Into The Storm
As you probably know, my grandmother recently passed away. She died on Sunday, January 29, 2012. She was my namesake. She practically helped raise me. And now, she’s gone.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing down everything that happened at and since the funeral. It’s certainly not meant for public consumption. But I’ve pulled out a few memories and observations that I’m okay with the world knowing, that I can share while still protecting myself. I wish I could sit down with each of you reading this and talk to you in person about it. But I can’t, so I’ll just try to explain to everyone — friends and strangers alike — what I want to remember forever, and what I can’t forget.
This is my story. It may not be a universal story at all. But whether or not you relate to it, I’m honored that you’re taking the time to read it.
Here we go.
I. As It Was In The Beginning
And I heard your voice, as clear as day,
And you told me I should concentrate.
It was all so strange, and so surreal,
That a ghost should be so practical,
If only for a night.
–Florence and the Machine, “Only If For A Night.”
Nothing in the world prepares you to see a loved one — someone you’ve known your whole life, someone you’re named after — in a casket.
I’d known for some time that my grandmother was getting close to the end of her life. There was the osteoporosis. The oxygen tank. And, in the last year and a half, the Alzheimer’s. But still, nothing prepares you for that sight, tears welling in your eyes as your grandfather cries behind you, “She looks like she’s asleep.”
At first, I thought I could find closure before and at the funeral. I was surrounded by my family, in my grandparents’ beautiful house with wood-paneled walls and familiar furniture, watching home movies and laughing with people I loved but rarely saw. Then, just before and after the burial, a relative dragged me into a fight so awful and painful — a fight revealing the long-term cracks in our relationship — that David and I packed up and left town before the wake.
I probably shouldn’t be that surprised. As several friends have told me, grief brings out either the worst or the best in people. But still, the sadness of the event and the cruelty around the finale has stayed with me at a level of intensity that even I — who was freaked out about my estranged father’s death for over a decade — didn’t expect.
There’s been sadness and fury. Then, for a while, coldness. Nothing could hurt me, because I’d seen bad, and let me tell you, sweetie, whatever this new trivial thing was, it wasn’t bad. But before and after that, everything felt like an attack. You cut me off in traffic? You almost hit me with your grocery cart? How could you?!? CAN’T YOU SEE I’M IN MOURNING, GOD DAMN IT?
I can start to make light of it now. I have to. The only other option is to stay upset and miserable, and I don’t have the physical stamina for that. For the first few days, I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. I would shiver intensely for no reason. Weeks later, my hands trembled uncontrollably whenever I picked something up; I needed both hands to hold a glass of water.
And then there was the guilt. It gnawed at me, sneaking up and pouncing on me when I least expected it. Every holiday that I hadn’t visited my hometown, every visit I had made without seeing my grandmother, every stupid thing I’d said in her presence, every time I’d made her angry or disappointed when I was a kid, and especially how I hadn’t seen her one last time before or been there when she died: these selfish affronts reared their heads, beasts crawling out from the ocean to attack me on the shore.
And yet, to my disbelief, the guilt eventually lessened. The days became easier to get through. I had the blessed distraction of work, and of comforting (if often tear-filled) conversations with David and my friends.
Yet there are things I can’t forget. Things I will never forget.
I will never forget that, when we visited the house the first night, we saw only three things on my grandmother’s nightstand: a lamp, an ancient plaque awarded to my grandfather, and a picture frame holding two photographs of me.
I will never forget that they buried her in the beautiful aqua suit she wore to my wedding.
I will never forget how, at the burial and just after the first fight, I couldn’t be near my family anymore. I stood behind the crowd, sobbing next to David under a warm, inappropriately lovely sky. I clung to a tissue in one hand, clutching it like I clutched stuffed animals as a kid. And the few friends and relatives who came up to me didn’t just politely hug me or kiss me on the cheek, like we’d been doing all week. They bear-hugged me, pounding my back as if trying to beat the very sadness out of me. It shocked me. We’re not a touchy-feely family. But it helped so much. It didn’t make everything better, but it made it closer to okay.
