Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2013 4:45:51 AM
When I got an unexpected phone call from my father at 1:17AM on January 6th, I decided to put on my old UConn sweatshirt and my least favorite pair of jeans. I didn't want to wear something I really liked, because I knew the scent of sadness would catch in the seams, and those clothes would never cease to remind me of January 6th, 2013.
My sister and her boyfriend came to pick me up at the house, and we drove down the desolate streets as a light snow fell intermittent in the headlights. I was glad her boyfriend was driving - I would have driven the wrong way. I had never been to the hospital before.
On January 6th 2013, I learned that hospitals are an unusual place at night. You have to be buzzed in and almost no one is around. When you get in, you don't know where to go, because your head is a mess and your vision is blurry and none of the arrows make sense, but somehow you find your way to the second floor of the trauma ward, and you know from the look on the nurse's face that they have seen you before - not you specifically, but people like you - and that look in their eyes burns into your mind and your heart falls somewhere at your feet.
The priest from the church I attended as a child was there, even though he had to be at the church for Sunday services in four hours. My father looked at my sister and I and he explained the situation, but I don't remember what he said, and really, it doesn't matter. We understood what was going on the second we stepped into the room and saw our grandmother hooked up to the life support machines.
She fell - that's what the people at the assisted living room told my father on the phone. But they didn't know the severity. They took her off of life support that night. We were put in a 'family room.' A fish-tank, coffee, toys I remembered from childhood, and surprisingly current magazine. They do what they can to soften the blow but that's like trying to stop a stampede of rhinos with a pillow.
We knew we were losing her, but she held on until around 2PM. Knowing doesn't stop the pain. I was leaving work when I called my mom and she gave me the news I already expected and I burst into tears before I could get out the double doors.
You adopt a sort of mentality when these things happen, especially if you are untested. I lived with my grandmother for a year. She let me into her home while I studied at university in New England, where I am about to finish my degree - a degree I owe to her. I watched her health decline slowly, though her spirits never faded and her smile could always light up more than one room. She moved into assisted living in Pennsylvania in late 2011, but even now, people will stop me at the grocery store because they recognize me as "Mrs. Fleming's granddaughter."
My grandmother was an influential woman. She studied in France at the Sorbonne - her first language was French. She taught French at the high school level in 4 decades. She worked hard as a single mother to twin boys - and a surrogate mother to the East Longmeadow High School football team. She traveled the world, taking her last major trip (to Spain) when she was 80. And she was the greatest grandmother a girl could ever ask for. She didn't take my bulls#$% when I was a kid, and she didn't take it when I was an adult. She helped whip me into shape. And I know I am lucky, because a lot of people never get to know their grandparents.
There were two funerals - in PA and MA. I heard so many stories - even those I had heard a thousand times sounded new, and brought smiles to the faces of friends and family. "You're just like your grandmother," an old colleague of hers told me. I have never received a better compliment. And even though I severed my ties with religion and God years ago, the priest from the church - a dear friend, who was at the hospital that night - was a blessing to my family during this difficult time, and a friend to us when we needed one most.
I had never seen my father cry before. We received an email from a friend of hers from France about a week after she passed, describing how much my grandmother had meant to her, and my father dissolved into tears and all I could do was lend him my shoulder. We all felt a massive sense of pain and loss, but I cannot even begin to imagine what my father and his brother felt, having to say goodbye to the woman who gave them life. How do you say goodbye to someone who is your hero?
Events like these are when human hearts and souls are tested the most. But it is also a time to realize the true gravity of the word 'family.' We treated the proceeding days as a celebration of Rachel Fleming - Parent, Teacher, Friend. Condolences came in, hugs were in abundance, and somehow it never got easier hearing, "Sorry for your loss" and "She was a wonderful person," and I will not be able to look at pictures of my grandmother without tears in my eyes for a long time, but it is just because it hurts to remember happy times that we can only recall in memory.
I live in her house now. A memory house. The walls and pictures and the furniture all remind me of her, in ways that make me both happy and sad and sometimes a mix of both. I owe so much to the woman who practically built this house from the ground up. I have never been good at dealing with loss - most of the time I avoid dealing with it entirely - but losing my grandmother forced me to confront my discomfort. We are selling the house this spring. I helped with the funeral arrangements. And I went with two of my grandmother's best friends to the cemetery where she rests now, with her sister and her parents, to say a final goodbye because my family had to leave Massachusetts after the funeral. I wanted to help her, the way she helped me, even now that she is gone.
It's been over a month, but it is still hard to talk about. And even though I know she is gone, she really isn't. Because I carry such heavy, happy memories with me, that I will cherish always. But I will never wear the UConn sweatshirt again.
On the way home from the hospital that night at 4AM, I stared out the window of the car and watched the snow, and my sister and I laughed because her boyfriend had gotten barbeque sauce on his shirt, but inside our hearts were heavy with the pending loss of a woman who helped to shape our lives. But today, I live my life and know that I am a better person simply by having a grandmother like her.
I love you, Mim. And I always will.