‘Holy cow, what a ride’

The house feels different to me now. The huge white pitched ceiling with its wooden beams is closer to my head, even when I am sitting in my grandfather’s old recliner. I pause to reflect on the hugeness of the living room I remember as a child. Today the ceiling, the walls, the furniture are the same, but it feels small, and I feel like an adult.

Mia has been gone almost two weeks now. And it has been hard for me. Harder than I thought it would be. I realize now that it will be a long time before I get used to the idea that I cannot call her to see if she’s feeling up to some company, or if she needs to go to the library, or if she needs me to take her by the church to get her copy of “The Upper Room” (which my parents say she read religiously those last months).

I feel silly. She was 94. She lived a good life. She lived longer than any of my other grandparents did. We had a great connection, a lifelong relationship that surpassed even my teenage years when I didn’t want to be around any adults (somehow, she didn’t count as an adult in my eyes). I shouldn’t be surprised she’s gone at that age. It’s not like we lost her young. But with my other grandparents, I was sad, but it was somehow ok, expected. With Mia, I am almost angry. I do not want her to be gone. I want to take her to CVS and have her bitch at me because I buy her a chocolate bar that is too small (she wanted the biggest one they sell, not the second biggest one.) But instead, I cry when I clean out her refrigerator and find half of the too-small chocolate bar on the top shelf, in the back (likely hiding from potential chocolate thieves), unfinished.

But today, I want to tell you about how we said goodbye to a woman that meant the world.

I told you some about the last day with her in the hospital. I didn’t tell you all of the funny moments, such as when I first got to the hospital, I tried to wake her by asking her if she wanted to go to the mall. She opened her eyes and looked sternly at me, shook her head no, and closed them again, clearly thinking I was nuts for wanting to go to the mall at a time like this. I didn’t tell you about the Yankees game that Kevin turned on that evening that literally got her blood boiling (I’ll let him tell you that one, on his blog.) I didn’t tell you how she squeezed my hand, strongly in the early hours, and it was most certainly her way of telling me that she was completely present. I knew she would wake up and all would be ok, she just needed to fight this.

I didn’t tell you how she died in the bed next to me.

And that Josie and Kevin and I were awake most of the night, listening for her breathing, making sure she was still with us. And that she chose the exact moment all 3 of us dozed off to take her last breath. Anil told me later that she may have been fully aware of what was going on, and she may have been waiting for us to sleep.

I checked for her at 2:15, and she was breathing. And I dozed off and I dreamed that I was losing her. I woke and I reached for her, but I couldn’t find her. She was right next to me, and I’d been touching her all night long, but I couldn’t find her. I thought it was because my blankets were in the way, but it was because she was losing her body temperature. And then a nurse came in the room and said, “I’m going to need to turn on the light for a moment,” and I knew then that she was really gone.

I stayed in bed with her, frozen, as the nurse left and Josie said, “I don’t think she’s breathing. Melissa, is she breathing?” and then 3 nurses were back and they were checking her heart and her pulse and she was officially gone at 2:39 am. And it was then I knew that Kevin and I weren’t just there for Mia, or for ourselves, but for Josie too. She had tried to prepare herself the best she could but of course you cannot prepare for these things, and she was very, very upset. And we held each other and hugged each other and cried and called the rest of our family. And the nurse named Cyndi told us that she’d seen a lot of passings, and even some surrounded by family members, but she’d never seen someone go as peacefully as Mia had gone. And that is something Cyndi says we will be able to carry with us for the rest of our lives. I can’t help but think that the 3 of us, surrounding her in that tiny ICU room, helped her as she was able to move on.

So we waited for my dad to get to the hospital and I knew I should be strong for him but I think he was strong for me maybe even more. And the nurses were so kind and wonderful, they told us to stay as long as we needed and they meant it and then finally we had to gather her things and leave. And walking out of that hospital room without her felt so wrong. I’d been to the hospital with her many times but I’d never left her there alone. In fact, when I was hospitalized a few months ago, she told my dad she wanted to come up there and take care of me. Imagine that, a 94-year-old sitting in the recliner barking orders at the nurses while I was in the hospital bed. That would have been a sight to see! She meant it, too. When she called me to tell me the same thing I almost told her to get her ass up there but I knew she would seriously try to do it and I didn’t want her to feel bad.

But we left without her, we had to. And we got back to her house and of course we weren’t going to sleep so we put on coffee and the four of us sat on the screened-in porch and we watched the sun rise over the lake.

Not the best photo, but I wasn't exactly focused on getting the best shot ...

And then a row of ducks lined up right in front of us on the water and sat silently with us. I think Dad and Josie counted about 20 of them, in a perfect row, watching the sun rise along with us. I wonder if they were related to the ducks we used to feed as children, walking down to the pier with Mia and a loaf of stale bread that she’d kept in the freezer just for that opportunity.

The silence was quickly replaced with noise – voices of her legacy. Her 3 children, all 9 of her grandchildren, and 14 of her great-grandchildren filled her home during the days after. We laughed, we cried, the musically inclined played beautiful songs that she would have loved to hear. Her great-grandchild Sophie gave her a wonderful rendition of Amazing Grace on the violin while my cousin Ed strummed his guitar. And it was beautiful.

And we didn’t have a funeral because she refused a funeral, but we had a Celebration of Life in the narthex of the church (she refused to even let us in the sanctuary.) The preacher told a story that was so fitting of Mia, one he’d heard from her neighbor:

The neighbor (I believe she was an elderly woman as well), was taking a walk down the road a couple of years ago (Mia would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 92), when she noticed that Mia was standing on the roof of her house. She walked down her driveway and yelled up to her, “Millie!” (that’s what her friends called her), “What in the world are you doing up there? Do you know what your children would say if they saw you up there?”

And Mia’s response: “Well, then don’t tell them!”

Then after the service, the family gathered back at the river, where we sang and prayed and spread her ashes.

I put some of her ashes in her flower garden. She always loved being outside, tending to her flowers and trees. I put some beside her clothesline, where I remember helping her hang sheets and towels in the sunlight and then running through them as they dried. Some beside the bridge where I had my bridal portrait taken, and some at the leaf pile where I’d placed some of my grandfather’s ashes 16 years earlier – I had fond memories of him dumping us out of his wheelbarrow with the leaves … the rest of her ashes I placed in front of her swing, by the water’s edge, where she could look out and see the lake that she loved.

The day after she died I found this taped to the inside of a notebook in her room that she’d entitled, “Stuff to read after my death.”

Here are the words, if you can’t see them in the photo:

“Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we are, still. Call me by my old familiar name – speak to me in the easy way you always used to. Put no difference in your tone; wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh, as we always laughed, at the jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me – pray for me. Let my name be ever the household name it was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the ghost of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. Life is the same as it ever was  – There is absolutely no unbroken continuity. What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be put out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you for an interval, somewhere very near – just around the corner. All is well.”

My cousin Burton read it, at least he tried to until he broke down and then my cousin Ed helped him finish it. And then it was over, and everyone scattered to the wind, but I sat in that place in her yard for a long time, not wanting to get up, not wanting it to be over.

But finally I did, and as I left her house that day I looked at a photo I’d taken earlier in the weekend, and I couldn’t help but smile because this towel hung in her bathroom for years, a gift from my cousin Mandy, and even though it’s Comic Sans (I think we can forgive Mia for not knowing much about fonts!), it’s about the most awesome thing I could look at during that moment. For this is how she truly lived her life:

What a ride, indeed.