Accidental Fudge

Updates Thursdays

Tag: death

Grief at a Distance

Last Friday was a hard day for my family: we had to say goodbye to our dog, Libby.

Libby, 04.26.02 - 03.30.18

Libby joined our family on June 26, 2002, when she was exactly two months old; I was 14, had just finished up my last year at the Lutheran elementary school I’d been attending since kindergarten, and was set to enter the big public high school in the fall. The first night she was with us, Libby was so sick and miserable – I remember waking up to her crying in the middle of the night and going downstairs to where her crate was set up, where, as I remember it, I sat and sang to her softly until she quieted down.

Thankfully, that first night didn’t define the rest of our time with Libby – she was a playful, curious, and sweet dog who was (thankfully) pretty consistently healthy.  She was my confidante – I told her the secrets I couldn’t voice to anyone else, and if those secrets came with tears, she would hop into my lap and lick them away. She was my cuddle buddy – she slept in my room for most of the time I was in high school, and managed to take up absurd amounts of space in my bed (she actually pushed me out of bed onto the floor one morning…she only weighed 20 lbs!). She was my nurse when I didn’t feel well – if I was curled up on the couch, she’d come and lay in the triangle of space between my knees and the back of the couch, and rest her head on my hip. I taught Libby almost all of the tricks she ever learned (although we never mastered leash manners). She taught me so much more.

Libby taught me patience. She taught me the value of play, and that just about anything can be a game if you want it to be. She taught me responsibility. And more than anything, Libby taught more about unconditional love than I will ever be able to express – both about giving it and receiving it.

A few years ago, I cut off contact with my family for a while. When that happened, I thought I was never going to see Libby again, and that broke my heart. When my family and I started talking again, and I did have the chance to see Libby, I wasn’t sure if she’d recognize me – it had been so long, and I looked so different, and she was so old and couldn’t hear me anymore (and would that have just confused her further, because I sounded so different?). She was a little hesitant at first, and honestly, there were a couple of visits where I was pretty convinced she just thought she’d made a new friend. Which was fine, really – I was just glad to be able to spend some more time with her as she got older and started visibly slowing down.

This past Christmas, we all knew she didn’t have much time left. The strength in her back legs was rapidly deteriorating, and she had a growing number of skin lesions on her body that oozed and itched, and necessitated her wearing a toddler-sized t-shirt (which was adorable, if the reason behind it was sad). I was absolutely certain this would be the last time I saw my dog, and I had no idea going in if she’d know who I was – she’d been acting a little off in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

When we walked through the door, she was happy to see us, but I couldn’t really tell if she knew who I was or not. Later that day, though, the smoke alarm went off – it was apparently one of the few frequencies Libby could still hear, and she was terrified. She was trembling. But she came right to me. She knew I was a safe place for her, and she let me hold her and tried to hide with me. Whether that was recognition or not, it meant the world. Saying goodbye that night was so hard, because I knew it was the last time I’d be able to do it.

She seemed to rally for a while. But a couple of weeks ago, my parents got home to find that Libby could barely get out of her bed – one of her legs didn’t want to unfold, and they realized they were running the risk of someday coming home to find she’d gotten herself trapped somewhere and was in distress. I know it was incredibly hard for my parents to make the decision to put her down, but it was time.

Had Libby made it another four weeks, she would have hit her 16th birthday. She was around for more than half of my life. It doesn’t feel entirely real to me yet that she’s gone, because I’m so far away. I’m doing my best to figure out how to grieve long-distance. I’m so grateful that I was able to see her at Christmas and say goodbye, and, as hard as it was, I’m grateful that I knew at the time that it would be the last time. I think it made this past week easier.

There will be other dogs, and I know I will love them fiercely. But there will never be another Libby.

Complexity

Yesterday, I woke up at 5am, opened Facebook on my phone, and saw the news that an exceptionally lovely woman who volunteered with the youth group at the church I grew up in had passed away in the night. She was kind and joyful and too young to die, and while I’m now many years removed from that church, I found myself struck by a deep and complex grief.

