My grandma loved to dance. My grandma loved to dress up. She had gowns with sequins, and skirts that flared with her movement in fabulous bright colored fabrics. She would put on her ballroom heels, and go dancing with her third husband, John, at every chance they could. They went on cruises and would be asked to perform. They went to dance clubs, dressed to the nines. My grandmother was never a performer by trade, but she was a dancer at heart, and spent her retirement on the dance floor and tennis court, beaming with energy.
My grandma left her first husband, my natural grandpa, when my father was in high school. Then she married Dan, who died after a few years. Following Dan’s death, my grandma met John, who ended up being the love of her life. Of all her husbands, they were together the longest, and time with them involved the music of my grandma’s laughter ringing off the walls. John made my grandma laugh, he danced with her, he played tennis with her, and while he wasn’t blood related, John became a very beloved member of our family.
My grandma was more distant physically, but always present with cards, mail, and phone calls on holidays. She was there for all the big mile markers in my life, and a huge supporter of my career in theatre. We shared the expression of dance and though she didn’t travel often to see me in my shows, it meant a lot when she was in the audience.
She used to send me playbills from the local non-union theatre she went to down in Florida and would always write a little review of what they saw, asking if I knew anyone in the cast, and would include pictures of her and John in their latest outfits. She offered connection through our common love of theatre and dance.
My grandma was diagnosed with dementia back in 2011. At first her decline was slow, but started to really change in 2012. John was her caregiver and it was becoming overwhelming for him. After continual advisement from our families, they both moved into assisted living in January. Grandma’s condition worsened, and by May, she was moved into the dementia unit.
On July 4th, my parents told me there was no circulation in my grandma’s leg, and they were giving her 1-2 weeks to live. She ended up dying in 2 days.
I think my friend Rachel said it best; my grandma’s legs were her life. When she lost circulation there, she lost her heart, she lost her blood flow. She was so active, and her legs were how she expressed herself. The block there affected everything.
The last time I saw my grandma alive was her July birthday in 2011. It was the first time I was seeing her since her diagnosis and I was nervous she would be different. She was actually completely lucid, but I felt the change energetically in her home. I had trouble facing this deterioration, and felt very uncomfortable in the presence of the disease. It felt like the worst form of death to me, losing your mind, not knowing, and I turned away from it.
John had made a huge spread of sandwiches, insisting we all eat. To satisfy his Italian wishes, I filled my belly, though nervous. After lunch, my grandma beckoned me into her bedroom, saying she had something to give me.
She got out a ring and handed it to me. She said it was always intended for me, but she wanted to give it to me face to face. I immediately began to weep. It felt like the beginning of the end. She may have been lucid, but she was taking the first steps of leaving by giving away her things. She smiled in the face of my tears, hugging me, comforting me. I was overcome with the gesture. It wasn’t the ring, or the worth of the stones, but the intention that she wanted to have this interaction while she remembered it.
As we drove to the Cemetery, my mother told me I had been here before. Dan was buried here, and we had come to his funeral, when I was four. Grandma had never changed her burial arrangements, so her plot was on top of her second husband.
I have no recollection of that funeral at all. As I stepped out of the limo, my heels sank into the soft grass. It was a warm and humid July day, and sunny. I watched my brother and five other men carry my grandma’s coffin to the site, and tried to imagine my four-year old self, standing there. Did she understand what was happening?
John sat weeping with his head in his hands, and my mother cried as she grabbed my father’s thigh, looking on at the grave. One by one, family members placed a single flower on her coffin and I waited. I had an ivory rose, with half opened petals, beautiful and soft. I placed it last, by the golden plaque with my grandmother’s name, saying a prayer of gratitude for the time we had together. I looked at John, bent over in loss and grief, and sent every ounce of energy I could from my heart. In his wracking sobs, I felt something familiar.
I’ve been here before, the grave, the loss, facing change. I’ve dressed in my own black, and felt the space left from what I loved ending. The community of my family has undergone many changes over the years, most dramatically in the past year. Loved ones have come and gone from my life, some much sooner than I ever wanted or imagined.
I walked from the grave sight with my arm wrapped around my mother, her head lying on my shoulder. Before leaving, I turned to look one last time, to take in the rose, the grave, the green grass, the clouds passing through the sky, and the four year old girl standing there. As our hazel eyes met, and the sun bounced off my grandmother’s ring on my finger, I told her she will be ok. She will be ok.