My Nana stands at the sink with her soup bowl clutched in shaking hands. She turns to all of us with tears in her eyes, and says that she forgot she wasn’t cooking for two anymore. She seems so fragile, and my knees go weak.
It’s moments like this, when the dishwasher is a little less full and old grocery lists are found–written in that familiar handwriting that will never cross paper again, when things are put in perspective. In these moments, my mom, aunts and cousins rush to my Nana’s side–reminding her that she won’t be alone going through the loss of my Grandpa. Our family is closer than ever. The women quickly decide they will have my Nana living in each of their homes–making sure she isn’t left to sleep alone on the left side of the bed in this memory-filled Arizona house.
She tells them that she doesn’t want to be a burden. She doesn’t want to intrude on their now founded lives in Seattle, Milwaukee, and L.A. She doesn’t want to interrupt business meetings and hours of the work day. She has a funeral to plan, and the schedules of my Pop’s hundreds of acquaintances to consider. He was a man who lived by the law of six degrees of separation. If he met you twice, you were a “good friend.”
This is the nature of our fast-paced lives. My Mom and her siblings still have the instinct and the desire to take care of their Mother. They want to be there for her, no matter how long it takes. And yet, they have their own lives to be concerned about. They have filled calenders that can only be pushed aside for so long. Watching the roller coaster of emotions and plans that is swirling around me in this time with my family, I am struck by the meshing of generations, and the role technology now plays in the grieving process. My Pop dedicated his life to raising his family. He was proud of every one of the 17 of us. In death, we see the strength of his life’s work as we all come together.
Last night, after what I now see as the hardest day of my life thus far, 8 of us sat around the dining room table and told stories of his life. We laughed. “This is the way you get through this,” we all agreed. A life becomes a series of snapshot moments, and retelling them becomes a security blanket in the middle of a tumultuous storm. Eventually, the lap tops came out. We all sat together, perched behind screens, and changed our statuses and profile pictures on facebook. We selected photos that featured his effortless grin, and we typed words about his loss. From friends and family across the country, we received instantaneous condolences. We composed an e-mail spreading the news to all of our loved ones, and we answered the phone again and again as it rang for hours on end. As I type, my Nana is going through her handwritten address book, putting check marks next the the names we will later compile on an excel spreadsheet–put together so that a letter can be sent out. I never thought about this part. The part where we have to relive the fact of his death over and over until it becomes something almost numbing and the masses of people he knew are notified. Things are so different now, but I expect that in some ways they are still the same. Death has always been a chance for togetherness and reflection, and I feel like technology actually enhances this. Because of the possibilities of flight, I was able to hold my Pop’s hand when he went. My brother and Dad were able to send an e-mail from Milwaukee filled with fond memories that was read to him before they removed the tubes. My Aunt in Minnesota spoke to him on speaker phone. We were all connected.
I look at the strength of my family, and the life that he lived, and I know that it will inform the way I raise my own kids. They will spend time with their Grandparents, and write letters and talk on the phone. I don’t want them to feel like they didn’t know them when they pass on. I don’t want there to be regrets. In the coming week, I want to learn as much as I can about the life my Pop lived. I want to read his carefully filed letters, and look through old photographs. I want to laugh and cry and take it all in. Next Tuesday we will celebrate him in Minnesota. We will dance and sing and we will all leave to live our own lives with him in mind. As I grow up and raise my own children, I will channel the way he raised his. I won’t get lost in the shuffle of trends and fads and stereotypical notions of success. Just as the old man in the ICU waiting room with the American flag suspenders told me in a withering voice that offered me courage, my Pop is never really gone. He’ll be with me always. Until I see him again, I’ll go through my days trusting my instincts and keeping him in mind. I couldn’t have asked for a better Grandfather.