I had only been 22 for a bit less than a month when my grandmother died. Mary…she died two days before her birthday. I was devastated. But still, a month later I got on a plane headed for Belize for my summer vacation. My last conversation with gram, on the phone was about fish (she had fish for lunch)…important relationships in my life…and my upcoming trip (which she felt uneasy about because I was flying by the seat of my pants always). I talked to her on a Thursday I think…she died the next day (the same day I was coming home to visit…the same day I was going to say goodbye).
She knew she was dying…we all did. She said all her goodbyes and she went on her terms. Of course she did.
She knew she had cancer (again) way before the doctors did. She had the surgery and refused the chemo. Mostly so she would have one good year left in her. It was a quality of life issue. And she lived her life well.
When she died, there were instructions. She asked for a memorial service at her church…food (everything is better on a full stomach she preached)…and cremation of her body so that the ashes could be scattered in the bay that we put grandpa in two years before (who also died of cancer among other things).
As a family we did all of the above but the ocean part. Instead my father kept the ashes. I guess people weren’t ready. At least until yesterday.
Six years later, my family felt ready. Of course, some things changed. We didn’t scatter the ashes because that’s against the teachings of the Catholic church…so we had to improvise instead.
So yesterday afternoon, on an overcast Sunday, my father, uncle and myself took our boats (two kayaks and a canoe) out in the ocean to the breakwall, a mile off shore. We paddled against the current, against the wind and into the choppy September swell. It was a little crazy given the conditions. But damn, it’s been six years! There was no turning back. Who knows when we would have actually followed through with it if we postponed the experience?
As my father tossed her box into the ocean to sink 30 feet below the sting of death came back all over again. Our family just hasn’t been the same without her and we’ve had six years of more painful deaths, including her oldest son, Butch, who died a few weeks ago.
Butch the free spirited, black sheep (if there ever was such a thing in a family of no-conformists), died after his 15 month battle with esophageal cancer. Butch tried his best to live life right up to the end. Reading books, spending time with family and taking walks out in the back woods of his West Virginia property, we all hoped for the best in a situation that just wasn’t working out. Even with the radiation and chemo, his tumor couldn’t shrink enough to make him a good candidate for surgery and then the poison spread…everywhere. Damn the cancer that took him before he was ready to go.
Needless to say, I had a lot to paddle through yesterday…a lot of stuff to work out in the waves. And as much as the timing of all of this stinks, my family certainly knows how to take the road less traveled. Nothing is quite done normally. And everything is quite unique and adventuresome.
Gram probably would have been pissed at the big “to do” that was created in burying her. But she would have laughed at the absurdity of it all. And if she had her way (which she always did) she would have told us how to do the whole thing better.
But the one thing that I have learned from all of this is that it’s not about how you are let go in the end. It’s not about the obituary or the eulogy or the people present at your memorial service. It’s more about all the days that lead up do that experience.
It’s about the conversations about tasty fish…talking with people about the ones you love…sharing your favorite books…digging a hole and planting flowers. It’s about singing in church, even if you are tone deaf and spending too much money on your grandkids. It’s about taking vacations, enjoying each day and spending some time reflection on how blessed we are.