Death Comes Suddenly
This isn’t my best work; I wrote it more for myself rather than you, my dear reader, but I wanted to share it too. Writing about my feelings and relationships has never been my strong point but I needed to write this for healing. I am sure everyone can relate to the death of a beloved grandparent. (Sorry, this is three in one but it didn’t feel right posting them separately.)
Christmas Day. Our family of nine pulled into the snow laden driveway, several feet blanketing the yard. Our van joined at least five other vehicles in Grandma and Grandpa Benike’s yard. Snow crouched under our feet as we filed up the drive and cement side walk. Always, Grandpa was at the door, holding it up for us, greeting each of us with, “Merry Christmas”. Boots or shoes piled up just inside the porch door. More greetings of “Merry Christmas” came from aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around the TV, though not all were watching intently. Some aunts and Grandma were probably in the kitchen. Somebody was assigned to taking the coats upstairs to lay on a bed, although sometimes Grandpa did it himself if he wouldn’t miss someone else’s arrival. The house was beautifully decorated. The tree, never was there a more lovely Christmas tree, in the old fashioned parlor, was girdled with colorful gifts of every shape and size. Every room seemed to have a dish with candy – my favorite were blueberry candy canes. Grandpa herded everyone toward the kitchen, more than half of us spilling into the dining room, to pray before the noon meal. We lined up for the food laid out buffet style, being careful not to stand in the door way with someone else, for there was always a mistletoe. The food was amazing. Tables were scattered throughout the dining, play and utility rooms. Gift opening would come later, with its delightful chaos. Trays of cookies showed up. I remember stretching out on the couch in the parlor drifting off to sleep with the late afternoon sun sinking low before the dread, “it’s time to go home”.
September 7, 2020
Grandma died on August 13th. My first reaction was shock. I had known for at least a year and half now that she wasn’t doing very well but that knowledge didn’t make it any less shocking. You expect, or rather desire and hope your grandparents to be immortal, that they will always be there – and I think it is all too easy to take their life for granted. Done with work for the day, I was just preparing to leave Mom’s when she told me the bad news. Shocked and stunned, I drove home. I hadn’t seen Grandma since Christmas – how could she just be gone? At that point all I knew was that she died at home. It wasn’t until an hour or more after I was told that it really began to sink in, shock became sadness and disbelief. Tears began rolling down my cheeks, then streamed, then poured. Why now? I hadn’t seen her in months. I had no idea if she had been proud of who I am. You know that one day your grandparents die and yet you hope they won’t. I managed to collect myself, perhaps the tears were momentarily spent, before Jesse came in from milking. My thoughts swirling with how to tell him. He came in and immediately we began to argue over a trivial matter, where I had parked the car. He stepped into the bathroom to wash his hands. When he stepped out, tears were flowing down my face. He was irritated that I was crying over something so small.
Around a sob and tears gushing, I blurted out, “Grandma Benike died today”.
All anger, irritation, and frustration disappeared from him instantly. Which were replaced with love, compassion, concern and sympathy, “Babe why didn’t you just say so?”
It was a full-out flood, the gates had been opened. My words were barely intelligible through the torrent, “I haven’t seen her since Christmas. I wanted to go visit them but with covid and being so busy I didn’t. I thought I’d see her again. she’s gone.” I sobbed. Jesse sat down beside me, lovingly caressing my back and arm letting me cry. How does the human heart have enough durability to experience so much pain and grief? I couldn’t have imagined her death would have hit me so hard and left me so shaken – I’ll explain later.
Jonathan texted me that grandma died. I replied that I had already been told and couldn’t stop crying. He was crying uncontrollably too. Texts between us siblings were exchanged late into the evening. Aleesha shared the details of how grandma died and we tried to console one another. Grandma had fallen on the sidewalk outside their house, hit her head and died instantly. They were trying to determine if a stroke or a heart attack had killed her or if it was quite simply the fall. Hearing how she died renewed my tears. Poor Grandpa! They had been married for 69 years. The funeral was set for Tuesday, with a meal for the family to follow.
