“We’re rich in mint,” my father is saying. We are at a wedding reception eating English muffins with apple butter, talking gardens. “We’re mint rich.”
My brother, another one of those tall twenty-five-year-olds from Montana making his fortune in the Bakken, takes a pull from a glass of orange juice he’s sweet-talked away from the flower girls and says, “Do not plant any mint. Planting mint is like giving yourself leprosy.”
We’re all laughing and from there the conversation wends and winds until we’re talking about all of my un-present siblings, the younger brother on exchange in Costa Rica whom no one has heard from in weeks, our sister working at a lodge in Alaska north of the Arctic circle that caters to retired Japanese couples, and our other sister who has just sent us all a picture of herself in a sexy red dress, six months pregnant. We are all scattered hither and yon which is usually not such a big deal, but which has suddenly become a big deal because our grandmother died early Friday morning, the day before this wedding where we are all gussied up and talking mint plants so we do not have to talk about the fact that all of my father’s siblings are currently en route from their corners of the world (Arizona, Colorado, and Tunisia respectively). We are not holding a memorial any time soon—my grandfather wanted to wait until closer to the 4th of July when the rest of the family has already planned to come up to Montana—but still everyone wants to sit on same porch, eat hot dogs, and talk about how when my grandfather got out of the merchant marines in 1946 he came home to his sweetheart who said, “We’re getting married this Friday.” Sixty-eight years, six kids, countless moves, sixteen grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren—their relationship has finally, irrevocably, ended. At least in the sense that my grandfather now rises, watches the news, and sips coffee alone.
I am thirty and up until last week all of my grandparents were still alive. The oldest one being my mother’s father who turned 98 in March, still lives alone, and can remember the full names of every person in each of his elementary school classes, a feat I cannot even perform. The rest are in varying states of old age: hearing loss, early onset dementia, congestive heart failure, and general orneriness.
So when my father called late, late Thursday night (what was actually Friday morning) after I’d tossed and turned and finally gotten up was stewing about the living room, I did not have a good guess as to what might have gone wrong. Nobody calls for any good reason after midnight, at least not if they’ve done their time zone calculations correctly, and when I saw my father’s number spring up on my phone all I could do was answer with, “Is everything okay?”
“No,” he said. “It’s not. We think your grandma has passed away.”
For a second I did not know which grandma he was talking about. My mother’s mother who has early onset dementia but is otherwise in fine spirits? Or his mother, who after going through a round with the doctors of “this-is-congestive-heart-failure-no-it’s-anxiety” was now on a regime of pills that had her laughing and teasing Freya only a few days earlier?
“It’s my mom,” my dad said. “We’re heading to their house now.” And then, answering my next question, “You don’t need to come.”
When the paramedics arrived they asked if we had a living will, my grandfather says, if she wanted to be resuscitated. And I told them that I knew she didn’t want to come back, but I wanted her back. If there was any chance of her coming back to me I wanted them to try.
My grandma Millie had one of those bodies that decayed before its time so she was left house-bound and on oxygen. She’d had three hospital stays in the last year, and during each one we had prepared ourselves. Called the various relatives, steeled our nerves for a call in the middle of the night, and after each one she had returned home. Which lulled me into believing that she was really fine after all. Losing a grandparent does not come as a real shock, at least not the kind of shock we felt when some of our friends lost one of their twin boys, but the surprise of the sudden loss was something for which I had not been prepared. It came suddenly and without the warning of a lengthly hospital stay, a declining spirit, an acute illness. Sort of like the way we all get behind the wheel knowing that there is always an outside chance we’ll end up in a car accident, but believing that it won’t be us, at least not today.
The Sunday before she died we were all gathered for a family brunch that had expanded to the point that when Johnathan and Freya and I walked through the door she’d swiveled around and said, all delight, “I didn’t know this was going to be a party!” Tressa, my sister who lives in Alaska, was rigging up a slide show of sledding dogs and northern lights and frost like lace across her hats and coats, a show which riveted everyone, Freya included, and which prompted my mother to say at the wedding, “Your grandma always wanted to go to Alaska again. I’m so glad Tressa took her there.”
One moment my grandmother was eating my mother’s cinnamon rolls and eggs, and the next thing I heard she’d “gone to be with Jesus,” something which—it cannot be denied—she had been wanting for the better part of the last few years. She loved her grandchildren. “I think she held all of our babies at their birth or shortly thereafter,” my Aunt Sue said last night, “We need to find those pictures, of her holding our babies.” But she’d had about enough of the back pain, the digestive issues, the spells where she felt she could not get her breath. “Sometimes when I called on Sundays she would mention that she was forgetting things, that she was feeling down,” my Aunt Julie, “And I would just tell her, ‘Mom, you’re doing great, you sound great.’ Maybe I should have let her talk about it more, what she was feeling, what she was afraid of.”
