A day or two before New Years Eve my grandmother called me. She wanted to know how I was feeling. And doing. My infant daughter had died in October. My mom’s dad in September. My other grandfather, her husband, months before in June. It was a grueling year. Finally grinding to conclusion.
She found it nearly impossible to be without her husband. Cocooned in sorrow. Her picture of herself as content, even alive, gone with him. In 1979.
My dog died in April. Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. A sliding scale of despair. April seemed terrible. Then I learned there were worse things.
My grandmother worried about me. That’s why she called. To see if I was better. Healing. I told her I was because I didn’t want to worry her. Didn’t want to splash my pain on her.
And then, a day later on New Years Eve, she killed herself. I was on the mend. The last permission she needed.
That’s how I saw it.
Green light. Live. Until she said no. STOP. Red light instead.
Her hastily scribbled note said she couldn’t go on without him. Wanted to be with him. In the year of his departure. As close to him as she could get. So she made it happen. Red light to life. A choice.
My dad didn’t say a lot. Stoic till this day. He dispatched her various detritus. Then her ashes at Donner Pass the way she wanted, where she’d floated my grandfather’s remains in the late summer. Their favorite place.
Dad’s brilliant blue eyes, the echo of his mother’s, dimmed. No words needed. And no matter how much those eyes danced and twinkled in the years that followed, no one could think of her life without thinking of her death and at least momentarily, he would blink.
We knew. Whenever Dad looked at the son I later bore and said to me, “How your grandmother would have enjoyed this boy.” His tell. The sharp knife at his core twisted.
My then in-laws were visiting from Texas when it happened. Were standing in the kitchen when my husband took the call from my dad early New Year’s morning. He came into the bedroom to tell me.
Dog. Grandfather. Grandfather. Daughter. Grandmother.
Later in the day, a quiet day in which I hadn’t much to say except for a slow trickle of tears, my mother-in-law turned to me and said, “She had the right to choose. We all do.”
When my husband did a version of the same years later I wondered if she remembered what she’d said to me that day. If she thought it applied to her son as well as my grandmother.
I didn’t call my in-laws right when I found my husband. It was nearly 9PM where they were. The last good night’s sleep I figured they might ever have. So in the morning I called his cousin, Mort. Told him. Asked him to go to the church to get their favorite preacher, and take him, too, to tell them in person and attempt to give what would never be. Comfort.
There’s no best way to tell a parent but the phone seemed wrong. And touch seemed better.
Like my grandmother, my son’s father chose. He switched his light. Green light, I’m here. Red light, I’m not.
The Earth spun in reverse and day became night.
No mate gone before him calling from another world, incipient illness, or grown children gone away taking purpose with them; no way to explain the unthinkable. Except to say, sometimes there’s sickness we can’t see. Hidden in despair.
But my mother was different. She just slowed to a crawl. Then stopped. In the center of the road. She let life march over the top of her. We stopped too, to give her a hand, to hold off the stampede and pull her to her feet. We did it several times. Beefed her up, held her up, cheered her up, loved her up, and sometimes ordered her up.
It didn’t matter. She glowed neither red nor green. On a dimmer, a dial she wouldn’t let us touch. She didn’t commit. To life. Or death.
She opened the door. Let death in, played hide and seek, cat and mouse, and eventually let it have its way. And made us all accomplice.
We could only watch.
Now we scatter each wondering what we might have done differently.
Where does one have to be inside to leave a dying husband to face his own fatal illness alone? To say adieu to a partner of 73 years? You thought you could count on me til the end; sorry to disappoint.
What do I not understand about aging at this age that will become clear as I move along? Will it frighten me so much that I choose as my mother did? Death by default. Not red or green light, but instead in between light.
Is it suicide? Is it choice? Is it neither but rather capacity worn by years and inability to grasp consequence?
Is it a right? A choice we’re entitled to? If so, what do we owe?
And what are we, left behind, entitled to? Other than the sorrow, the tears, the missing, the messiness, the confusion, the ‘if only’, and ‘what ifs’.
Then there’s the anger.
I miss my mom. When she carried her green light into life. Looked out the window at the neighbor’s fancy car, parked in their driveway crunched from a wreck.
“Well, I’d say today that car is a little more Benz than Mercedes.” Satisfied with her play on words.
Glowing. Fading. Flickering. Gone.