Tuesday was to be a day of mixed emotions for me. For me, this brought up more than just the death of a beloved grandma like it did for my cousins. Dad was there. Aside from a brief chance sighting at KwikTrip one time, it was the first time I’d seen him in at least 6 years, perhaps even 7. (My dad sexually abused me when I was a child – I wrote about it in my wedding story.) Over the weekend, I had thought about the fact that he’d be there and what that would be like; with these thoughts my emotions were all over the place: apprehension, sadness, longing, hurt, and perhaps a bit of fear. This fear was more over Jesse seeing him, and his struggle with my dad being present. Jesse never saw him before aside from when he would have been a very small child. I wanted to know what was going on in Jesse’s head. And yet added into the mixture of pain and discomfort was the excitement for the family meal afterwards since we were unable to get together for Easter. But I was also nervous since Jesse wasn’t going to be accompanying me to the meal (I have extreme social anxiety and it was the first time I would be hanging out with the extended family on my own).
The family milled about in the churchyard before the funeral; chatting and catching up. Asking before hugs were exchanged; no one declined a hug despite the pandemic. I observed my dad coming out of the church and go stand by my brother, Seth. I wouldn’t have known it was him if it wasn’t for the context clues. It was difficult to see him, knowing I couldn’t interact with him. I couldn’t run up to him and tell him all about my life or introduce Jesse – torn between anger and pain that we no longer had a relationship. But I had Jesse, Mom, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles greeting and embracing me. As the time drew near we filed into the church. The family crammed into the chapel to receive instruction on how we were to walk into the sanctuary. The pastor wanted the grandchildren (my generation) to go according to age but we mostly entered with our siblings instead. The service proceeded.
My grief was heightened by my cousin, Rachel’s speech, her memories of Grandma, how fondly she remembered her, and how close they had been. My dad stood up to speak as well – talking about what a gift Grandma had been. A jumble of emotions clattered about inside of me as he spoke, a voice familiar and yet a distant memory, altered by time. I hadn’t heard that voice in several years. I wondered what Jesse was thinking as Dad spoke. It just felt strange to be in the same place as him, practically strangers now. He hadn’t been my father in years; other men had played that role and done so far better. If Grandma’s death hadn’t caused enough pain and feelings to work through, the complication of Dad’s presence there had added to it. He had been sitting with his siblings; when he stepped down he sat removed from them.
We gathered around the burial plot in a semi-circle. Dad and Don lowered the urn into the hole. Although we grieved, we were able to smile, joke and enjoy one another’s company. Afterwards, Don and Sheryl hosted a meal for the family – just Johanna and Seth were there from my family and I didn’t talk to them (I am not close to these two of my siblings). Nervous about being on my own, I stood alone at first; it was challenging not having Jesse or Aleesha to hide behind. I sat with my cousins and began to talk with them. It was amazing. (There were thirty nine people present, and thirty eight absent – from just two people. We haven’t all been together for perhaps eighteen years.) My own immediate family aside, I felt an overwhelming wave of love and connectedness flow between all present, and flow freely. Strange, but I hadn’t realized until that intimate gathering celebrating the life of Grandma, just how much this family loved me, and each other. It filled me with warmth and pride, the free flowing exchange of love and connectedness and the talk of God being a part of it without being painfully deliberate. My cousin, Jeremiah knew who I was, my personality and interests, he understood who I was – talked about the woods I have now that I married Jesse – close even though 12 years apart in age. Rachel overflowed with love, it could be felt how much she loved each of us, the closeness to one another and the presence of God just seeped from her on to us. I just felt so much love and connection sitting there surrounded by cousins. – had it always been there and I just then became aware of it? I debated with myself over and over again if I should talk to my dad but decided it would be best if I didn’t. In a conversation with Uncle Jon, I was overwhelmed by his interest in my writing and photography; he especially likes them together on my blog – I felt so loved, and understood, appreciated for who I am. Interactions with Kris were overflowing with love and care – I had a feeling I was very precious to her; in fact I felt like I was getting that from everyone. Sadly, I only got a few minutes to talk to Grandpa.
People slowly began to leave until I was the only one left with Don, Sheryl, Hallie and Tracie. I had nearly left several times and was about to do so again when Sheryl asked if I wanted to stay so that I would miss milking – I said yes. An act of God, a gift of grace. (Tracie and her kids left perhaps an hour or so after Sheryl invited me to stay longer.) The intimate conversation between us was one of those incredible things God brings out of bad circumstances. I learned and discovered so much in that time, it may have been one of the most important conversations I have ever had to aid my ongoing healing. The biggest discovery was finding out just how much I am loved by them. I had spent most of my life thinking they didn’t love me, or rather didn’t like me, that I didn’t fit in, but I don’t think that was ever the case. It was ingrained in me when I was a child – a misunderstanding between my parents and the rest of the family due to poor communication and misconceptions. Rather than being unloved or disliked, I have been treasured; they’ve all just been concerned for my well being and that I’d be ok. (Most people don’t seem to realize that sexual abuse isn’t something you ever get over, at best it may fade a little bit but it’s with you forever, even with therapy – I am constantly working through it. And then of course, sadly, most people don’t know what to do with people who have been sexually abused – don’t know how to behave around us.) I have never had an intimate conversation with these three and for so long and by myself – it was a huge breakthrough for me. I am so loved and cared for. It was also amazing to be talking about it, openly and honestly because most people tend to just not talk about it, pretend it didn’t happen. I was overwhelmed and exhausted with emotion – it was the best bad thing.
