She wasn’t the red and grey flannel I wore unbuttoned and open on the warm November day when she died twenty-two years ago but I think of her and it today. I can still feel the soft fabric that warmed me. I notice the fall leaves glimmering against an open blue sky. They are apple red and brilliant orange.
Back then, they were yellow turning brown by my feet beside the parking lot of Newton Wellesley Hospital. I can still smell the dirt and feel it moist and cool through my jeans and on my legs where I sat. The air was clear and medicinal as it filled my lungs. I went outside to catch my breath after spending the night in a hospital chair beside my Nana who was on the oncology ward during her final hours battling ovarian cancer.
I remember the ambulance ride the day before, sitting in the passenger seat, and how long and awkward it seemed because it was quiet. No lights flashed. No sirens blared. We didn’t speed because no one was racing to bring my grandmother back to life. Paramedics came to drive her tired body and bone-thin face to the hospital where nurses and thicker mattresses would make her more comfortable.
Those nurses who had become familiar to our family swabbed her lips to keep them moist. They lifted her body and turned it gently so she could rest. Their eyes were warm on us but it was she they attended.
Katie, not yet six months old at the time, got the last words of my Nana who said, “The baby” as Katie started to cry. Nana lifted her body up instinctively strengthened by maternal drive before feeling her weakness and settling back into the bed.
Katie is now almost the same age I was then with a nephew almost the age she was. I didn’t know I was young at twenty-three. I felt ancient and afraid. I had watched my grandmother get thinner and paler, as chemotherapy took more of her flesh and energy, as cancer flaunted formidable power without mercy. While I could see how bravely she fought I did not understand why she had to be in that fight.
We feel alone in our pain. Grief wraps around our naked necks like a scarf. It can warm or tug, nurture or annoy as time passes depending on the texture and how tightly it is pulled. When it is fresh, it punctures, stabs, rips and guts and often the best we are able to do is hold on.
Now, I can see that even in those hardest days I was not alone. My aunt Worry who had four young children and lived in the home above Nana’s in-law apartment where I stayed would not only care for my Nana but for me. We would steal moments at Friendly’s for diet-cokes, sweets and laughs. We would joke with each other while pushing the carriage down grocery aisles. We would share music and tea on quieter days when Nana had another visitor and we had guilt-free time without her. We would share rides to the hospital when she was getting treatment or had a setback.
The day Nan died my friend Eric came to sit beside me, to let me cry out to the trees and into his arms. I never asked what he might have done instead or if he had to fight traffic or gas up to get to me. Eric was a thirty-something year old widower who had lost his own wife to cancer earlier the same year and knew deep sorrow. Despite his personal pain, he sat with me and put his red and gray flannel around me to warm me. Like love given without strings he never asked for it back and so that shirt became mine. It is woven into my memory except now I can finally see how he softened my grief.
We make of ourselves oriental rugs so those we love can walk in bare feet and have a softer path. We turn ourselves into locks on doors that need to stay closed while the business of wakes and funeral, obituaries and burials must be done. Later, if we are privileged, we provide spaces for sadness. We become the four inches above the window sill that let the air in and out.
We carry one another, with food and flowers, shoulders and space because we want our loved ones to know that they are not alone. We want them to feel supported when they lose a boulder of their being and are wobbly in the world.
And, to be honest, we rise for one another because we are reminded of how lucky we are on this particular day to be spared the loss of our own loved ones who maybe we had been taking for granted. We are allowed another chance to show our “I love you’s” and without the jolt of staggering pain to know that no one is guaranteed to us forever.