I was being authentic and I wasn’t afraid to do it, especially if I felt comfortable with the group. It was my way of being like the leader I’d been in my Sunday School classes, being the teacher’s pet.
But I also think I prayed like that because it’s what was valued and seen as “real” prayer. For some reason I began to think that all the praying I’d done before wasn’t good enough, or sincere enough. And God surely would answer prayers were I was bold enough to speak out loud to a group. Apparently praying in my head just wasn’t enough anymore, and that was the beginning of my turning away from what I grew up with into a new denomination that would dominate my ways of thinking and being and interacting for about a decade.
What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?
I have since returned to the tradition I grew up in. When we moved cross-country and returned to civilian life, I needed something different. I have a lot, lot more to say about my experiences in right-wing evangelical church. It turns out many people do But in unpacking the hurt and shame and uncertainty and division of my spirit and my body, I have found that the prayer I have felt comfortable doing is the right prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer prayed out loud with my church family is the right prayer. The Apostle’s Creed recited aloud is the right prayer. The brief silent prayer after communion is the right prayer. The “graces” we pray before meals in my house are the right prayers. The prayers I follow along with during a virtual service while also cross-stitching or crocheting are the right prayers.
I have also realized that the hymns I sang and memorized were prayers. I was actually praying so much when I was singing. And if part of meditation is sitting on a line or song or idea for awhile, then I was meditating too.
I’m sad that for many years I taught myself to reject the faith and mode of worship I developed as a child into adolescence, that I inherited from both sides of my family, that I celebrated in basements of country churches. I learned to look down my nose at my supposedly unenlightened friends and family who just didn’t have enough of the Holy Spirit… yet. I told myself I was better than they were because I prayed out loud and sang loud songs with drums and electric guitars and listened to sermons that were 45 minutes, not 15. And I had extreme guilt if I couldn’t “convert” my friends and family, who had a faith and belief of their own, to my new way of thinking. However, as Rachel Held Evans writes in Faith Unraveled, “We are saved by a restored relationship with God, which might look a little different from person to person, culture to culture, time to time.”
I’m also kind of angry at the leaders and people in those churches (yes, I attended more than one) for encouraging the elitism, whether they knew it or not. They preached that their version of Jesus is the only Way, and also that the way we worship Him is the only Way. If you disagree with the sermon or theology presented, or think about Jesus in multiple historical contexts and perspectives, there’s probably something you need to be sorry for during that really emotional song that’s played after communion.
When I rejected my original mode of faith I also had to grieve it in context. I missed old creaky pews and hazy sunlight streaming through stained glass. I missed old hymnals and pipe organs. I definitely missed short sermons and the simplicity of a hymn, which if you study them, you will find that so many are much more theologically sound and linguistically complex than they are given credit for.
What a comfort to know that this loving and merciful God will not be disappointed, that his word falls over the earth like rain, covers it like snow, and nourishes it for an abundant harvest. What a comfort to know that God is a poet.
I don’t think everyone gets the chance in their lives to “come home” to the faith they had as a child. I think many people didn’t have a faith home to begin with, which is fine, or their home was unstable and emotionally manipulative or even abusive. But I had a really great home of faith and religion in my formative years. I had many healthy experiences that taught me about the Bible but also about being in community with others. In the process, I gained a large understanding of literacy and musicality. I was taught so much by loving and reliable Sunday School teachers.
Fortunately I was able to come “home,” and it was the right choice for many reasons. I wasn’t sure what I would find among creaky pews and old-church-building smell and the organ and hymns and robes and seasons like Lent and Advent, but I knew it was a good place to start.
The whir of the sewing machine has been a lullaby and the steam from the hot iron has been aromatherapy. For the last few days of this self-quarantine I’ve been holed up in my sewing room. It’s a room I’ve recently adorned with new paint (a beautiful airy light blue.. think of a salty breeze) but haven’t spent much time in. It’s not because I don’t have enough projects, that’s for sure. It’s just been a matter of time.
Yesterday I was attempting to follow a design for a Christmas star on Pinterest by using a number of extra scraps of Christmas-y fabric indiscriminately cut into squares. I failed miserably. The “pattern” was coming out all wonky, my needle kept getting stuck in the corner of the fabric as I’d try to pass it through for stitching. I was frustrated.
So then I swallowed my pride by deciding to watch even more YouTube videos and teach myself some quilting basics. Quilting is a skill I actually have never developed as an ad-hoc makeshift seamstress. My great-grandmother made a number of gorgeous quilts, all hand-sewn (to my knowledge) but she was never young enough and I was never old enough at the same time for me to learn from her. It’s been a sub-culture of the sewing and craft world that I’ve wanted access to for a long time.
For hours, literally hours, yesterday I sewed and crafted and then finally ended up with some very cute, if not a little wonky, quilt squares. By no means is this pattern done – I purposefully decided where to stop, because if I don’t stop, I will sew all night without eating or drinking anything. And I wanted to leave myself something for today to look forward to.
I wish I had more pictures of all the sewing projects I worked on as a child – dresses, jumpers, pajamas – but instead all my memories are in my head and rush out with the hum and occasional jolt of the machine. It brings my physical body back to a time of safety and innocence, of listening and learning from women. While we have our oral family stories that are passed down, our story is better stated with thread, fabric scraps, yarn, and embroidery thread.
It’s no wonder that I’ve found solace and busyness in my sewing room this week. It’s yet another skill, along with cooking, that I express to my mom as “Thanks for teaching me how to ____!” It’s a connection I cherish right now when in-person connections are not allowed or not possible due to distance.
As the plane circled Midway, I was fuming. Angry. Upset. And desperately wishing the pilot would turn us back to Baltimore.