October 4, 2020
I am still struggling with Grandma’s death – sometimes grief threatens to overwhelm me. While praying with Mom yesterday morning, I began to cry. Today, sadness is still hanging over me like a heavily overcast sky. Lying in bed, due to the combination of exhaustion from work and grief, unable to bring myself to either get up, nap, or even read, I am filled with nostalgia. Scanning my brain for memories of Grandma. In my mind’s eye, I walk through their house, room by room, recalling even the smell.
Upon entering the four season porch is the rich smell of pipe tobacco, cherry. That is the sweet, musty smell of Grandpa. I love that smell. In that long and narrow porch, Grandma used to sit; in earlier days she may have been knitting, working on a blanket perhaps, for one of her eighteen grandchildren. She was a short woman, somewhere around five feet or less, but not fragile or frail, and plump. Her hair was so dark it appeared black, gray speckles increasing with age but never taking over, in my lifetime, short, curly and puffy. Her skin was light brown with moles here and there. She had a round face – a face that lingers on in at least one of my aunts and a little in my sister, Johanna. She had prominent crows feet around her eyes from that smile that wrinkled her nose just a bit; as she aged her face grew more and more wrinkled and yet, she aged gracefully – Jesse said she seemed quite youthful in looks and personality. Grandma had a dry sense of humor. She always spoke her mind, and there were plenty of times she said things that should always be left on said, but that was one of her characteristics that made her her. Her voice was deep and sounded of rolled marbles; intimidating and commanding, often reprimanding it seemed. She was the scariest person I have ever encountered when she was upset. Grandma was often barefoot, toenails always painted, red stands out most in my mind. Aside from a basket of yarn and a part of a blanket or scarf in the works, were various magazines of which I can’t recall the names. The TV was often on. The porch was arranged differently when I was a child than it is now, and I am not sure I trust my memory to describe the change. There was a wooden cabinet chest filled with games, the doors of which opened hard and made a click when they were closed. ( I think instead of being solid wood the doors had curtains.) The couch from childhood was dark brown leather that swallowed you when you sat on it. Above the couch hung old, black and white photos of the farm – I have always loved looking at those. The east wall is a row of windows, watching over the road and driveway, people arriving are observed several minutes before they park the car. An old fashioned fold down desk with two shelves below holding the most amazing collection of children books – I wish I had told Grandma how much I would have loved those books before they disappeared. A wooden bench beneath the window next to the door – a small patch of linoleum around it where piles of shoes would gather when the whole family was there.
Through the wide open doorway, lies the expansive dining room, no carpet here, some sort of tile – a good place to zoom toy cars if there aren’t too many people. With the absence of the whole family it is a rather big room, however, it drastically shrank when there was thirty, forty, fifty people crammed into the house. Most memorable things about the dining room, the large buffet and table that could be stretched out, the large south window, the old roll top desk, the china hutch, and the cuckoo clock. A tree was in the corner when I was a child, a piece of jungle in the house. High ceilings.
Large doorway into an elegant sitting room. A big wooden display case full of Shirley Temple memorabilia. Soft carpet that you’d sink into. The dining room and sitting room didn’t smell like tobacco; I am not sure how to describe the delightful scent other than I think it smelled more like Grandma and less like Grandpa. (How I long to go back to those late Christmas afternoons, the day growing dark, the whole family crammed in – those are the moments you want to last forever.) An old, elegant, well taken care of blue sofa, a gliding rocking chair, and an old wingback chair, a corner table with knick knacks and a candy dish in one corner, in another corner a wooden shelving unit with knick knacks, an elegant coffee table, and below a picture window on the north wall (which was always drafty) an ottoman (usually used as a seat during gift opening). I loved the smell, cold, and elegant feel of this room.
