A Letter to My Son About the Death of His Grandmother

I know that you will someday ask how Grandma died. You have been told that she is dead, and that is enough for a little child to know. Enough so that you understand that this particular branchlet of the family tree is dormant. Or maybe broken. At first, I will tell you that she was very, very sick. I will say she was in and out of the hospital, and finally, she died.

There’s a character in one of your favourite films that reminds me of my mother. Every time I see that woman, with her eccentricity and irreverence, I cry. You watch my face closely and bring me tissues.You learn that my face crushes and I fold over and I can’t catch my breath, and that this is unique to this specific tragedy, and I don’t fall apart when I remember anyone else’s death. It is clear to both of us that this is my grief and not shared grief. The shockwaves still reverberate all of these years later, with painful effects on me and on us, but for you it’s not personal.

When I first tried to write this, a fine drizzle of rain fell on my head and on my phone, with hardly even a cloud in the sky. I waited under a cherry tree until it passed. Although the blooms were past their prime, and a carpet of snowy petals drifted all about me, the heady scent tried to linger on. Some of the trees bloomed early, even in late December and January, due to an unseasonable mildness. Those sparse and fitful blooms were transitory.

You might be thinking that I’m building a simple allegory to illustrate the impermanence of the spark of life. I’m probably not that subtle, or perhaps not that obvious. It just felt important to ground this letter in something from the here-and-now.

To explain her end, I need to explain something of her beginning and middle. This isn’t a biography because the specific details aren’t relevant anymore, and my knowledge-of and memory-for details has become increasingly sketchy.

She was born to a life of pain. Abuse and harassment and assault, bullying, family alcoholism. The experience inside her family home was arguably worse than her life outside. When she left home after leaving school, things got unbearable. The world was cold, family was colder. Decisions were made that hurt her soul.

Cheez Whiz atop the potatoes — the only support that my grandmother could sneak past her controlling husband — was only sustainable for so long. One or the other ran out and Grandma didn’t have a wage yet. This is one of the reasons she was so willing to help her own adult children once she was financially stable. She couldn’t bear to let her daughters want for anything essential. One time I stole toilet paper from a public toilet and she was appalled that I didn’t just ask her for some. In retrospect, I wish that she had instead taught me to budget money and navigate bureaucracy. But that’s a letter for another day.

Grandma’s own mother was much older than average when she gave birth, like I was when I had you. Grandma felt that she missed out on having a young and fun and energetic mother. You may feel the same, but your big sister can confirm I haven’t changed much with age; I feel that I was born elderly in an unfashionable way, and indeed sometimes confused my young friends with my cynicism and fondness for adult company.

Grandma’s mother, on the other hand, was lively and enthusiastic her whole life. This conclusion is based on my own observations and the stories my mother told. She was my mom’s Girl Guide leader and bowling coach and whatever else. This disconnect between Grandma’s memories and how the events were recounted by others, or the disparity between the feelings she attached to recollections when compared to the relevant details, held a key to my mother’s inner workings. It took me a very long time to fully understand this, and my sisters and I sometimes still try to parse what was more or less true or accurate within an accepted framework of shared reality. There was an uncomfortable mismatch between what people did and said, and how she perceived those things.

When I was young, I thought Grandma’s perception was acute and accurate. I trusted her and believed her. Later I understood that truth, for her, was malleable. She felt a compelling urge to reshape events to suit her perspective about herself, other people, situations. In all fairness, she deceived herself more than anyone else, and much of this activity operated under the surface as a sort of survival instinct.

Your grandmother’s body image was broken. She had always struggled with her weight, and each attempt to lose weight shortly led to further gains. She graphed her weight across her whole life, and it could have just as well been a graph of her struggles with mental illness. She felt that the world hated her for being fat, and she wasn’t altogether wrong. Her self-hate was encouraged by the medical, diet, and fashion industries. This phenomenon is becoming acceptable to talk about now, and the beginnings of that movement can be found in books such as Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, of which a copy held a prominent place on my mother’s bookshelf. Grandma tried to improve the world with feminism and an early version of fat activism but she was undermined and conflicted by the desire to fit herself into our society.