Earlier in the week, I felt myself heading into a manic upswing. And mania doesn’t usually just go away because things get sad…it just finds different ways to process the negative emotions. Rather than the numb sorrow of depression, this sadness is sharp, acute, intense. Manic grief is, on its own, complex.

But added to that is the realization that there were a lot of adults in my formative years that I don’t necessarily agree with now that I’m an adult, and some of them probably wouldn’t want anything to do with me now (though the woman in question here would not fall into that latter category, so far as I know), but they kept me alive back then, when I was starting to wrestle with my own inner demons and darkness. It’s because of them that I could grow into the person I am today. Thinking about them is creating this weird mix of feelings of loss and nostalgia and gratitude and more loss.

I didn’t know this woman well, and aside from wishing each other happy birthday on Facebook, we hadn’t talked in years. Still, she left an impression that has stayed with me, and I can’t help but wish I could have said “thank you” one more time. If heaven exists, it is for people like her – if I can live my life with a fraction of the kindness and joy and grace that she did, I will have done well.

This Week in a Five-Item List

On Monday, we laid Grandma to rest after a service that paid great tribute to her life and character. The surrounding circumstances have left me feeling uncreative and exhausted, but make for some decent stories, so that’s what I’m going to tell you about for this week’s installment of the blog.

  1. Finding reasonably priced flights at the last for Mother’s Day weekend leaves you with few options. The only real option there was, in the end, was Spirit Airlines, which still felt exorbitant for a flight lasting just over an hour and thirty minutes, but was reasonable enough that my dad was willing to fund the trip not only for me, but also for my partner, who graciously agreed to take unpaid time off work and come with me for moral support.
  2. Spirit Airlines is…interesting. We’d flown Spirit before, but this was a flight to remember. While we waited at the gate, we were entertained by a couple of year-old babies who were becoming fast friends, their interactions narrated by the boisterous grandmother of the smaller-but-older child of the pair. Once we were on the flight, we found ourselves behind a couple of men who appeared religious and looked like they’d fit right in on the youth ministry team of an evangelical megachurch somewhere (one of them was reading a slim volume entitled Jesus Christ: The Real Story)…and who also appeared to be completely stoned out of their brains. The one who wasn’t reading was extremely chatty and spent the entire flight talking with the Russian woman across the aisle. At the end of the flight, he tried to tell my partner and I that we should stay on the plane and continue on to Vegas, which prompted the following exchange:

    Me: This isn’t that kind of trip.
    Him: Why not?
    Me: Grandma’s funeral.
    Him: Oh, man, I didn’t know that. That sucks…You should smoke some weed!

  3. I have really wonderful family with whom I share no actually biological ties. My dad is an only child, but he’s known his two best friends since kindergarten and junior high, respectively, and I think I was well into my teens before I realized my Uncles weren’t actually related to me in any way. As we gathered to remember Grandma, I was struck by how wonderful it is to know that the chosen family members I was handed as a child have truly chosen me as an adult.
  4. The trip home was…an adventure. We were supposed to fly out of Minneapolis at around 6:30 Monday evening. Our flight was delayed five times (I’m not even exaggerating when I say that) before ultimately being canceled. Not wanting to deal with the airline any longer, we decided to get the tickets refunded and rent a car to drive back to Chicago instead. We slept a few hours at my partner’s parents’ house before heading out just after 3am, which mostly meant that Monday felt like the longest day ever and I think we skipped Tuesday entirely. When we finally stumbled into our apartment, we literally kissed the door frame, we were so happy to be home.
  5. I have the world’s best support system. From a partner who was willing to travel with me at the last minute, giving up paid days at work to be my moral support, to the friends who were willing to be our transport to and from the airport at all sorts of hours, this whole trip really drove home the fact that I have been blessed with a strong, unbelievably wonderful network of support. If I had needed to make that trip home by myself, I don’t know what I would have done. Probably cried and screamed and possibly done someone bodily harm. As it was, I had my partner with me, who remained calm (cheerful, even) for the entire airport experience, and who was loopy and exhausted with me all the way home. I’m one seriously lucky human.

