Grief

Grief is a terrible and wonderful force of transformation,. It is terrible and wonderful for the one we’ve lost, and it is terrible and wonderful for the one who remains. So far, nature willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ve only had the experience of being the one who remains. Left to tell, I am left to tell. Left To Tell is a book I read a while ago, by a survivor of the Ruwandan holocaust, Imaculee’ Ilibagiza. It’s an unbelievable story of the author’s incredible fight to survive, hidden in a small bathroom with seven other women while rebels searched for them outside. Her ordeal lasted eight months, during which time nearly a million of her fellow citizens were brutally killed, including her family. The rebels knew she was nearby, and she could hear them calling her name as they searched. It was a miracle that she wasn’t found. When she was finally able to get out of the country, she weighed 89 pounds.

Imaculee’ did not end her story with her exit from the torn land of her birth; she goes on to describe the aftermath, the underlying causes, and the reconciliation. In recovery, we are encourage to tell our stories using the simple formula of how it was, what happened, and what it is like now. This is more or less the mechanism utilized in the book, as Imaculee’ describes life prior to the holocaust, her parents, her brothers, her neighbors. Political events changed everything, and nearly took her life. But she was left to tell, and tell she did. Her grief is terrifyingly immense. And still, she continues. She takes being left to tell as a responsibility, as an honor. I am more than sure her recovery is ongoing, but she is going. Her life goes on.

When I have lost people who mattered to me, and even a couple I didn’t think mattered, I have been lost for a minute. I’ve felt that I had to recreate myself in some way, to reorient myself to the rest of the world, minus the energy of the one no longer here. I suppose the first truly significant loss that made a deep impact was my grandmother. I’ve recalled many times my early childhood as the only grandchild, on the maternal side at least, and the fairy-tale world of a princess that I lived. It didn’t look the same way a Disney princess looked, but I was a princess nonetheless. I had 100% of my grandmother’s attention, and I thought she was my mother for a time. My mother was quite ill following my birth and shortly thereafter, so Grandmother did all the necessary things for me. She taught me how to put together jigsaw puzzles, she taught me how to play records on my first record player, she gave me the unconditional love and safety that a child requires. She took me to kindergarten, got me dressed and drove me there. It was an adventure every morning. When I was a little older, she taught me how to tie my shoes and she combed my hair. She gave me my first books. I am sure my mother did things as well, but my memory is overflowing with my grandmother. I understood very well that I was loved. I understood very well that I was valued, and that she would never let anything happen to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that, in that way, since.

My grandmother died when I was eleven. We had long since moved away from that safe haven, because that’s what my parents believed they were supposed to do. My father had finally gotten a decent job teaching, and my mother was doing…my mother. She was anxiety ridden, but she had a small child, so motherhood was her gig. It was always a really big deal when my grandmother and my great-aunts came to visit, usually for Thanksgiving and/or Christmas. Christmas meant my birthday, too, so I was always ecstatic. She had this little photo book with pictures of me, and it had the words “Grandma’s Brag Book” printed on the outside. It was blue, and well worn. It was just a normal thing that was part of her, it was kind of always nearby when she was nearby. On one trip, we all went to a favorite restaurant to eat, and I noticed that she had something weird looking about her hand. I said something about it while we were sitting at the table, and she said not to worry, it was just where her purse strap had pressed into the skin and it would be fine. I didn’t think anything more of it, and we went on laughing and everything WAS fine.

A couple of months later, my mother got a phone call, on that huge rotary dial phone we had that weighed a couple of pounds. It was my great-aunt, who lived with my grandmother, and she told my mother that my grandmother had been taken to the hospital. I didn’t get the whole story at that moment, but later I learned that my great-aunt, who was a registered nurse, had come home to find my grandmother slumped in a chair with a bloated and painful belly, running a fever, and very weak. She got my grandmother to the hospital, and they immediately scheduled an exploratory surgery. Once inside the abdomen, doctors discovered advanced ovarian cancer. She had had one ovary removed many years before that, but the other seemed to have gone south. The cancer had metastasized, and her colon was severely affected. They removed the uterus and the remaining ovary, but…the prognosis was terminal. They gave her less than six months. She went through some chemotherapy, but she suffered. She was a beautiful woman, and by the time she died, she wasn’t so much, except to me. My mother was beside herself. I felt like an afterthought, except to my grandmother. I didn’t know what to do.

