Sometime between Monday, February 15, 2016 and thirty-two years ago, Grandma stopped perming her hair. And however distinctly I remember those meticulously perfect, white curls, I can’t seem to recall when the dainty spirals unrolled into a chin-length sheet of almost-straight, still-perfectly-white hair. But there was a moment when I couldn’t reach up any more and place my palm gently on her crown and softly bounce my hand against the wonderful buoyancy of “Grandma hair.”
Maybe I was young–at least much younger than I am now. When the curls were gone, I used to touch the back of Grandma’s hand, run my index finger across the tendons above her knuckles, pulling her skin with my finger one way, then the other, stretching her “Grandma skin” across bluish veins and the ridges of her little bones.
Half inspired by a fascination with a woman I adored and half inspired by a curiosity of an aging body, my childhood tactile affection for Grandma finally tapered off to hugs, from one adult to another. But I still know how she felt under my hands when I hugged her, the extension of her shoulder blades and faint bumps of her backbone as she leaned into me, the same as I know the feel of grass under my bare feet, even if I haven’t walked barefooted outside in years.
The grass is still there. But Grandma is not.
I held her hand again and pushed the skin back and forth with my thumb, extended her fingers and curled them, and squeezed a little rhythm to let her know I was there with her. Though, that wasn’t entirely true. I was there. But she wasn’t. However tangible her hand was, in my own, and the shifting skin beneath my thumb, Grandma had fluttered away in a fleeting and tragic instant, days before. And the microscopic electric pulses that told her I was fluffing her hair or drawing ringlets with my fingers on her skin had stopped firing in that instant. They stopped telling her to blink, to breathe, to live. So, Monday morning, she stopped.
We waited for her to die. Watched her. Had the nurses remove the heparin, dopamine, saline drip, and waited for the emptiness to collapse. It occurred to me, in those few moments–and they were, truly, only moments–the notion that a life is a light that eventually goes out. It’s something I’ve heard before–who knows where–that a life is a light, bright and pulsing, that dims in sickness and is extinguished in death.
I realize that Grandma was a grandparent–a person whose presence is almost defined by advanced age and, therefore, always closer to the end than the rest of the family. But as much as I like to think that I was prepared for the loss of my grandma, I was most certainly not. And on Friday afternoon, when I read the text from my dad that my grandmother–the only one remaining–had suffered a heart attack and had no pulse, I plummeted off of the earth and emerged gasping.
Still, the panic evened until it was perfectly manageable and a coherent thought crossed my mind. What was the light of Grandma’s life?
Let’s forego the thought of extravagant and expensive experiences with Grandma and Grandpa. They lived with simple means and through those still managed the most memorable moments with my brother and me. Let’s sit and consider Canadohta Lake and the cabin they rented. The paddle boats and the fishing. Taking Fella for walks, the doughnuts and poker games. Let’s remember the laughter. Remember Sea World and the flamingos. Remember Cedar Point with the roller coasters and flea markets. Remember camping. The greenhouse and garden, summer tea and soda. Remember the way Grandma’s teeth set when she laughed and how she leaned back a little. The digital camera that lay forgotten and the disposable camera in her hands. Remember the perfect holiday decorations, the painted pumpkins and lighted shamrocks; remember the perfectly wrapped gifts beneath a terrifically decorated tree. The selflessness that began before we were and still hasn’t ended.
She was a light. She glowed. She bloomed. She was an infectious happiness and a giving soul. She was a light. And that light hasn’t gone out. It’s only dimmed.
She still glows through our memories of her laughter and miraculous green thumb. She shines through her beloved dog’s devotion. She’s left her light in every memento left behind–her daughter’s first baby shoes; her countless journals; her news clippings and photos.
She was remarkable in her devotion and loyalty, her buoyancy and tolerance. She was my grandma and I know that’s little more than a word or a title for everyone outside of me, but for my life, she was a light, and, though it’s dimmed, I’ll keep it with me forever.