One morning when I was almost five, I woke up to find my parents gone. They had left in the middle of the night with my baby sister after she decided to stop breathing. My mother’s mother, who we called Mum-Mum, lived just down the street and had come to stay with me and my older siblings until the rest of our family returned.
After I found her there, probably in the living room reading a book or magazine, she covered the frightening nature of her impromptu visit by pouring me a bowl of cereal, explaining briefly and carefully what was happening, and assuring me that all would be well.
One evening when I was about eight, we were just getting ready to sit down for dinner when my older sister looked out the window and said, “What’s that?” and a massive thunderclap exploded practically inside our house. A drunk driver had flown down Central Road from the direction of Mum-Mum’s house and scored a direct hit on my parents’ bedroom, knocking it off the foundation and opening a crack in the wall through which I could look up at the ceiling and gaze upon the stars.
Soon the police were there, and the fire department, bringing with them many vehicles with many flashing lights. And, as I sat quietly amid the ruckus and ate my dinner, Mum-Mum appeared, ready to bring my younger sister and I back to her house. We stayed there for two nights while our parents dealt with the logistics of figuring out how to literally put a house back together.
I got my first bike when I was nine or so. Nobody had ever taught me to ride, and our driveway was too short and steep for bike-riding anyway, so it makes sense that I ended up at Mum-Mum’s house to learn, with her large, flat, evenly paved driveway.
One moment stands out. We were out there after school, practicing, and it must have been cool but not cold out because she was wearing a light, grey, hooded sweatshirt. She grabbed the back of the bike and we started to move, but within seconds I was skidding out of control as the back tire kicked out. Somehow I kept my feet, straddling my ride as it fell to the ground beneath me. Mum-Mum wasn’t so lucky; she lost her footing, fell, and did a complete barrel-roll on the ground before springing to her feet, laughing, and getting me ready to go again.
Thirty-four years I knew her, and that’s my very favorite memory: a woman in her late-sixties laughing like a schoolgirl, demonstrating for her grandson exactly how you should respond when something knocks you down.
All of this hit me tonight while I was visiting, of all places, the grocery store. I was walking through the bread aisle, a grown-ass man looking for cookie dough for his wife, when it suddenly got misty enough that I had to pull off my glasses and wipe the tears from my eyes, all the while hoping that anyone who saw me would feel sorry for that poor fellow with the severe allergies.
I found the cookie dough and set about procuring a dessert for myself. I thought about Ben & Jerry’s before eschewing the idea. Who wants to pay five bucks for a pint of ice cream, anyway?
Mum-Mum died on Memorial Day, May 26, just before 9 p.m., with her children and her oldest grandson by her side. Since then I’ve told everyone who asked, and some who didn’t, that it’s okay: she lived a long life, squeezed as much value out of her time here as anyone I’ve ever known, and impacted the lives of countless people. “I’m sad,” I said, “because I loved her and I’ll miss her, but I can’t feel bad.” I told a lot of stories, laughed and smiled a lot, and tried to remember the good times.
I’m not lying when I say that stuff, or putting on some sort of act. I really do feel that way. But if we’re being honest, let me also say this: Mum-Mum’s death has left a giant fucking crater in the center of my soul. I’ve never felt this way before, can’t begin to know how to process it, and have no idea how to fill it.
I had previously lost three grandparents and assorted great-aunts and great-uncles, but no one this close to me has ever died before. That makes me lucky until the first time it happens and my emotional immune system has no way to handle it. How do you come to grips with the loss of someone who did all of those things I talked about above, who took you to the New England Aquarium and Boston Museum of Science, who showed you how to body-surf in the waves at Rye Beach, who lived down the street your entire life, who was always there, who always loved you, who was never supposed to fucking die?
Mum-Mum worked until she was in her late-sixties, but retired when I was about seven or eight, so most of my memories of her are as a woman of leisure, unencumbered by the necessity of having to wake up early every morning and punch a time clock; instead, she seemed to wake up early every morning and wonder what adventures the day held for her.
She traveled the world. She painted beautiful pictures. She had coffee with friends and neighbors. She walked on the beach. She lived life the right way.
We always went to her house for the big holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, making sandwiches from leftover turkey and partaking in whatever snacks and desserts she had prepared. As I remember, she wasn’t a big drinker, but I can still remember her asking if anyone wanted a gin and tonic after dinner (even before I knew what a gin and tonic was). When one of her grandkids wanted a treat, a certain ritual followed: our parents would say no, at which point Mum-Mum would catch our eye and give a nod that said, “Go ahead and have one. I’ll take care of this.” She knew that a good grandmother should be her grandchild’s boldest co-conspirator and greatest ally (and also that she wouldn’t be the one dealing with sugared-up children later on).
