The day started out like any other Sunday. Got up early, volunteered at church, spent the afternoon doing chores and whatnot. School here in Austin starts tomorrow and I promised my best friend to help her finish the last of the tasks for her classroom. As I was getting into her car, my phone rang and I saw it was my mom. Too much was happening in that moment, so I let it slide to voicemail.
Two hours later when I finally check my messages, tears sprang to my eyes as I heard my mom's voice:
"Honey, it's your mom. I wanted to call and let you know that your grandmother passed away in her sleep last night. Call your dad when you get a chance." My best friend looked over at me from the driver's seat.
"What is it?" she asked.
My voice trembled. "My grandmother died."
My friend was silent and the tears fell from my eyes as the realization of what I said out loud hit me. "I hadn't seen her in forever. I was going to take PTO on Wednesday and go visit her." I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to think clearly. The kids in the backseat took notice and my friend's son piped up.
"Mommy, what's wrong with Auntie Kelly?"
"Auntie Kelly is sad, buddy. She got a very sad message."
The next few hours went by in a blur. We picked up my husband from work, started dinner, got settled in for the evening. I suddenly had the urge to bake cookies, something I hadn't done in a couple of months. It's been so hot and I got burned out on baking that I'd been taking a sabbatical from it. But all of sudden, it was damn important that I make those cookies. So important, I sent my husband to the store to go get eggs (I'd hardboiled the remaining ones earlier in the afternoon) and I ended up making my own brown sugar instead of sending him back out again for more.
Creaming butter and sugar and eggs together, I was taken back to the first time I made cookies with my grandmother. I remembered the feel of her hand on mine as we held the hand mixer together. I could hear her voice, a hint of Texas drawl as she issues instructions to me.
As I pulled the vanilla and baking soda from the cupboard, I saw chocolate pudding mix, muffin mix, cake mix, and other baking essentials stored there. I could see so clearly my grandmother's own cupboard; it was always full of the necessary items to make up a batch of cookies or a cake or jello. I loved spending time at her house during the summer because it meant I got to make something in the kitchen! I shook my head as I realized that I had inadvertently been storing things the way she did.
As the dough finally come together, I licked the batter from the spoon. The combination of salt and sweet mixed with the taste of my tears as they sprang unbidden from my eyes. I scooped a huge piece of dough, shoved it in my mouth and ran for the bedroom, where I crumpled to the floor and bawled as I simultaneously savored the fresh dough melting in my mouth. All of my memories with her came flooding through my brain in a torrent.
I've lost many relatives over the years, but none has hit me like the loss of my grandmother. Both of my families of origin haven't been the best at keeping up with each other. We have a tendency to let our human imperfections get the best of us and go long periods without speaking to one another or not at all. I haven't been the best granddaughter. In fact, I was a terrible one. I lived in the same city, a mere 20 minutes away from her, and yet I visited with her but once or twice a year. In college, just after my grandmother was diagnosed with congenital heart failure, my aunt paid me to visit my grandmother and help her with the cleaning and chores once a week. I spent my Saturday mornings scrubbing and vacuuming and running laundry. Consumed by my own youthful ignorance and emotional issues, I selfishly bowed out. I know that we shouldn't look back with regret on our actions, but that is one action I regret. And it's not that I regret missing out on that time with her. I regret the fact that I let shame and guilt from that decision wound me so deeply that I would go months in between visits when I was older and rediscovered the value of my grandmother. Had I been a bit wiser, a bit older, and a bit more compassionate, those mornings could have been some of the best I'd ever had.
In the last couple of years, I really tried to overcome that deep rooted self hatred and try to visit with her more often, but it didn't happen as nearly as much as I had hoped. But despite the fact that I rarely visited her, my grandmother was never far from my thoughts. I thought about her all the time, I prayed for her all the time, and I would call her more often than I visited.
The last time I called her, it was her birthday last Wednesday.
"You made it to 91!" I teased her.
"I sure did," she said, the tiredness evident in her voice.
"Think you'll make it to 92?" I asked. She laughed.
"I didn't think I'd make it this far. We'll see," she said.
We chatted for a good thirty minutes about a whole lot of what seemed like nothing. Our recent vacation to South Dakota. Her recent game of dominoes. The things my daughter was up to and the remarkable cheeky things she's been saying. Her doctor's visit. I wished her happy birthday and she asked me to come visit her. I told her I had PTO I needed to burn, and that I was going to take some time this week. I asked her when would be a good time to visit and she said anytime but Tuesday - she had a doctor's visit and she was hosting dominoes. I promised to call her Monday and let her know when I would make it - Wednesday or Thursday.
I booked that time off and I made a note to call her, but apparently, the Big Man Upstairs had other plans.
I wish she would have waited just another week. I know it's incredibly selfish to say that, but I wanted to visit with her one last time. I was going to make a blueberry lemon loaf and we were going to enjoy afternoon tea together. We were going to chat about her past, the things happening in my life now. We were going to sit and do crosswords or put together a jigsaw puzzle. Such mundane little things, but they would have meant the world to me, especially if it was the last time we spent together.
My cousin got married the day she died. My uncle knew something wasn't right when he kept calling to give her updates and she didn't answer. Maw Maw was a night owl; she never went to bed before midnight unless she wasn't feeling well. My aunt sent her husband to check on Maw Maw the next morning. I can't imagine what that phone call must have been like for my aunt.
Fast forward several hours later and I'm sitting on my bedroom floor, tears running down my cheeks and my chest heaving. My daughter enters and burrows her way into my arms and we both cry. She has no idea why I'm crying, just that I'm sad and she's sad too. God bless that little heart of hers! Billa proceeded to cover me with all of her blankies and stuff every single one of her most treasured dolls and stuffed animals into my arms in an attempt to make me feel better. I felt all the more terrible for having to explain to her why I was sad.
"Billa, do you remember Maw Maw?" She nods. I took a deep breath. "Baby, Mommy is sad because Maw Maw died."
"Maw Maw gone?" she asked.
"Yes," I whispered. "She's gone to be with Jesus."
"Oh," she replies. "Maw Maw was sick?"
"Yes. She was very sick."
"Oh." She digests this for a moment and then hugs me before continuing to shower me with every comforting object she possesses. This in turn makes me cry harder and finally, my husband ushers out of the room to let me be.
In the darkening bedroom, the taste of cookie dough still on my tongue, I weep for the woman I called my grandmother. I weep for the loss of my last grandparent. I weep for the regret and shame that has cracked my heart in two. I weep for lost opportunities. And yet...
The motto associated with my maiden name is Dum spero, spiro - while I have breath, I have hope. My grandmother was very lonely at the end of her life, her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren spread far and wide. But she was loved. And she was strong. She lasted eight years longer than the doctors gave her, even surviving a bout of breast cancer. She survived an abusive husband and birthed six children. She lived a very long life, and produced some of the most intelligent, compassionate, kindest, funniest, creative people I know. Her life was comprised of many salty moments, and so many sweet. Chocolate and butter and salt and sugar finally fade from my tongue as I savor that last thought.
Maw Maw may not be among the living, but she will always be in my thoughts, in my heart, and in every cookie I make.
Rest in peace, Maw Maw. I love you!