My grandmother lasted a little longer than six months, I believe…maybe closer to nine, but it was hell for all involved. I was in the sixth grade, and had just gone to a new school, so I was already off balance. My mother was understandably preoccupied with her mother, and she was away tending to my grandmother a lot, so it was me and my father. That part went surprisingly well – my father and I really did just fine. We didn’t have my mother intervening and telling us how we should be acting and relating to each other. One morning, when I was waking up and still in bed, my father came in and just stood in the doorway, silently. That really wasn’t very unusual, he was usually a man of few words. I guess I was feeling like something wasn’t right, because I looked up, and he said, “Your grandmother is dead, baby.” I said nothing. I just nodded, and he faded away. I rolled over, not knowing if I was supposed to cry or what the hell I was supposed to do. I think I did shed a few tears, but I distinctly remember feeling nothing. Absolutely nothing. There was no sound, no light, there was just nothingness. I thought it had been weird that the day before, at the end of the school day, the nun had said “Let’s pray for Ann’s grandmother when we do our closing prayer.”. I thought that was a little weird, but didn’t think all that much of it. I had been offering up my grandmother for the closing prayer over the months she had been ill, so, it was only a little odd that the sister would do it for me. What I found out much later was that when the good sister said that, my grandmother had just died. It was a bit after 3pm, and my grandmother died at 3:10 or something that day, so my father or mother must have called the school to let them know. That was usually the way it went with me, a kid wasn’t told things until later, because either we didn’t need to know or we couldn’t handle it.

I remember during the time of my grandmother’s illness, nobody had told me that she had cancer, until one of my great-aunts told me directly when I was stressing a bit about when my grandmother was going to come home and be well and do fun stuff again. I knew something bad was happening, but didn’t understand what. My great-aunt told me about how people got upset when it was cancer, but there was medicine and she could get better. When I confronted my mother about that, and why I didn’t know that it was cancer, my mother was livid. She was angry with my great-aunt for telling me. I was glad she had told me, because I felt a lot more like part of the damned family once I knew why everybody was losing their minds for no apparent reason. There was a reason. And I started grieving then, because somewhere in there, I knew there was no hope. I didn’t exactly know what death really meant but I knew it was not something I was going to like very much.

So, my grandmother died in October of 1971. I grieved. I not only missed her, I missed the way life had been while she was alive. I missed going to visit her and going to sleep at the kitchen table late into the night while she and my mother talked, and talked, and talked. My mother was … my mother when they were together. She was nurturing, and peaceful, and she felt safe…which meant I felt safe. My father and my mother were OK during those visits. No fighting, no accusations, no big whoop. It felt like a normal family. When my grandmother died, all of that went away. Christmas and my birthday was just a couple of months later, and I knew it wasn’t going to be anything to really look forward to, as I usually did. I was very sad, and not just because everyone else was sad. I realized that I loved my grandmother more than life itself, and that she had given me some kind of purpose in my short life. I didn’t quite know what the hell I was supposed to be doing any longer, and I definitely didn’t feel as though I had any reason to be doing it. When my mother discussed her, I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to remember anything. I think I may have been a little angry that she was gone, but I felt that I didn’t have any right to feel that because again, my grief and my feelings were more or less an afterthought to my mother’s, to my great-aunts’, to just about everyone else. I don’t remember dealing with my aunt, my mother’s sister, or really my father very much during that time, but I imagine they had their own grieving to deal with. I hid my feelings, for the most part, because I didn’t feel they were valid. There seemed to be some kind of script for how you were supposed to act and when you were supposed to cry and when you were supposed to be quiet and stay out of the way. I stayed out of the way quite a bit.

I tried for a number of years to keep my grandmother’s memory alive…I had a bracelet of hers that I wore for a time. I lost it in the mall, at the arcade, when I was in college. I am still angry with myself about that. We had pictures of her, and I had stories my mother told me, but not much in the way of material things. My mother and her sister eventually sold the house after my great-aunt died years later, and so now…my grandmother and those memories and that feeling of being special and valued and safe exist only in my mind. I have one very special picture of her, and my great-aunts, that my mother tried to take from me when she was here with me after my surgery in 2005. Fortunately, she thought better of it and left it with me, and I still have it. Good thing, too, because had she taken it, it would have been destroyed along with everything else in that house when Hurricane Katrina struck a few months later. It’s a picture of my grandmother and her two sisters, my great-aunts, and in a little picture tucked away on a side table, is a picture of my mother and my aunt as a seven-year-old and a two-year-old. That’s what I grieve. Another world, another time, but all essential to me being here right here and right now. Why did it have to be so hard?

So. That’s the first big grief I can remember. I sometimes believe that everything else after that struck a discordant tone on an out of tune instrument that didn’t so much resonate but was absorbed. When a piano key hammer comes down on a string that is in tune, stretched taughtly against the sound board, it resonates. The string vibrates, the wood resonates, and there is vibration at a frequency that registers in our senses as tone. Same with the human voice, and the vocal chords, or any stringed instrument. When the string is too loose, or has lost its ability to vibrate, it doesn’t resonate with anything, and we don’t hear it. Any low frequency oscillation is merely deadened by the surrounding wood. That’s what I imagine emotional numbness looks like in the world of vibration. Deadened, muted tone where there was once resonance. When this happens with a stringed instrument, it’s time to tighten the strings or replace them. I’m a little unsure of how to replace the strings of the heart, so that vibration and resonance is returned. I don’t think cardiac bypass is concerned with any of that functioning, but perhaps I’ll begin using the visual analogy of a musical instrument to depict the music of the heart. I can see tuning as a possibility, but replacing the strings may be a bigger deal. I’ve got to give that some thought. It’s important, apparently, because I’ve been left to tell.

This has always been a image that I see when I am grieving.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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