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Every family has stories that get told a million times despite the fact that everyone has heard them a million times. In my family, one of these stories involves a five-year-old yours truly and a borderline phobic case of stage fright.
I recognize how ironic that sounds given what I do for a living now but evidentially my Kindergarten self had to be physically carried on stage and planted in front of the microphone.
Despite my family’s legit concern that I would run away or cry before uttering a single word, I somehow managed to deliver a tribute poem to grandmothers – one that my dad can recite from memory more than 30 years later.
Normally when my dad busts out the grandmother poem, I respond with an “I’M SO SORRY” look to anyone within earshot – but last week was different.
Last week was my grandmother’s funeral.
To make a long story short, mawmaw went to the hospital in pain and a few days later she was gone.
Just like that.
In fact, she passed away minutes before the lab results came back with her official diagnosis.
Acute myeloid leukemia.
While it’s a blessing to know that she was full of life until the end, it’s also a cold reminder of how fleeting life is.
As I was reflecting on my grandmother in preparation for her eulogy, I thought about the elementary school tribute and it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the poem itself that mattered as much as the fact that I loved her enough to deliver it despite being afraid.
Loving someone even when it’s uncomfortable is what our pastor calls “not waiting to bring flowers.”
In other words, it’s easy to mourn someone when they’re gone and much harder to truly love them while they’re around.
I’m not talking about old grievances here, although that’s obviously a huge block to connection. I’m talking about simple things like saying “I love you.”
I started thinking about this recently because my extended family has been getting together every holiday since before I was an embryo, but we never said “I love you” to each other until two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago.
Looking back, I’m fairly certain this was my grandfather’s traditionalist influence.
He was a wonderful man and a card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation, but an impoverished youth and nearly a decade of active duty in the Marine Corps had left him somewhat emotionally neutered.
Love was showing up for your responsibilities. Affection was superfluous.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly developed a deep appreciation for this kind of love as a product of its time; however, when my grandfather died ten years ago it became obvious – and unfortunate – that I’d picked up his belief.
In my grandfather’s final days, when our family was taking turns sitting with him to ensure that he wouldn’t take his last breath alone, all I wanted to do was comb his thick white hair, hold his wrinkled hands, and tell him how much I loved him.
Instead, I just sat there thinking about what a great man he was but never actually saying it.
I justified this silence by telling myself that I didn’t want to “make him sad”, but deep down I knew I’d missed a beautiful opportunity to be brave.
Fast forward exactly ten years and three months.
There’s more round-the-clock shifts and more painful waiting for last breaths, only this time it’s for my grandmother.
Given her rapid decline, I was grateful when everyone said hearing was the last sense to go.
Having learned a lesson with my grandfather, I’d spent hours holding mawmaw’s hand and filling her ears with beloved 1940s big band music and composed whispers of “I love you.”
And yet, it’s a funny thing about love: Every time you hit a new level, you discover it goes deeper still.
I assume this is why – at 9pm one evening when I was alone in my grandmother’s room and everything was dim except a flicker of the TV – I slowly crawled into her tiny hospital bed. Since her IVs had all been removed, only the steady hum of an oxygen machine remained as I pressed myself against her unresponsive body, put my head on her shoulder, and gave her one last tribute.
Thank you for everything.
I love you with everything.
And I will carry you with me always.
For more than an hour I just laid there with her, selfishly trying to remember every detail about that moment.
The light on her hands.
The smell of her skin.
The tears in her eyes.
Tears, it seems, were her final way to communicate because she died at 5:15 the next morning.
In the days since, I’ve often wondered whether her tears reflected sadness (as I had feared with my grandfather) or joy.
What I’ve discovered, however, is that ultimately it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that she knew I loved her.
And we didn’t wait to bring flowers.