I remember the moment I truly understood that aging happens to everyone, that death is inevitable and family is everything. I got it all so suddenly and acutely that it was painful. I was in my mid-twenties and my last living grandparent was dying. I was selfish, swallowed with regret for not making more of an effort to connect with loved ones who had passed. I was humbled by my mortality and the poignancy of telling people I love you now. I decided to be a mom.
In 2002, my maternal grandma was visiting my aunt and uncle's home in south central Montana for a week and I was there too. I knew it was the last time I would see her. Despite my overwhelming desire to sit with her and do nothing but study her face and listen, I was motionless and distant. I am embarrassed to admit that I avoided interactions because I felt so uncomfortable considering and confronting her end of life.
On the last night to see my grammy ever, I sat on the floor in front of the wood-burning stove while she french braided my hair like she had done since I was three. I pushed myself into the suffocating awareness of her life, her death, our love, the present. I felt panicked and mad. Time was this relentless asshole and, I, an even bigger asshole for not respecting time. We got right to it. She told me about her first husband, how he left her with two babies, how her house burned down, how she lived with a friend and relied on a community to raise her girls. I asked her how she met my grandpa and memorized her inflection and word choice. She was a nurse and he, her patient. Of their first encounter she laughed and said he was the most god damned handsome man she had ever seen.
She asked question after question about my life. Will you marry Andy? Where do you want to live? What do you want to do? Will you have kids?
I held my breath on the last question. I wanted to be honest and I knew what she wanted to hear. I told her I wanted to marry Andy and I wasn't so sure about kids. At that moment, the room was fuzzy and her soul in sharp focus. She held my hands and her soft, sage eyes gripped my heart. She gestured to the room full of her kids and their kids and then gently tightened her grip on my hands and said, “I am dying a happy woman. And this, this is why.” My grandma, Alice Sylvia Bratton, was so peaceful and effervescent. I felt like we were levitating, like I had just been passed critical information about Life.
I all of the sudden GOT IT. I came from her. I am her. She conceived my mom, grew her in her body, pushed her into the world, loved her, was afraid for her, wanted the best for her, pulled her close and let her go. And her daughter, my mom, had done the same with me. We were, are, three women with synchronized pulses and shared history. I understood that my mom was losing her mom. I understood, like fully absorbed, for the first time, that some day my mom will die. I felt dizzy and light. I wanted to redo the last week, I wanted to redo it all. I think I apologized for my distance and told her I loved her repeatedly. I know I thought it. I know she felt it. I can remember her bony pinkie fingers scraping my scalp, gathering teeny bits of hair together as she braided and braided my hair in that warm, vibrating room.
My parents are visiting right now. And in this beautifully complex way, I remember this visit, the loving rhythm of grandma, mom, daughter. It's kindof like deja vu but more vibrant. I feel like I am watching my childhood when Margot wakes and eagerly runs down to gram's bed for morning cuddles, when my mom wells up just because Ruby smiles. My mom makes an army of sandwiches assembly-line style and hums while she does dishes, just like my grammy. She sings silly songs with weird shuffling dances to make my daughters laugh and kisses them in the hollow spot behind their ears, saying “that's just the best kissin' spot in the whole world,” just like my grammy. I make piles of sandwiches and hum while I do chores, I sing songs and kiss the hollow nook. I watch my mom and I see my grandma. I see myself.
I hope my daughters will know in their bones where they came from and just how much love encouraged their growth. I hope they will understand the importance and fragility of family. I hope they will study my mom's face and words. I hope they say I love you when they feel it.