This is a post I just wrote for a Red Room blog contest on saying goodbye. I’m going to share it here because I feel compelled to, and if I don’t do it today, then I won’t ever. Too much like picking at what’s under a bandaid, if you get my drift.
I was a coward. Hospice had been called and my grandmother’s doctor had told us the end of her life was very near. The thought of her leaving this world left a hole in my heart, a rushing vortex of pain and disbelief. I tried to imagine my life without its most steadfast, loyal and giving part, but I couldn’t. Even though my grandmother had become frail and gaunt, even though the lack of oxygen from the COPD sometimes made her crazy—evil crazy—even though she was an entirely different woman from the stoic survivor I had grown up with, spent summers with, I couldn’t imagine her not being around.
So, I stalled.
I wasn’t oblivious to the wrongness of my choice. The guilt of avoiding my farewell chewed through me like some caustic beast, gnawing at my chest, nibbling the chasm of grief even wider. Still, I couldn’t move to do what I knew was right. If it hadn’t been for my sister pushing me to come, I probably never would have seen her again. But my sister—in the way only a sister can—told me to remove my head from the southernmost reaches of my torso, and get a move on.
Even with my marching orders in hand, I stalled. I called my best friend from high school—a frequent recipient of my grandmother’s endless generosity—and told her my grandmother was dying and that I had to go see her, but didn’t want to. Immediately, my friend stepped up, volunteering to come along, to say goodbye with me, to keep me company. Again the indecency of my actions, of publicizing such a personal interaction, weighed on me, but my fear was too great. To stand in a room and stare unblinkingly at death was a feat beyond my capabilities. My parchment-thin will sheared in half, and I brought along a human barrier.
Her bedroom was dark, save for the lamp curving over her wingback chair. She smiled and I kissed her, trying not to notice the odor of decay, not to yearn for her usual light, powdery scent. She had discarded her glasses, either too forgetful to put them on or too disinterested in the world of the living to care to see what was happening around her. My friend and I sat on the edge of the bed opposite her chair, both staring in discomfort at the gaunt figure half devoured by cornflower blue fleece pajamas. My sister had set up the meeting like a tea party, with cookies, drinks and my grandmother’s old photo album. We thought the album might give her a chance for some closure, to say goodbye to the past and the people she loved. She didn’t want to hold it. So, my friend and I flipped through the pages, turning the book to her every once in a while when my memory failed to identify some smiling grayscale woman or man. My grandmother answered my questions with detached obligation, her eyes never lingering too long on any one frame.
I pushed on, knowing she didn’t want to participate, but too deeply enmeshed in the charade of nothing’s wrong to extract myself. No one ate or drank. The darkness of the room seemed to intensify, the walls closing in around us like a cage—like a box. Had my friend not been next to me, surely I would have bolted. Finally, my grandmother told me she didn’t want to look at the pictures anymore, that I should take them home with me. I clenched my teeth against the tears, as I had for so many years when she talked about dying and what she wanted me to have when she went. Back then her instructions always devolved into a joke and a retelling of how her own mother labelled the undersides of objects with masking tape so there would be no confusion as to who got what when she was gone. But, it wasn’t a joke anymore. Instead of acknowledging the admission of defeat behind her gesture, I deflected the truth like Wonder Woman with her bracelets, saying she might want to have them around to look at later.
What must have been only a forty minute visit seemed to last days. The alarm clock radio by her bedside ticked away the seconds as slowly as if the internal mechanisms were succumbing to a deep freeze. Finally, I could take it no longer. I told my grandmother we had to get going. My friend said goodbye, gave her a hug and a kiss and then left the room. Alone at last, I leaned over to give her my own kiss, again missing that familiar scent, the reassuring smell of her presence. When I pulled back our eyes locked. In her gaze I saw it, I saw the goodbye that should have been said. The rush of unspoken words flowing from her eyes to mine could have knocked me over, had I let them. I leaned in and kissed her once more, then said—like I always had, like there would actually be another time—“I’ll see you later.”
She died not too many days after. My chance to redeem myself, to set things right had passed. Over and over again I have said goodbye to her in my mind, but it doesn’t count. It will never count. I had my chance and I ran. For the rest of my life I will carry those unspoken words in my heart. I will go on saying goodbye, and she will go on never hearing me.