On the night before the funeral, though, we’d watched home movies one of my uncles had transferred to DVD. I saw my infant self, unintentional mohawk and huge eyes, and I saw my grandmother smiling and holding me, despite the drool I was leaving on her glamorous dress. Her smile was enormous. She looked so happy. And next to her was my mother, the 24-year-old former beauty queen, beyond gorgeous, impossibly young, genuinely delighted.
“You always were her favorite,” my mother used to say. I’d dismiss it, pointing out that she (my mother) named me after my grandmother, and that was the main reason I was treated kindly. But maybe she was right. Maybe my grandmother saw something in me, even in my early childhood, that few other people saw.
When I visited my grandmother last February, shortly after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I kept thinking of the song “Vapor Trails” by Rush — the titular song from their first album after Neil Peart lost his daughter and wife within months of each other. On that fog-filled early morning drive back to Austin, I drove past the prison near the highway, like I always did, past the extra-tall street lights. (You know the ones: they border highway overpasses all over Texas, crowned with halos of light bulbs.) Suddenly, for the first time that morning, the fog vanished, revealing a clear and empty highway. But under the very last halo of light, strands of fog hung in the air, hovering just over the car. In my exhaustion, I thought they were the vapor trails of my grandmother’s consciousness — that the Alzheimer’s had pulled it out of her soul and abandoned it, leaving it hovering just over the ground, just out of reach, trapped between our world and the next one.
I don’t know if I believe in heaven. I want to, but I just don’t think it’s guaranteed anymore. But I keep thinking of those fog strands, and of seeing my frail grandmother on that visit, her sitting on her red leather chair struggling to breathe despite the oxygen tubes, not saying anything for long stretches at a time, just holding my hand. She never used to hold my hand.
And I tell myself that at least she isn’t trapped anymore.
II. Is Now And Ever Shall Be
This fantasy, this fallacy, this tumbling stone,
Echoes of a city that’s long overgrown.
Your heart is the only place that I call home.
I cannot be returned.
–Florence and the Machine, “Heartlines.”
As a ginormous Rush fan, I was supposed to have a great time on February 1, 2012. Because of the band’s beloved album “2112,” a lot of fans decided that 2/1/12 should be “Rush Day” — a day of playing Rush’s music and celebrating the band’s success and legacy. So when I learned my grandmother’s funeral would be scheduled on Wednesday, February 1, a small part of me was pissed off.
Before you write a nasty comment, let me go ahead and take the words out of your head: “You selfish brat. How could you think about your own silly, stupid interests on the day of your grandmother’s funeral?!?”
My answer to that: EXACTLY. By the time we got into the car to drive home, I felt like I’d received a well-earned face slap from the universe — a sign that I’m a selfish person at heart who deserved to miss out on even a small bit of happiness.
On the road back from the funeral, David and I were blessed with decent weather. On the drive down, we’d gone through several storms, rain pounding the car as I wept for a little black dog we’d seen dead on the side of the road. But the drive back was quiet. Peaceful. We passed the giant street lights and saw no fog under their halos.
In one small town (probably Three Rivers), we pulled into a gas station for bathroom breaks. In the store, I saw a giant Dachshund-shaped stuffed animal. The dog was covered in a pattern of red hearts; on his lengthy side, the words “I Love You This Much” had been stitched. He was $24.99 — far too much for a toy, especially one in a gas station where kids had probably been playing with him for days. He sat on his stomach, his little legs either unable to carry his weight or too weak from being sat on. His nose had been worked loose.
I bought him anyway.
The cashier rung up the toy, and the words “JUMBO WIENER” flashed on the screen. David and I couldn’t stop laughing. And in the car, I held the Dachshund toy the whole way home, stroking his unexpectedly soft head and ears, drawing comfort from a stuffed animal like I did when I was a kid.