Back in the dining room, still along the north side, just past the sitting room, another cabinet or shelf with knick knacks and sometimes a candy dish. Some houses the knick knacks are so overwhelming they look and feel tacky, or are just tacky, but Grandma’s was beautiful, well done and tasteful. Grandma didn’t do tacky. A few more steps is another doorway leading to a small nook – straight ahead were light green carpeted stairs, to the left a room, in between more old, beautiful furniture with some knick knacks. This room was once used as Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom but in more recent history a playroom. It had two windows fairly near each other, one on the north and another on the west – it was a narrow room. The windows made it feel bright and airy in the afternoon; it was cold in the winter. I enjoyed the view of the windows, which really opened up the house – both gave a view of the yard and busy highway; there is a row of trees between the house and highway and another perpendicular row extending across the backyard.
Now the stairs, those green, soft, lush, carpeted stairs – I just loved sitting or laying on them for their smell and softness. Speeding up them to play with my brothers. Scooting down them on my backside. Releasing a metal slinky to somersault down them. As you ascended, the temperature dropped. There’s a small landing halfway up and a narrow window in the north wall, then turn left to keep going up the stairs. The banister along here painted white, a thick wood, smooth to the touch; I loved the look and feel of it. At the top of the stairs the hallway, though still narrow, opens up a bit. To the immediate left, the banister continues to the wall, providing a nice overlook on the stairs. A chest was sometimes here and a small wooden chair occupied by an antique collector’s doll in the corner. The hallway was lined with various objects that I can’t recall well enough to describe but they were tasteful and vintage. During the winter, a quilt of a snowman, made by Mom, hung on the wall. To the left, my grandparents’ bedroom, sparsely furnished, but everything vintage and yet stylish, windows on the north and east wall; bright but cold. To the right, a large, bright, carpeted bathroom, with a big free standing tub (I don’t recall there being a toilet, just the tub). Past the bathroom, a narrow door, and behind that, narrow stairs, which turn halfway up, going the other direction to a true attic, used for storage. I have only been on the stairs, never in the attic, but I have longed to go up there, partly out of curiosity and the family history I may uncover, and partly because it seemed shrouded in mystery and forbidding. There are two more spacious, square bedrooms with good closet space, further down the hall. Both warmer and lighter than the first with a good amount of windows. My brothers and I played often in the one in the southwest corner. From the south window, we could step out onto the roof of the utility room and bathroom. Then walk down a narrow, slanting part of the roof that meets the ground on the west side – it was tried a few times, every time we were in big trouble with Grandma.
Back down the hallway and stairs, into the dining room, through a large doorway was the kitchen, and Grandma was often there. The most alluring part of the kitchen is the large, west facing, bay window, with a view of a naughty child coming down off the roof (often a cat would play there too). Even now, I am enticed to climb up, or down from the roof. The kitchen window also overlooked a row of beautiful silver maple trees, a glider swing, what used to be a sandbox. And beyond the maples, a row of evergreens (used to be large pines or spruce, they had to be cut down but new trees were planted in their place), and a field alternating between corn and soybeans from year to year. I love that view; I want to photograph it – especially in the afternoon (I believe there were bird feeders as well). I also loved the old, oak, round table in the kitchen, that, like the dining room table, can also be stretched out. The kitchen is a bit dark and yet I love the feel of it – so full of memories, and on holidays, people. The layout changed when I was about sixteen but I can barely remember the changes well enough to describe them. As you walk in from the dining room, on your left is a doorway into the big, light, utility room. Laundry is done here, two large chest freezers and the way to the main bathroom – which is very small and narrow. Through the utility room and turning right, down a few steps, left turn out of the house; right turn down into the cellar – another place I’ve never been. Over here smells like Grandpa’s tobacco too.
As I made my mental tour, recalling the feel and the smell of the house, I was completely overcome by nostalgia, followed by a consuming wave of grief. Tears threaten to overflow. Grandma will never be in the house again. How can she be gone? I have to go and visit; I need to walk through the house. I need to visit with Grandpa, just the two of us – perhaps it will help me process and give me closure concerning Grandma. I will visit Grandpa this week, just give him a call and stop in. I really want to record Grandpa’s stories, everything he remembers and knows about the family history, growing up on the farm and everything he can tell me about Grandma. Yes, I must go see him this week. I am utterly consumed by grief, battling back sadness for nearly two months – sometimes crying can’t be stopped.