My mom was always learning and researching. She attained multiple university degrees and could create arts and handcrafts beyond all imagination. It is important to understand that it has long been difficult to translate such achievements into economic and social accomplishments, particularly when you feel that you are fundamentally worthless.

She was walking to an important work meeting when she tripped on a sidewalk block. Both of her wrists were broken and she suffered a concussion. The concussion was a beginning to the end of her life, in a way. Or perhaps it was a notable milestone in a life that dragged on longer than she could bear.

She suffered and she hurt others. Ultimately the hail of slings and arrows led to misattributions and distortions. Everything her family did was wrong because we couldn’t divine or extract the correct path. We, and potential friends, were pushed away because she thought we didn’t care. When Grandma died, her dinner table seatmate at the semi-assisted-living facility was distraught. My sisters and I were surprised because our mother insisted that she didn’t have any friends. She didn’t think that there was any love for her, and no amount of love could convince her otherwise.

We tried and tried and tried. We thought love could fix her. When love didn’t work, we tried reason, guilt, anger, arguments, distancing, and probably a variety of other things that I don’t want to dig up anymore. Many times, she was committed or at least arrested. My dad gave up trying to dissuade her and abdicated all responsibility except to call an ambulance when he came home to a wife unconscious from an overdose. He got to be very good at unscrewing the chain bolt from outside the apartment.

She would first cut out the tag from her bra and pin it up on the bulletin board. She knew that if she survived, she would need a new one because the EMTs always cut hers off to treat her. It is still unclear to me why she insisted upon wearing her bra during a suicide attempt. Grandma’s decisions didn’t always make sense to an outsider, for instance why did she put on a dressing gown in preparation to jump off her 15th storey balcony? We inevitably turn cold after we die, but I suppose the icy fingers of death terrify us all.

There was so much therapy. Inpatient. Outpatient. Group therapy. She became dangerous to psychiatrists because she blamed them and actively tried to destroy their careers. She freely consented to electroshock therapy, then suffered partial retrograde and anterograde amnesia. She was intractable, so she received the maximum number of sessions. Horribly for everyone involved, after all of the sessions she couldn’t remember initially agreeing to the procedure.

A deepening paranoia pervaded Grandma’s thoughts, and in her twisted perception we seemed to be hostile actors. It was hard, so hard to be demonised and treated like the enemy. I researched her conditions, her treatments. I sneakily read her medical chart as she recovered from an overdose to try to glean something that could help me to help her. I learned a whole new medical vocabulary and came to understand much more than perhaps I needed to. It didn’t help her. I am still uncertain if it helped me.

She offhandedly questioned why we wouldn’t just let her die. She argued that if she had a terminal medical condition, she could be assisted to die in some jurisdictions. But we held onto her, and to her it was inhumane to keep her half-alive and hopeless. There’s a pithy unattributed adage that if you save a life you are responsible for it. I encountered this saying in my late teen years in a (probably misremembered) old folk tale with a central character who heroically rescued a man who, once saved, became a shadow: clinging, dependent, wraithlike. I shared this story with Grandma, and she invoked it once, many years later, as a sick joke. She made a facetious claim that her family was responsible for her life since they saved her from death.

After her husband died, Grandma saw with a certain kind of clarity that she had nobody nearby to save her anymore, so she had to get serious about killing herself. Shit or get off the pot, so to speak. She waited over 2 years as she felt it was sufficient time for her daughters to mourn him before compounding their grief with another loss. Her preparations were considered and complete, based upon years of research and a deep personal history. Even her relocation to the new facility was strategic; if she lived — she would have companionship available, and if she died — she would have staff members to find her body.

I knew it was coming. My heart told me, or so I would say in the interest of sounding dramatic. After so many of Grandma’s attempts, I was able to sense the imminent danger from subtle hints that I don’t think I could ever articulate. I warned my husband, and I warned my boss. The next day, on the date of her wedding anniversary, she overdosed. This time, I didn’t stop her.

Nothing was ever good enough.

Project your assumptions here. I can handle it; I am strong.