My crying got more sporadic the longer I held the giant stuffed Dachshund. David eventually asked if he could put some Rush on the stereo. I put on my all-Rush playlist with every album in chronological order; but I skipped around it, moving around from the 70s to the 80s and ever forward, music blasting in the car as we drove under a star-filled sky. And again, while it didn’t everything better, it made it closer to okay.
Before every trip, I pick an album to serve as its soundtrack. This started years ago in Boston, when I’d buy a new CD every time I traveled somewhere (which wasn’t very often) and play it constantly on that particular journey. And this time, I knew exactly what I wanted to hear during the hardest trip of my life: “Ceremonials” by Florence and the Machine.
I bought the album when it came out last fall, but resisted listening to it for weeks, wanting to save it until my workload receded. But when I finally heard it, I was underwhelmed. The songs were too slow and mournful, somber compared to “Lungs” and “Lungs: The B-Sides.” But in the days before my grandmother passed away, I became determined to like the album. I kept listening to it. I thought I would find comfort in it.
And I was right. A magnificent series of what became funeral dirges to me, the songs bore an eerie resemblance to everything I was experiencing. Yes, I know that someone grief-struck can find meaning in anything; but this was uncanny. It wasn’t just how often the lyrics referenced the ocean, reminding me of summers at my grandparents’ South Padre Island condo (one of the few places in the world where I felt totally safe). It was also that every song — well, at least a few lines in every song — matched the frustrations in my heart and head. Drum beats pounded my little iPod speakers in the hotel room and the dashboard speakers in the car, as if trying to reach me, trying to beat the very sadness out of me.
There was “Leave My Body,” which ran through my head during the funeral home visitation. I kept glancing at the casket, knowing my grandmother’s suffering had ended and yet ransacked with sadness and guilt:
I’m gonna leave my body;
Movin’ up to higher ground.
I’m gonna lose my mind;
History keeps pulling me down.
There was “Never Let Me Go,” with the lines “And it’s over, and I’m going under; but I’m not giving up! I’m just giving in” as the chanting of “Never let me go, never let me go” swirls around them.
There was “Shake It Off,” every single lyric of which seemed constructed specifically to get me through this time.
And, especially, there was “Heartlines.” I’ve clung to that song like a stuffed animal, because it’s ridiculously easy to look at my grandparents and be ashamed of my own life. My grandfather opened the first hospital in Starr County, bringing modern health care to a rural area that totally lacked it. He was a “Good Housekeeping” Doctor of the Year, a county judge, a regent at UT-Austin, and more. Now, there’s a hospital, a school, and a street named after him in Roma. And my grandmother, a trained nurse, helped vaccinate people at the clinic, assisted at the hospital, and raised five kids. The two of them saved lives. They changed the world for the better. And what do I do? I write. It seems minuscule in comparison, selfish compared to their work. But I’ve always wanted to write. Everything else has felt like an obligation, a role I took but didn’t want, a suit that didn’t fit. So despite my guilt, I know I have to keep following the heartlines on my hand.
But the song also had these lines, which kept thundering in my head at the funeral (which started at 1 p.m. that Wednesday), and during the burial and the relative’s attack that followed:
What a thing to do.
What a thing to choose.
But know, in some way,
I’m there with you,
Up against the wall
On a Wednesday afternoon.
Just keep following the heartlines on your hand.
III. World Without End
Say my name,
And every color illuminates.
We are shining,
And we will never be afraid again.
–Florence and the Machine, “Spectrum.”
The flowers started arriving during the visitation on Tuesday. They didn’t stop arriving, either. At one point, the funeral director told us there were 70 arrangements. I asked him if that was a new record. I can’t remember what he said.
By Wednesday, the visitation room was drenched in the smell of fresh flowers, warm like a greenhouse. The arrangements spilled out into the hallway, brilliantly colorful reminders of how loved my grandmother was, of how many people cared about her, of how we’re not alone in our grief.
