The grace and grief of small moments
Moments after scheduling what will be our first date night since our second son‘s arrival last month, I quipped to my husband, “You know I’m going to be sneaking peeks at my phone every five minutes, right?”
I’d started the statement smiling, but felt a veil of sadness falling over me as I finished it. I’ve gotten bad news in a movie theater once before, in a moment since become connected to so many others.
I originally disliked the surly, cantakerous man who lived next door to my childhood home.
Once, when someone tossed their litter on our lawn, he knocked on the door and fumed at me, “Why can’t you people keep your lawn clean?”
“Why can’t ‘you people’ shut the fuck up?” I asked before slamming the door in his face.
I was such a sweet and gentle child.
Over the years that followed, I think this neighbor resigned himself to living next to four loud, unruly kids of a tired single mom. He started inviting us to sit on his porch with him on summer evenings. Together we’d eat watermelon or drink root beer floats as we watched cars pass.
After many years, I started giving him awkward hugs. For years, he said he didn’t really like hugs, but accepted them as part of being part of us.
He softened as he neared eighty years of age, and would quietly ask, “Don’t I get a hug?” if I tried to leave without one.
In his final years, I took to calling him “Grampa G.”
My mom cared for Grampa G in his final months.
When he finally decided to stop taking medicine, I told my sisters I’d drive up for his memorial.
“Is that what you really want?” my youngest sister asked me. “To get here after he dies?”
Startled by her words, I realized that wasn’t what I wanted. I packed my dog and a couple of bags into my car before beginning the 900-mile drive home, but only after getting on the phone with Grampa G and telling him he had to, absolutely had to, hold on till I got there.
He promised he would.
I sat on Grampa G’s bed and took his hand when I arrived. I told him about the drive, and about how very much my nervous Collie mix hated every minute of it. As I spoke, the pain on his face eased. No longer resolved to hold on, it looked like he was moving away from us and toward heavenly choirs.
Thinking we’d have some time left to ease Grampa G out of this world, I suggested we all go see a movie that had moved me deeply. And so that’s what we did: went to see WALL-E.
We were most of the way through the movie when my phone caused my purse to vibrate at my feet. My heart sank; I knew what the call was before I even answered it.
“I think he’s gone!” my mom cried frantically. “I think he’s gone and I was asleep and he didn’t want to be alone–”
“Hold on, Mom. Hold on. We’ll be right there.”
I didn’t even need to say anything when I got back inside the theater. Wordlessly, my siblings and I fled the theater to join our mom.
“I wasn’t there for him!” Mom sobbed as we waited for officials to arrive. “He didn’t want to be alone, and I was asleep when he died. I was asleep.”
“Mom, it’s OK,” I told her. “He just didn’t want to be alone. He didn’t say, ‘I want someone stroking my cheek with one hand, holding my other hand with their other hand and singing me my favorite songs as I die.’ He said he didn’t want to be alone. That’s all. Thanks to you, he wasn’t alone.”
I didn’t know then how soon it would be before I said goodbye to my mom. A year after Grampa G died, my just-younger sister told me Mom had late-stage cancer.
Thanks to my sisters, she, too, left this world unalone.
Back in today, I heard my husband speak.
“Grampa G?” he asked. I nodded, tearfully, as memories continued to wash over me.
My husband reached over and took my hand in his own. I squeezed his hand and thought about the odd little moments that remind me of loved ones lost.
There’s heartbreak in these time-machine moments. Oh, is there heartbreak. But in them, I also find gratitude for having had opportunity to love and be loved.
I will never again hug Grampa G or my mom, but I carry them with me through moments large and small. And when it is my time to go, those I love will hold little bits of my love in their own, and hopefully feel then as I do now that
‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
— Alfred Lord Tennyson