We played board games on those nights, mixing it up for years before eventually going almost exclusively with Trivial Pursuit. The true joy of playing that game with Mum-Mum was knowing that no matter what, if she thought she knew the answer to a question, she was going to call it out – even if it wasn’t actually directed at her team.
There was nothing quite like hearing a question, seeing Mum-Mum get excited and start to work her way through the answer, and waiting in anticipation for someone on her team (usually one of her children) to stop her before she could give it away.
At the end of those nights, it was inevitable that she would complain about “Sheridan Long Good-Byes,” which can probably best be described as when you start off by attempting to say good-bye to everyone still remaining at the gathering and end up holding a full conversation with each person. More than once in her final years, I thought to myself that her life was turning into the ultimate Sheridan Long Good-Bye, a drawn-out farewell when all she really wanted to do was call it a night and go to bed.
At her funeral, the priest basically recapped the obituary, telling everyone in the church a bunch of stuff that most of them already knew. Then my brother spoke briefly before our cousin Kate stepped up and delivered a beautiful eulogy that had the entire congregation in tears. Later on, after we went back to Mum-Mum’s house to eat, tell stories, and continue celebrating her life, someone pointed out that as Kate went on, the priest became more and more visibly displeased, apparently trying to will her with his mind to wrap it up already.
This made me think of my favorite Mum-Mum story, one I told at least twice, including shortly after arriving at the funeral home for her wake (it’s not a stretch to say that it kept me from losing my mind that day). When my wife and I were preparing to be married, we had to take a written exam, a compatibility test of sorts, to show that we were serious about the whole idea. Usually, couples take this test, the priest looks at it, they go back and review it with him and all is well. Not us. I did so poorly that we soon had a weekly appointment with Father Kelly, the priest who was to marry us.
Somehow Mum-Mum got wind of this. She had long recommended that her grandchildren forget about getting married and “live in sin”, but if we wanted to tie the knot and some stuffed shirt in a collar was standing in the way of that for no good reason…well, that didn’t sit right.
“If he doesn’t think you two ought to get married,” said my 82-year-old grandmother, “you tell that jackassy priest to come talk to me.”
It’s common knowledge in our family that one of Mum-Mum’s favorite words was jackass, usually directed at other drivers on the road. Still, this was a different level; I’d heard a lot of things, but I’d never heard anyone talk about a priest like THAT before.
I think she might have done it again in reference to the officiating religious figure at her funeral, if given the chance, simply because his behavior warranted it. I do believe I might have to do it for her from now on.
So Mum-Mum is gone now, has been for ten days or so. I keep telling myself it’s for the best – really, it is – but that still doesn’t change that hole in the middle of me, the feeling that I’m now incomplete and will never be whole again. It’s an idea that I fear I don’t have the capacity to fully understand.
Walking around the grocery store, though, turning this over in my head, something occurred to me. When that driver hit our house all those years ago, it pretty much destroyed my parents’ bedroom. My dad ended up taking that room right off of the house – I can still see him and a couple other guys knocking it down with sledgehammers – but never put anything up in its place. I suppose he figured that it was so close to the road that building in that area again would just be tempting fate.
For the longest time, that hole just sat there, a reminder of the near-disaster that our family had endured. Then, over time, something interesting happened: it slowly started to fill in. I think my father would throw dirt and rocks in from time to time, and he may have put a much bigger load in at some point to speed things along, but the point is that it eventually filled up. It’s still noticeable because I know it’s there, and we’ll never forget the reason it looks like that, but there’s dirt and grass and plants and stuff where there used to just be a big hole in the ground.
Maybe I’m the same way. Mum-Mum was a beautiful person that I will never forget, and that piece that her passing carved out of me is never going to be completely filled in. It will never be the same. But gradually, it will begin to hurt less. Old memories, of her and the rest of our family, will start to fill it in; new memories will make it grow. It will never be exactly the same again, but somehow it will be okay. In the meantime, all I can do is pick myself up, laugh, and keep going.
In the end, I knew what I had to do – or, more to the point, what Mum-Mum would have done were she in my shoes. I went back to the freezer section, picked out a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s that I wanted to try, and headed to the checkout.