Alzheimer’s and dementia run in my family, and my grandmother knew she was showing symptoms. When she was diagnosed with incurable cancer, she and my grandfather considered it a blessing. She didn’t want to forget her family.
I got the message Monday afternoon — her fall and resulting broken arm the week before were worse than expected, hastening the effects of the tumor — and it takes me until evening to process the information, translating a week, maybe longer into come soon. I cut short sleep the next morning to drive north and “say my goodbyes,” whatever that means. I’m bad at goodbyes, even short ones, even to strangers’ pets. How do you say goodbye to a life?
Grandma taught me piano lessons once a week starting before I turned six. I didn’t like to practice. While she taught my siblings, I’d wander into the kitchen. Molasses crinkles and strawberry milk, fresh smushed raspberries with ice cream. (Five-year-old priorities at their finest.)
When I reach my parent’s house on Tuesday, we talk about Grandma, and also about road conditions and something funny my dad saw on a t-shirt. We show emotion and don’t, I suppose.
People keep trying to prepare me. “She’s worse than you expect.” She’s not speaking. We think she can hear us. We tell her about piano lessons, tell her we love her. We don’t have many words to use. My aunts and uncles — her children — are calling to check in, relay messages. Nobody is holding it together.
My sister is stroking her forehead and I’m holding her fingers underneath the covers and we’re trying not to count the space between breaths until we realize it’s been too long.
It makes me smile, in a way. She died as she lived — graciously, and not wanting to make anyone go to extra trouble.
It’ll hit me later.
At the funeral (in true Fultz form, the speakers have been instructed to keep it short and not cry) she is compared to “The Proverbs 31 Woman”: an unattainable Christian goal of industry and kindness, dignity and wisdom. We are inclined to glorify the dead, and she didn’t want that. Still, the idealized description didn’t ring painfully false. She was riddled with imperfection like the rest of us, but how do you follow behind someone who will be remembered for their goodness?
She raised seven children. All of them steady, level-headed, diligent. Hard-working.
“We decided to raise our children so they weren’t afraid of hard work, and we may have succeeded a little too well,” Grandpa says, and we laugh. It’s true, after all. The Fultz family never stops. I was taught to value hard work, not only for the result but also for the sake of its being hard.
She was a tad gullible, for raising a family of jokers. My dad and his dad and — well, everyone, really — would tell her dramatic stories of risk and injury and loss in a nonchalant but sincere tone, and she would gasp in heartfelt concern before her serious face shifted into the “oh come on now” expression. She’d shake her head at them as they laughed; she didn’t seem to mind being laughed at.
The shaking-her-head expression — and the smile-behind-the-hand, and a bit of a grin with an eye-roll toward us when her husband said something preposterous — are favorites of mine.
“I think you’ve got a little of her snark, the quiet stuff,” my sister tells me. A high compliment. We rarely noticed Grandma was poking fun until after the fact, when we’d turn to her and laugh, partly in surprise. She caught us off guard. She caught herself off guard, too.
Twenty-three grandchildren, and a generous handful of great-grandchildren. Somewhere in a box I still have pajamas she made for me that I outgrew years ago but didn’t want to let go of. She used to have a scrap-bag of fabric squares, printed with patterns for “easy” embroidery. I would find them after my lesson ended and try them out. Mine always looked angular, thread pulled tight through fabric. She could make the thread curve, and I’m still impressed by that. I saw her do it, and I still don’t get the mechanics.
Some of my parents’ friends come to the funeral, people that never knew Grandma. Another brings muffins to our house. This is more reassuring than anything else — the reminder that things continue, even after. Sometimes my dad needs to know that people love him. Or, at least, I need reminding that people love me, and I am my father’s daughter.
The visitation is full of other people’s memories, sides of Grandma I didn’t know. I like thinking of her as the curious one, the risk-taker. Tenacious and adventurous. Willing to put in enormous amounts of effort. The stories fit into what I know of her, even if they’re not all pieces of Grandma I remember.
Consistent is the word Grandpa uses to describe her. Married for 62 years, a steady legacy. She understood commitment. Trustworthy, dependable, effort in one direction, straining toward God. She loved her Lord. She was looking forward to seeing him.
When my dad bought a second-hand piano — a baby grand — and had it moved into our house, we found a kit in the bench compartment advertising, “Learn To Play The Piano Overnight!!” We brought it to Grandma at our lessons the next week. She was, understandably, skeptical.
“You better play all night,” she said.
I don’t have any more words for this.