I looked out the window and my body told me that it remembered the intense, confusing, and raw grief I experienced several years ago when my grandpa died and I flew ‘home’ for the funeral. I had to borrow money from my parents to afford the plane ticket. I was alone. I was utterly broken and anxious and exhausted.
The body remembers, and this past December, it was internally screaming, making sure I didn’t forget the grief.
It seems the number of times I’ve gone ‘home’ for funerals have equaled the number of times I’ve gone for things other than funerals. As I write that and count it in my head, the latter is more. But the sadness and grief seem to often outshine the happiness and delight on trips back to the Midwest.
As we deplaned, I thought about the long ride ahead after picking up luggage from baggage claim while also taking a breath and gearing myself up for an emotional few days.
We drove to central Illinois from Chicago, and my heart jumped as I looked out the window and found some comfort in the monotony of the flat, flat farmland dotted with groups of trees, shielding houses from wind and bad weather.
Over the holiday, I wrestled with the grief and the togetherness. I was angry, and also felt blessed (but not #blessed). Angry at my grandparents for all leaving me in the world to figure it out on my own without their physical presence and guidance only a phone call away. Feeling blessed that I was able to have them in my life for as long as I did.
Today is Mimi’s birthday. She would have been 86. And damn, don’t I know that she was born in 1934 because every. Single. Time we went to Steak ‘n Shake, she let me know that she was born in the same year the restaurant was founded.
Two years ago on this day, I don’t remember if I called her or not. After the dementia started progressing more rapidly, it became more difficult to call her, though our talks would last only about 5 minutes.
Two years ago on this day, I had no idea that only 7 months later, I’d be grieving her deeply, having spent some time at her side while she was dying. I wasn’t there for her last breath. But I think my soul felt at peace when she passed.
Now, as I’m in, and have been in, a phase of my life that has been difficult and confusing and sometimes frightening, I wish I had her here more than ever. Time and time again in my mind I imagine walking into her house, through the back door after climbing a few steps. Coming into the kitchen, TV turning on with a quick press on a button. All the scents of her wrapping me in a blanket of safety and acceptance. Downy and Dove and Glade Plug-Ins.
We’d sit in the living room and she’d tend to her nails while I tried to figure out how to get my toes unstuck from the stretchy afghan on the couch.
We watched a lot of reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers and Golden Girls and Designing Women and The Nanny. After I’d get ready for bed (showers because to her baths were just washing with dirty water), I’d put on one of her nightgowns or cinch up some of her PJ pants (she weighed more back then and shopped in the ‘big mama’ section). She would tell me that wearing a sports bra at night would keep my chest from growing (that’s not true, btw).
In the winter we’d watch figure skating. I was mesmerized by the grace and talent of the athletes. And after I’d become older and didn’t spend as much time over there, she’d call me on her way home from work and tell me to look outside because there’s a beautiful sunset or that figure skating was on tonight.
For some years after that, I wasn’t as kind or innocent towards her and I didn’t always keep my negative thoughts about her to myself. I’m sure I rolled my eyes when she called me some of those times. Now I’d kill to have that call, and have her remember where I live (not Texas anymore, Mimi) and that Aaron and I are married (When are you getting married?). I’d share my story of infertility because I know she’d give me a hug and love me just the same (When are you and Aaron going to have kids?)
As I let the emotions roll through my body, juxtaposed with grief is an equal or greater amount of thankfulness and security from my memories with her. Memory is beautiful. I can travel back anytime I want for a hug, a kiss, a call.
School is out here in Maryland (finally) and consequently I’ve been able to do errands like grocery shopping and running to the post office during regular business hours. It’s been glorious. And I know when late August rolls around I will whine and complain that now I don’t have time for work because I just have so much other stuff to do.
But at the grocery store, I’ve seen more than one grandma carting around her grandkids, picking out things. Today I was at our local grocery store and noticed that one grandkid was asking for some sort of ice cream treat. “Mom-mom, can we get….?” I don’t remember how the grandma replied because immediately I was thrown into my own repository of memories of these exact trips with my own grandma, Mimi.
The first anniversary of her death is approaching (August 11) and besides being reminded on my own trip sans children to the grocery store about our close relationship, I’m reminded of how she gave ____ to me unconditionally. Fill in the blank with whatever – love, chicken wings, Little Debbie cakes, cups of Sleepytime tea – and it’s still true.
Holy heck, I love her. I miss her. I thought she was one of the richest people in my own little sphere, simply because she just gave and gave. As I got older, I realized that she was not well off (she lived on a fixed income from the State of Illinois and the Social Security Administration) and sometimes she gave more than she had. But you know what? She always, always, gave with joy.
Now lest anyone thinks that I was spoiled only with 12-packs of cream soda and Zebra Cakes (I was), I never ever doubted that she loved me, supported me, and would open the door for me at any hour.
I blame Mimi often for my sweet tooth. We had treats at home, too, but man I loved it when she bought TV dinners and pudding.
I recently had some bloodwork done – I had a high fasting glucose reading awhile back and wanted to follow up on it. Turns out my glucose is fine, and so is my A1C. I thought maybe it’d be high from the sweets I ingest and sometimes binge (Oreos….?).
While I’m thankful for my health and no evidence of Mimi’s generosity as it relates to my A1C, I am equally grateful for the long-term effects of her emotional generosity as well.
I think as time passes and memories resurface, I will discover and realize more things about how she lived her life. Memories will always be alive and have the ability to be examined different ways.
I hope that grandkid sitting in the cart being pushed by his grandma realizes how special those mundane moments are, because someday they will be gone.