The smell of flowers lingers everywhere. It’s in my new hairspray, a little travel bottle acquired from the hotel store when my own hairspray ran out, bearing the scent of roses in every spritz. It’s in our kitchen, a memory of the flower arrangement David’s co-workers sent me. Filled with roses, mountain laurel, tulips, and hydrangeas, it was the most beautiful floral arrangement I’d ever received. Even today, I’m convinced I can still smell those flowers, though I know it’s psychosomatic at this point. I let it comfort me anyway, giving me hope that even though everything isn’t better, maybe it will be someday.
I didn’t save any of the flowers from that arrangement. But upstairs, I have a single dried red rose, plucked from the giant bouquet of red and white roses atop my grandmother’s silver casket. And I will keep it forever, or as long as I can. Especially because of how I acquired it.
Just after the rosary, in the church where my cousin got married less than 3 months ago, my older cousin stood up and gave a brief speech. She then invited anyone to come up and share some memories of my grandmother — which was kind of fixed, as another cousin and I had been asked to speak before the rosary, and no one else decided to speak.
Walking carefully so I didn’t slip on the marble floors, I climbed up to the lectern — I’d never been behind one before — and told this story to the nearly full church:
I have a lot of wonderful memories about my grandmother, but the theme that runs through all of them is how kind she was. She could have a sharp tongue, but when it came down to it, she was kind when I needed it most.
I remember being at their ranch, right on the Rio Grande, and running around with the other kids. Then, suddenly, I fell in the fish pond — which was embarrassing, as you can imagine.
When I came out of the water, everyone was laughing at me. But my grandmother just swooped me up and took me to the bathroom to clean me off, like it was no big deal. I was crying; there were bits of lily pad in my hair; but she just cleaned me up like it was nothing. Like I had nothing to be embarrassed about.
She was kind to me when I needed it most. I will never forget that.
And I will never forget her.
Afterward, people kept telling me how much they loved that story. I won’t lie: it was awesome. Incredibly flattering. Plus, I thought my grandmother herself would’ve appreciated it, giving me a respectful nod and a “Very nice, mi hijita.”
As people departed the church, I went up to the casket to say good-bye yet again. In the enormous arrangement of roses gracing the closed section, one red rose leaned out further than the others, as if it was staring at my grandmother. I’d noticed it during the rosary, watching it bob in the air-conditioned breeze like it was nodding at something she was saying.
But then I heard her voice in my head. “Get that thing out of my face,” she grumbled.
So with a smile and a quiet “Yes ma’am,” I said good-bye and pulled the rose out of the arrangement. It wouldn’t bother her anymore.
At the funeral, my oldest uncle gave an incredible eulogy. He talked about how my grandmother — born and raised in northern Louisiana — moved to Roma to help my grandfather start the first hospital in the region. She didn’t know a word of Spanish, but she learned. And her name, Sarah, soon took on the Spanish pronunciation.
I sat behind my mother, next to the aisle, on the right-hand side of my grandmother’s casket. And when I heard this, I sat up a little straighter. My grandmother’s name, with the Spanish pronunciation and English spelling, had been passed on to me. It’s led to problems throughout my life: strange looks, reminders that the Spanish “Sara” doesn’t have an h at the end, angry protestations that people’s “Anglo tongues” can’t pronounce it, chiding over my own inability to speak Spanish, and suggestions that I just change it to the English pronunciation. But it’s my name. And because it came from her, I will always fight for it.
My uncle also talked about my grandmother’s love for music. This surprised me. I remembered their old jukebox, but I hadn’t realized how much music meant to her. He mentioned her love of Elvis, and how excited she was to see him perform in Las Vegas; and how thrilled she’d been when Robert Goulet had kissed her at a concert. He told us how once, when my grandparents went to McAllen (a huge city compared to Roma) to see what was new, she’d brought him back a Beatles record — and it had changed his life. He joked about how he’d never gotten her into the Grateful Dead, but she had really loved music all of her life. And he closed with a quote from Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” and one final good-bye to his mother.
