It’s been a week since my grandmother left this life and rejoined the realm of spirit. She was 94.5 years old, and for the last two decades of her life she awaited the day when she would be rejoined with her beloved husband, the man I used to call Poppy.
I feel lucky to have had my Gram in my life for nearly half a century. It is a much longer time than most. My mother was a young mother when she brought me into the world, and her mother was there to welcome me into this life. One of the last memories Gram shared with me, as she often did, was of that day.
“Did you know, Alethea,” she reminded me as I sat beside her on her bed, “I was the first person to hold you?”
I know the story well, as I do so many others Gram used to like to share with me. Although we lived, for most of our shared lives, 3,000 miles apart from one another, Gram and I spoke regularly on the phone. When it became evident that she was getting ready to transition out of this life, my sister and I decided to fly the distance to visit our Gram one last time.
It was, in many ways, just like old times. Except it wasn’t summer, there were no longer mystery meals to unwrap on the plane, or cigarette smoke to pollute our lungs. It was, though, just the two of us again, flying west to see the family we had left behind when we were four and six years old, if only for a few days.
And we are both glad we did. We spent many hours of those two days sitting with Gram, trying to help her find comfort in her increasingly uncomfortable body, and even wheeling her outside for some time in the fresh air to look at the gardens surrounding the facility where she lived.
Gram’s weariness with life was apparent, but so was her unfailing love for us. Gram was happy we were there and didn’t want us to leave.
Although our Gram and Poppy had their faults, as all people do, they always exhibited unconditional love for me and my sister. It was something we needed as children, and clung to, despite only seeing our grandparents for a few days a year, if we were lucky.
In those few, brief visits, I have compiled a lifetime of happy memories. Sitting on the sun-soaked deck of my grandparents’ pool and eating homemade dried granny smith apples with Pringles and cans of pop is one of them. As are the moments when Gram would take my hand and trace each finger from the base to the tip before she took her emory board out to shape my nails and push back my cuticles. “You and your sister have such pretty hands,” she’d tell me, “just like your mother’s.”
Mine was a childhood filled with a sense of not belonging, of feeling like I constantly needed to prove my self-worth and earn my keep, but never was that the case at Gram and Poppy’s house. For those few blissful days each summer, my sister and I were able to relish the bliss of unconditional love, and even of being spoiled a bit.
At Gram and Poppy’s we’d watch forbidden cartoons during daylight hours and gleefully open cabinets filled with the junk food of our choosing. Outside, we’d turn handstands on their perfect lawn and lift our feet above the water in their chlorinated pool. Whenever I smell cedar, I think of Gram and Poppy and their home atop Mt. Scott in Portland. It was the closest place to heaven I found in my godless childhood.
Gram and Poppy sold their house on Mt. Scott many years ago, but during our brief trip west to say goodbye to Gram, our father drove my sister and me to see it. It looked the same, but very much changed. Just like life. Just like the entire trip.
The night before Gram passed, I had a conversation with her in my mind. I told her how much I loved her and that it was more than okay to leave. I knew she was ready. She had been working hard, in fact, at letting go. Gram knew I believed in life after death, even if it wasn’t in the same way she did.
“Send me a red bird,” I requested the following morning after I learned of her passing. “Let me know you made it okay.”
I was in the car, and as I turned the corner, a red-breasted robin stood in the road in front of me. It looked at me, then flew away.
I turned the radio on, and through the speakers came the word “bird.” NPR was doing a showing on birds.
“Thank you, Gram,” I told her. “I love you.”