Losing The Quintessential Grandma

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandma this week. On Monday, she was placed in hospice care. While this isn’t the first time she’s been in hospice (the first time, she rallied after being taken off most of her medications), we’re fairly certain it will be her last. She has fairly advanced dementia, and she fractured her hip last week; the main goal now is to try to keep her as pain-free as possible.

Grandma H

Top left: Grandma as a little girl (this photo lived on my desk when I was growing up); Bottom left: Grandma as a young woman, looking like a movie star; Top right: Grandma and Grandpa with my brother and me; Bottom right: Grandma and Grandpa as they’ll always look in my head.

Quite frankly, I don’t know how to feel about the impending loss of my grandmother. Because of her struggle with dementia, she’s been slipping farther and farther away over quite a long period of time. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been mourning my grandma for years, and so this doesn’t feel like very much is changing.

But it’s still sad.

And sadder than the thought of the physical loss of my grandmother is the knowledge that a lot of my memories of her from before dementia took her away are getting hazy.

This particular grandma is the archetype in my head for what all grandmas are supposed to be like. She’s tiny (at her tallest, she was only ever 5’2″; I’m fairly certain she’s been under 5′ tall my whole life). She baked cookies, and made lefse, and her apple pies were the best in the entire world. She was always prepared with activity books and other fun things for my brother and me to do whenever we saw her. She sang with us and colored with us. She reacted with enthusiasm to the news of any sort of achievement we’d managed, however small. She read us books and told us stories from her youth. She was unfailingly kind, particularly to children.

And even though my brother and I were her only biological grandchildren, I know for a fact she was a grandmother to many other people. She taught Sunday school for many years. After they retired, she and my grandfather were part of a program that brought in adults (possibly elderly adults, specifically) to help young elementary-aged children with their reading skills. They loved being Reading Buddies, and my grandmother would show off the artwork the students made for them at the end of every term.

When my grandparents moved into the senior living complex they were in for most of my life, they started women’s and men’s Bible studies. My grandmother, ever the social butterfly, made so many friends and recruited such a large group that they had to divide into two or three smaller studies in the end. She was kicked out of bingo (where the prizes were candy, which she would save to give to my brother and me) multiple times, because she won too often. Every time we went to visit them she had some new craft project from their activity time to show us.

She loved music. She played the piano quite well, and she sang. Whether it was age or simply her voice, my memory of her singing is that she was always enthusiastic, and usually a bit off-key, and it all came together to be very endearing. Even when my grandparents were in their tiny senior home apartment, she had her little electronic keyboard and her hymnal to play from.

I could talk about dementia, and how it snuck in and we all tried to laugh it away and chalk her lack of comprehension up to bad hearing. But that’s not the part of my grandmother I want to keep with me.

The last time I talked to my grandma was about nine months ago. I had called my parents one afternoon, and they were over visiting, probably for her 90th birthday, though I doubt she grasped that part. My dad insisted on putting me on speakerphone. I was terrified. I didn’t want to face my grandma not knowing who I was.

But she did. She knew my name (my birth name, anyway, because I’ve only been Alyx for two and a half years, and she’s been forgetful and distant for longer than that), and was able to track for the few minutes of the phone call when I told her I had gotten a new job. She was very excited for me.

That was one of the clearest days she’d had in a while, and was quite possibly one of the last days she was particularly lucid, according to the experiences the rest of my family have had visiting her in the months since. I feel a little guilty that I haven’t called or been to visit since then, but I know firstly that she wouldn’t remember the calls or visits, and secondly that I am grateful to have my most recent lingering memory of my grandmother be of her knowing who I was.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy, even when it feels like I’ve been doing it in stages since I was in college, and even when it’s expected. Whenever she goes, she will leave a big, grandmother-shaped hole, not only in my life, but in the lives of the many children she poured her heart into throughout her life.


Update: After a rough beginning to the night, Grandma passed away peacefully May 8, 2014, a few hours before this blog went live. She is already missed.

 

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