Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My grandmother died, part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

As it turned out, I did see Grandma one more time a year and a half later. In March of this year, I flew to Utah to visit family. I entered my parents' house and saw Grandma sleeping on the couch, a childlike smallness and fragility about her. I knelt next to her and she soon opened her eyes. "Oh. Leah." She grasped my shoulders and looked in my eyes. "Sing to me," she rasped, and the urgency in her voice makes it clear, this has been one of her last wishes. With my marriage disintegrating, "close to tears" has been my most common emotional state. This moment tips me over the edge. I almost tell her I can't, but no, I can't refuse her. I need a minute to compose myself and then to decide what to sing. I consider "Be Still, My Soul" but decide that may be too blatant an acknowledgement that we both know she's dying. I settle on "Come thou fount of every blessing." I take a breath and begin. My voice breaks on the first line and never completely steadies through all three verses. Grandma's eyes fill with tears. They are words I no longer believe in, but the song still carries power because of associated memories.

I finish and we exchange teary smiles. "Yes. Yes," she says. "Oh, golly!" Grandma's highest expression of praise. I lay my head on her chest and she pats my hair.

The phone call late in the evening on October 12 was not a shock. I made arrangements to leave the next morning, two days of driving with my two small children. It doesn't really sink in that Grandma's gone until I arrive. In the front room of my parents' house are two wheelchairs. One will never be occupied again.

The next morning, I hug my grandfather at breakfast. "How are you doing?"

"Oh, not too good," he says. "My patriarchal blessing says I'll live to be a very old man. Right now, I don't know if that's a blessing or not."

More relatives arrive throughout the day. That night we go to the funeral home for the viewing. It's so crowded, and most of the people I don't know very well. I don't feel like I can let myself grieve here. Grandpa is sitting next to the casket. I go over to talk to him. "Go stand back there," he tells me, indicating a couple of feet back from the casket. "Look at how pretty she is. Can you see how pretty she is?"

"She is," I agree, though it's hard to look very intently. She's in her temple clothes, white from head to toe and a green apron.

After we're all home, I knock on Grandpa's door. "Hi, Grandpa. Could I sing to you?" Grandpa loves music and I've heard him say the "I know that my Redeemer liveth" from Handel's Messiah is one of his favorites. I sing it for him now. "Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." No, I don't believe in a resurrection, but my grandfather does, and if this tale can give him comfort, by God, I'll mete it out.

The next morning we gather at the church for family prayer before the funeral service. I watch my mother place Grandma's temple veil over her face before they close the casket. We move to the chapel. The opening hymn is "I believe in Christ," once one of my favorites. The eulogy makes me smile, recounting Grandma's fastidiousness, her creativity, her friendly and generous nature, her fear of snakes. Then my sister and I sing a duet: "Be Still, My Soul"  It seems strange how Grandma planned and planned this day. All her life, she was waiting till she was dead to be happy.

All four of Grandma's children speak, including my father. It's a very nice service, up until the 30-something bishop calls all of Grandma's wayward posterity to repentance. He testifies of the truthfulness of the restored Gospel. "And you may ask, 'How can we know these things are true?' Because we have prophets who teach us that this is so." And I think, Really? That's the best you've got? Though he informs me, "And if you're having trouble believing in these things, it is because of your disobedience. I would exhort you to humble yourselves and ask God to soften your heart." I feel a little proud of myself that these words are inducing eye-rolling and suppressed laughter rather than anger. If anything, his words fill me with gratitude that my children are not being raised in this religion. As my brother's partner put it, "Yeah, as soon as the bishop got up, Spirit gone!"

The Relief Society has prepared a meal for the family following the service, including funeral potatoes. My two-year-old is restless, so I decide to skip the interment and take him home for a nap. I'm tired myself.

From my grandmother, I inherited my petite frame, a tendency to get cold easily, a love of music and a knack for foreign languages. When we first arrived in Utah, my son told my mother, "It's very sad that Grandma Great died." My mom told him, "Well, I think it's actually a good thing, because she was hurting a lot, and now she's not hurting anymore and she's with Heavenly Father." Mother, you know I'm not Mormon anymore. What makes you think it's okay to spout of Mormon beliefs to my son as though they're fact?

A while back, I had a thread about belief non-belief in an afterlife. One commenter was rather insistent about wanting to know whether or not I believe that part of us goes on living after physical death.

No. I don't.

Goodbye, Grandma. I'll miss you.


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  1. Oh, Leah :(

    I've found that, belief or no, many of those hymns are powerful. Not because they are "true" but because music is powerful, and memories are too.

    You're blessed to have had such a great relationship with your grandma.

    Again, thank you for sharing this wonderful woman with us. So glad you were able to be with her during her last days and hours. <3

  2. This is a beautiful post and tribute. I will always miss my grandma, as I imagine you will too. Sorry about the a**hole bishop. -- At least the RS was there with the funeral potatoes, and you were there with a song for your grandpa. I'm glad you're posting again. Take care.

  3. i am very sorry for your loss. and envious! i don't have wonderful grandma memories. i don't have wonderful memories of being a kid either and am trying hard to make better memories for my kids.

    thanks for sharing your stories. maybe i'll pretend these are MY stories too!

    again, so sorry you are hurting.

  4. These are really lovely tributes to your grandmother.

  5. I don't know if this is a weakness or not ... but the sole reason I believe in an an afterlife (I think) is that I want to see my Grandma Budde again. Well, everyone who's died and who will die in the future, but mostly Grandma B. She died 8 years ago, and I still miss her, and cry on the anniversary of her death. November 2, 2002.

  6. Beautiful tribute. Thank you, Leah.

  7. Thank you for sharing that story. Sounds like your Grandmother was a wonderful person.

  8. May your Grandmother rest in peace.

    Imagination can be a difficult thing at times. How would you make someone feel better when she or he is not feeling well? It is one thing to play the notes of a song like I do, but it is another thing to make music out of it. The perfectionist virtuoso will most likely have a worst time too.

    Once, my daughter told me to stop playing the sehtar that I kept on playing; sehtar is a bit like a guitar; watching its video later made me realize how terrible I was. It is a great wonder that musicians can make music the way they can. And if one tries to learn it, then it might just be appreciated further.

  9. That's the same bishop told me that my children won't know right from wrong if they don't grow up in the church, that I am a bad parent. Just because of that, I am to make sure they don't grow up and be like you! Love the grandma stories though :)

  10. Thank you all so much for letting me share my grandmother with you. She was a loving and much-loved woman and she will be missed.

  11. Thank you all so much for letting me share my grandmother with you. She was a loving and much-loved woman and she will be missed.


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism