When I was little, getting my hair washed could be a life-changing event.
Every parent and grandparent knows the drill. Get the child in the tub for a bath. Pour water over their head. Shampoo, then rinse with another drenching that leaves the hair plastered, dripping, soaked.
By the time Grandma Elsie was done with me, I would look into the bathroom mirror and see a werewolf cub that had been left out in the rain too long.
“That’s not me!” I’d shout out. And, smiling or laughing, Grandma would brush and dry my hair until, indeed, it did look like me again.
That memory passed my mind a lot last week as I sat at her hospital bedside with the rest of the family.
It had happened too fast, and then too slow. A moment of socks slipping on bathroom tile had broken Grandma Elsie’s pelvis and sent her to the hospital. Recovery seemed to be painful, but likely – until the internal injuries set to work.
From recovery room to intensive care. From intensive care to hospice. Time passed and turned to pain, pain submitted to medicine and became an hours-long sleep.
Then, the sleep too, passed. And with it passed Grandma.
A part of me hasn’t come back from that yet.
In many ways, Grandma Elsie was the third parent to me and my sisters. For a few years, she lived with us; for all our lives, she was never far away. We only had to hear her English accent or see her smile – a mix of kindness and mischief – to feel better, to know that things were OK.
On her last day, I couldn’t see that smile anymore. And that wasn’t right.
That wasn’t her.
But how do you brush and dry out pain?
I think that’s the great fear at the heart of a death: that you’ll lose someone in truth and not just in time. That, deprived of their presence, even memory will fade to a half-recalled voice and a blurry image, that the person will become less real until you find yourself wondering if you knew them at all.
It’s why I’ve always been offended at the idea that someone will “get over it” or “let go” or “move on.” A piece of you will never let go entirely. And that’s OK. It means a piece of them is still with you, that they touched your life and shaped your soul in a way that still echoes down the years.
Even when the pain of those last memories threatens to color everything else.
“That’s not me.”
No, it’s not. But like the sopping hair, the pain is only a veil. The real face can still be found.
My youngest sister, Carey, found it. Always the most visual of us, she gathered photographs that had been saved through the years and built a display. Grandma getting married in her hat and coat during the war. Grandma laughing riotously at a wedding. Grandma posing with my two sisters in elaborate grade-school hairstyles for a “seniors prom.”
That was her.
My other sister, Leslie, found it. Always the best speaker, she reminded everyone at the service of the little moments that made Grandma who she was – including how she teased Leslie mercilessly for describing her as “spunky.”
That was her.
Me? I’m the one with the written words and the bulging notebooks. I’m the one who interviewed Grandma while she was alive (at Mom’s request), who built the obit from notes and memories and began working on a “book” for the great-grandkids. From the canary named Bill to the teacher who taped her mouth shut, from the wartime work in an airplane factory to the fractured Christmas carols of my childhood, she was there.
That was her.
When my other grandma passed in 1987, one of my sisters hugged Grandma Elsie tightly and asked “You’re not going to die, are you?”
“Honey,” Grandma assured her, “I’m not going to die for a long, long time.” (As she neared 93, she told me with a laugh “I didn’t realize it was going to be this long!”)
The time finally came. But we’re still holding her close. Trying to remember the last instruction she wrote for us. The one that said “Laugh, don’t cry.”
That’s how she lived. And that’s how she’ll live on.
That, indeed, was her.