After the burial, still trembling, tears and sweat coating my reddened face, I glanced at my ankle tattoo — a line of music tying into a bow in the back. My whole ankle was scarlet. I saw at least three bug bites around the tattoo, and I assumed it was ruined. My sensitive skin reacts terribly to ant and mosquito bites, puffing up and often scarring. But hours later, once we were home, I looked closely at it and saw it was fine. The three bug bites were around it, one coming rather close, but none actually on the tattoo. It was okay.
Relieved, I decided I was finally ready to get my ankle touched up, despite how much it would hurt. (Rachel, my tattoo artist, had done an amazing job; but sometimes the healing process isn’t perfect, especially in places that stretch a lot, like ankles.) I e-mailed Rachel the day after the funeral. To my surprise, she said she could see me that night. I hesitated, wondering if I could handle the physical pain on top of my emotional one. But I took the appointment anyway, because really, I couldn’t feel much worse.
On the drive, I fought horrible traffic and contact lenses so dry that all lights looked foggy and haloed. Having just showered for the first time in days, I wore black yoga pants, a black tank top, and a black hoodie. My still-wet hair was pulled into a bun. I had no make-up on.
She said she was going to start with the back part. I winced, remembering how that was the most painful part by far. But I lay on my stomach and kept reminding myself to breathe, antiseptic smells creeping into my nose. I tried to channel my grandmother, telling myself that she had five kids (probably without painkillers), that she was strong and tough and a fighter, and that I am a fighter, too.
I have been in this tattoo studio several times. While getting my back done (two and a half hours) and my ankle done (one and a half), I’ve studied the artwork on the walls. I’m quite familiar with what’s there. But at that moment, as the needle dug into my Achilles heel and I told myself to think of my grandmother, I glanced up at the wall and saw something I’ve never seen before:
A giant pennant with the word “ELVIS” on it.
I blinked. It’s just a coincidence, I told myself. Then I opened my eyes, and looked right at something else I’d never seen before in the studio:
A bust of Elvis, near the pennant.
The tattoo touch-up didn’t take that long. It barely hurt. And over the next few weeks, it healed beautifully, without itching or pain.
When I lost my father in 1996, I stayed afraid for over a decade. I was terrified about what would happen when I finally lost someone I really loved. Now I know. And knowing what that pain feels like — well, it still feels like most of my skin has been torn off. But the parts that are healing feel stronger.
There are several people helping me heal. My friends have surrounded me with love and understanding, treating me with kindness when I’ve needed it most. They’ve reminded me that we’ve all experienced loss, and that we all have family issues. And knowing I’m not the only one to go through this makes me feel better.
And I could not lived through any of this without David. Throughout that week, he kept trying to hold my hand, only to find it full of tear-soaked tissues. He’d work his way around it, clutching my balled fist, snot and tears and all, until I’d move the tissues to my other hand so I could clasp his hand with an empty one.
Now, I just have to keep moving forward, ever forward, one step in front of the other. And I have to try to remember the good and wonderful times I had with my grandmother, not just the moments I regret or wish I’d had.
I will keep going.
I will keep working on my novel and the two sequels, and all the other writing projects after that.
I will keep going to work every day, passing the spot where I stood when my mother told me my grandmother had a week to live, past the green bushes I’d stared at as small birds darted and chirped under them.
And I will go into my office’s building, passing not one but two beautiful fish ponds.
Then, soon, I will go home to my husband and my dogs. I will call or e-mail friends, making plans to see them.
And I will keep going, tissue in hand, through the storm, ever forward into whatever weather rises before me.
Copyright 2012, Sarah Rodriguez Pratt. All rights reserved.