I visited you two days before Christmas Eve, when the rest of those who celebrate Advent were waiting for a child to arrive.
Advent is all about waiting, but not the kind of agitated anticipation that precedes Santa’s arrival. It’s the kind of waiting that is a watchful, prayerful expectation.
In this way, our family was waiting and watching too. Witnessing your decline.
In your hospital bed in the nursing home, I watched you sleep. You looked so much like your older sister Marcie. The cannula fed you oxygen, helping you breathe slowly but regularly.
I held your warm, thin hand, so strong from years of cooking and gardening and hard work. I didn’t want to wake you, but I shouldn’t have worried. You didn’t wake up the whole time I was there.
My uncle B and aunt C joined me after their work days. B came every day to sit and hold your hand for an hour or two.
I thought of my dad sitting with his mother, my Nana, every Sunday for over twelve years as Alzheimer’s has taken over her brain. Of my husband who will care for his mother. Of my brother who will care for our mom. Of my son who someday, I hope, will do the same for me.
I hugged my uncle and told him he deserved a medal.
He shrugged. “It’s what families do.”
I shook my head. “Not every family.”
“It’s what our family does.”
Grandma, I did not understand until I was an adult and had more intimate knowledge of other families that our family is not the norm. I took for granted that you and Grandpa raised four deeply loyal children who married and raised eight deeply loyal grandchildren. I did not know what an incredible gift this is.
Our family had clambakes in the driveway at your house. Kids ran in the yard while adults chatted in folding lawn chairs. My cousins and I rode on the glider swing, played with antique dolls in equally antique baby carriages, ate Saltines stored in the side cabinet of the gas oven. We put real butter on our snowflake rolls and corn on the cob.
Your love for each of us was fierce and as unyielding as your legendary stubbornness (a trait that continues in my daughter with your name). You hugged us tightly, kissed us hard and left lipstick on our cheeks. When we became adults, you prayed novenas for us. You sent me prayer cards and statues of saints when I was having a hard time. You made sure that we never forgot that we were beloved, not for our accomplishments or talents, but for who we were: yours.
On Christmas Eve near midnight, as fireworks crackled near my parents’ house and kids all over listened intently for reindeer hooves, you went home.
I am not sad exactly–mostly grateful that I had the opportunity to witness a small part of your dying, to say part of the rosary (out-of-practice as I am) and to tell you that it was okay, that you could let go. Grateful to be present as your spirit gathered itself to return to the Spirit.
Later this week we will gather together again, just as we do every Christmas Eve and for college sporting events and graduations. We will say goodbye, but you are not fully gone. You are part of us, as we were part of you, and we carry you with us.
This is what our family does.
Thank you for that.