old (2007), Uncategorized

springtime grief and longing

Me (center) with Gammy and my cousin, David, ca. 1980

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahlil Gibran

April is difficult for me, not only because spring tends to inspire a sense of sadness that another year has passed without much significant change (still bad with money, relationships, willpower, and responsibility) but also because it marks the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. This year in particular is shaping up to be arduous because it’s also the first in a decade – and only the second in my entire life – I’ve spent living alone.

Before my grandmother died, I’d never lost anyone close to me. The last funeral I’d attended was in the early fall of 1981, when my Nonna died. The only thing I remember (I was eight) was crawling under the coffee table in the funeral home. It was my grandmother (Gammy) who found me there and let me sit in her lap while she told me stories of my Nonna, an intelligent woman born decades too soon to take advantages of second-wave feminism and all its glories.

My grandmother also missed that feminist boon, stuck with a borderline alcoholic Irish husband who left her to wash windows while she was eight months pregnant and he was off at the tavern. In the last decade or so of her life, I think she caught a glimpse of how things could have been different, as I cajoled my grandfather into buying her anniversary presents and celebrating Mother’s Day despite his idea that “she wasn’t MY mother.” But mostly Gammy taught me a great deal: the importance of fidelity despite hardship, what it feels like to be loved (and love!) unconditionally, the value of connection in a cold-hearted world, how to get an infant to sleep with Italian lullabies and a gentle stroke on the brow.

When Gammy died, I thought the pain would never end. An atheist for as long as I could remember, I began to wish I could see past the logic, suspend disbelief, and just believe in God once and for all. Finding out I was pregnant the day of her funeral (a pregnancy later lost in ways most complicated), I was convinced her soul would be reborn within me. Grieving for her was the hardest and most exhausting thing I’d ever experienced, and it nearly killed me. But then one day I realized birds were chirping as they were flying south for the winter, and that the changing leaves were beautiful as they fell beneath my feet and crunched under the weight of my body. An entire summer had bloomed into fall as I cried and howled at the moon (and swore at the injustice), but I survived. I felt like my old self again – lighter and a bit more sad, a little less full, but once again sure that I could make my way through the world alone.

Mostly, that confidence has remained. But at certain moments – the birth of my second son, the prolonged collapse of an important relationship, college graduation after 13 years of struggle – I feel so very weak. It isn’t exactly that I’m still grieving, but rather that the sadness comes upon me as a gulf of emptiness and all I can focus on and think about as that wave washes upon my shore is, “I really miss her, and I want her back NOW.” This is made more difficult by the fact that I don’t have any contact with my family, and there isn’t anyone I can call upon to talk about the years I had with her. There is no one alive with whom I can share the things I remember viscerally: how she smelled after a bath, the folded tissues and Wrigley’s spearmint gum perpetually stowed in her purse, the way she hugged me so I could feel her soft cheek pressed up against my own, her uncanny ability to call me to check in just when I needed it the most.

All these feelings – and more – crop up in springtime. It doesn’t help that the anniversary of her death this year falls the week after Easter, which means I’m awash in mythology about life and death. I don’t want to hear about rebirth and salvation and hope and renewal. I want her back, even though I know I’ve lost any chance for that to happen and all I have now are those heartfelt memories, the stories I hold in my heart, the love and happiness she shared with me so selflessly for all those years.

In the end, though, Gibran has it right. It isn’t so much that I want her here or now, or that my grief is predicated on her absence. In a sense, it IS exactly that, but looking deeper I’m simply overwhelmed with the memories of how much love and happiness I felt in her presence. As I sit perched on the precipice of my own future happiness (with much love in my heart), I can’t help but think that my constant grief and sadness these days are signs of growth, renewal, and rebirth (yes, all those things I can’t stand hearing about). It’s time for me to let go and ride the waves, to see where life takes me without dwelling on the past or thinking too much about my destination. In the meantime, I’m stocking up on Kleenex.

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