A dangerous road, the one of regret, of what ifs. I’ve made it a habit of always hugging my grandparents good-bye, telling them I love them. Tressa snapped a picture with my grandma before leaving that Sunday, a photo of them both smiling. “That’s probably the last picture we have of her,” Aunt Julie says. It is this thought, that there is now ”the last of this and the last of that” that makes this photo seem suddenly so valuable. These memories, these snapshots, from the last few days, weeks, years, are now the closing chapter in someone’s life. They have to bear the weight of an epilogue. Just as a good short story ends by opening outward to something bigger than itself, the ending of a good novel should have a heft, a finality. The characters settled—even if only for the moment. We all want this for our grandma which shapes the way we begin to tell the stories of our last moments:
A big, happy, family brunch. For many of us this was the last time we saw her. How fitting, we say, we’re so thankful that this is our last memory.
Or, my brother returning from the oil fields for a weekend, pops in to visit my grandparents and finds my grandfather is, oddly, not at home. So he visited with my grandma, alone, for an hour, and this is his last memory.
My pregnant sister, home for Christmas, announcing what was then a just a faint blue line on a pregnancy test. The thirteenth great-grandchild, in utero.
“I’m so glad she lived to see two great-granddaughters,” my Aunt Sue says. “After ten boys she got two girls. That made her so happy.” One of those girls is my Freya, who will probably not remember anything from this summer, but whose birth marked a turning point for our family. Ten great-grandsons—“This one has to be a girl,” Aunt Sue said at our baby shower. “It just has to”—and then Freya whose gender surprised her own mother, most of all.
When my father returns from the funeral home he says my grandfather is up to his old quips. The funeral director has outlaid all of the urn options, from a double urn that costs several thousand dollars down to a corrugated cardboard box, spray-painted gold, that my grandfather says will do just fine. “She’s won’t know the difference,” he says. And when the funeral director presses him to think about the future, about what he wants done with his own ashes, my grandfather gestures at my father and aunt and says, “That’s their problem.”
“Nobody wanted to see her,” my mother says of the hours they spent waiting for the paramedics, then the coroner. “Your grandpa kept saying, ‘She’s not there. You don’t need to go in there ’cause she’s not there.’” Of the EMT who was so like my sister Tressa in Alaska, who is also an EMT: “She knelt right beside him and said he did everything right, that there was no magic pill. This would have happened even if she’d been in the hospital. There was nothing anybody could have done.” My Aunt Sue: “She got what she wanted—she wanted to go before grandpa and she didn’t want to be scared when it happened. She was always worried about that.”
“I don’t know anybody here who would even come to my funeral,” grandma was laughing the day before she died, over coffee with Aunt Sue. “Don’t worry about that,” Sue said, “You have family and lots of them. There will be plenty of people.”
The story my father tells of making arrangements: “I found out something new about my mother. All my life she’s spelled her middle name E-D-I-T-H, but on her birth certificate it’s actually spelled E-D-Y-T-H-E. Isn’t that beautiful?” He tells this story to anyone who will listen—to all of my siblings, one at a time, pausing because there is something so startling about finding out something new about one’s parents. But not only that—it is the shock of realizing that there some things we will find out about the people we love only after they’re gone.
A name-spelling is a triviality in some ways, perhaps, but in others it is not. “That would make a nice name,” my father muses and suddenly there floats in the room a question, which no one acknowledges: If he had know this before, would one of his three daughters have been named (or middle-named) Edythe with a y? Is this a piece of information that would have made a difference in the course of someone’s life? Of my life?
A few weeks ago, before all of this happened, I texted my pregnant sister: I just read something funny—when something goes wrong in your life you should just stop, yell, “Plot twist!” and then move on. The ghost of this message pops up when I write her, at 2am, Have you talked to mom and dad? Call me after you talk to them. A message which prompted her to call home at 6am the following morning, my mother picking up to hear my sister say, “What is it? What’s happened?” The pair of these messages now seem—in the context of us all trying to write a closing chapter—both ridiculous and heartbreakingly true.
The death of my first grandparent is my plot twist for this summer. Not wholly unexpected, but still a surprise to the reader. It is the moment when a character who has survived war or lion taming, or natural disasters, is then picked off by a stray ball from a baseball game. But what it feels like is something else entirely—it is the mint that has been planted without my consent, but which will now be there forever, the leprosy that family members give one another. A loss with roots so deep that it cannot ever be eradicated.