When My Nan Died: Religion, Closets and Love.


IMG_20110721_164044My nan died three years ago this week.

I hesitate to describe any one moment as the worst. Grief is always different, and to say this one is the worst feels like a denial of all the rest of it. Like it implies that I loved the others less.

When my gran- my maternal grandmother- died, the loss was profound but we knew it was going to happen. Dementia is almost incomprehensibly cruel, but the one thing it does give you is a long time to say goodbye. A decade of being present as this woman I loved changed into someone I loved no less fiercely, but differently, time and again. And a few days I’ll be grateful for forever, when we knew this was the end, we gathered together, sat vigil by her side and said goodbye over and over. And when she was gone we all piled onto her bed and hugged her goodbye and talked for hours and slept and ate apple cake and made horrible jokes. And she stayed in her front room for the rest of the week while hundreds of people came to say goodbye. We ate more apple cake and my cousin said a mass in the kitchen and the Catholics passed around communion wine while the assorted nonbelievers sat on the floor behind the counter drinking Coronas.

It hurt like hell when my gran died. But these things helped.

When my nan- my father’s mother- died, I got the phone call in a hotel room. It’s one of those times that’s almost (ha) painfully clichéd. After a spectacularly godawful few weeks which involved a bunch of expected but also massive and difficult changes in my life, I had done what I always do- got a plane ticket and a backpack and buggered off somewhere. This time I was walking the Camino de Santiago. It was beautiful and exhausting and after a fortnight I realised it was exactly what I didn’t need, so I hopped on a bus to Bilbao where I planned to spend a few days eating delicious food, hanging out in cafes, wandering around galleries and museums and pretty streets. That’s precisely what I did. I had space to think, to take a breath after everything that had gone on and figure out what the hell I wanted to do with myself once I got home.

And on the third morning, dozing in bed and wondering what I’d do next- return to walking the Camino or go explore somewhere else or go home- I got the phone call.

My nan died in her sleep after a day spent with people she loved. The last conversation she ever had was about all of us- all the people in her life, who she remembered every night.

If I could choose, I would choose my nan’s death over my gran’s for anyone I loved.

But- how selfish is this?- I never had the chance to say goodbye. No, wait, that’s wrong. I’ll say it this way: I never said goodbye.

I never said so many things.

There were so many things my nan never knew about me. I couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t have understood. She would have worried about me endlessly. My meaning and her understandings would have been too different. So I never told her that I was queer, or that I didn’t believe in the religion that she built her life around. My meanings- that here is how my heart is made, that here is where my love of understanding and truth took me- would not have been what she heard. That disconnect, and how much I know it would have hurt her to hear those things, kept me from ever sharing them with her. I couldn’t inflict that worry on someone I love so much. That tears me inside.

I never told my gran these things either, but I know that I could have shared at least some of it if it hadn’t been for the disease that stole her mind one piece at a time. That feels okay.

My nan was strong. No, she wasn’t a Strong Woman- she wasn’t always invulnerable and didn’t always have a witty response to any circumstances. But she did go through hardship and grief and illness and pain without ever losing her warmth and love for her family and friends. I don’t know if there’s a thing in this world that could have left her bitter, and as one of those lucky enough to be loved by her I appreciate that more every day.

And here’s where it’s difficult, because my nan drew so much strength from her religion. She loved her faith and gave it the same belief and love that she did to everyone she was close to. Growing up, I believed with her, and the god she followed felt like that love- one that would comfort you, support you, believe in you too. And at the end of her life, the joy she drew from knowing that her reward was near… well, it was very real. And if I believed for a second in it I would tell you that she deserved every joy that it could give her. I don’t believe in it for a second and I will still tell you that she deserved every joy she could have.

And yet.. as I appreciate that this was a faith that she loved, there’s anger too. Not at my nan. At the faith that she gave so much of herself to, which I know betrayed that trust so many times. At the tenets of that faith which meant I would never have told her about something as wonderful as how I love. At the rigidity of a church which teaches that belief and submission, not living a good life, are what’s required to earn the rewards it promises. The twisted morality of an organisation that takes smart, capable, loving people, takes their feelings of connection and love that they have and that they draw so much strength from, and uses all of those gorgeous, essential things for nothing but its own power.

She loved that church, and I hate- truly hate- how it kept me further from her in ways she never knew. That there’s a silence that feels so close to shame that I’ll never, ever get a chance to heal.

There’s a silence that feels so close to shame still there, in the same things that I don’t say to other people in my family. Not everyone. But some.

You see, when I think of my gran, I imagine sharing all the things I do with her and I know how proud she would be. I can imagine exactly how everyone in her town would know hopelessly-exaggerated versions of every achievement I’d made, and I can feel that secretly-delighted mortification of hearing them back after a few rounds through the grapevine. I know that she’d have been up at the Galas talking David Norris’s ears off whether he liked it or not, and that every newspaper article about derby or demonstrations where you could kind-of see the side of my face would be saved and shared with half the town. I know that, and despite the everpresent ache of missing, that knowledge buoys me up and leaves me feeling so loved. Even though she’s gone for so many years.

I think about my nan, though? I miss her so much. I think about how much I love her. How close I always felt to her. How I idolised her when I was a kid, and how I grew up and.. well, that never really changed. I never thought of her with anything other than love. But right in the middle of that love? Is the knowledge that even if she was still alive, I’d have to keep so much from her. I can’t imagine how she’d feel about the things that I do. I’d still keep so many of them from her.

Because I was afraid. I was afraid that words would leave my mouth meaning “here is how my heart is wired and where I find joy” and reach her ears as “I am broken and my heart is bent towards evil”.

I had no idea at the time what that would do, when it was too late to do anything to change it. That silence- that is not shame but feels so close to it, that silence made of love that keeps us that small but essential bit apart- would be the first conflict I ever had with someone I loved almost too much. And that I could never know at the time.

My nana died three years ago this week. I wish I had a neat way to end this. I don’t.

Yep.

Yep.

Even bloggers have to pay the bills! Monthly subscriptions- no matter how small- help give me the security to devote time to this place and keep a roof over my head:

Monthly subscription onetime donationWhy Donate?

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    My 92 year old mother has known for years that I’m an atheist. Every night she prays that I will “find God” and every week she says a rosary for the same thing. Every time I see her she lets me know about her praying. She’s an intelligent, quick witted person who intellectually understands my reasons for atheism but she cannot accept that those reasons are real. She still emotionally thinks of me as a rebellious teenager going through a phase. It’s extremely frustrating.

    I can sympathize with your regrets about not being able to talk about atheism with your Nan. But having a religious person knowing you’re an atheist has its problems as well.

  2. says

    Aoife:
    I’m so sorry for your loss.
    The words you speak of your nana, the love that nearly pours from your column…it’s palpable.
    I found this particularly eloquent and sad at the same time:

    Because I was afraid. I was afraid that words would leave my mouth meaning “here is how my heart is wired and where I find joy” and reach her ears as “I am broken and my heart is bent towards evil”.

    Thank you for sharing your memories.

  3. Tigger_the_Wing, asking "Where's the rain?" in a weird Irish summer says

    I really feel for you. *Hugs* Grief is painful, and knowing we’ll never be able to visit our lost loved ones again, except in our memories, doesn’t make it easier.

    I never had any kind of relationship with my grandmothers; one died long before I was born, and the other – well, the kindest thing I can say about her was that she was an alcoholic who only ever visited once in a blue moon to try to get money out of my parents (we were living just under the poverty line).

    The hardest part of reading your story, besides really feeling the pain (you are an amazingly evocative writer), was realising that my five children would also not be able to be open with their grandparents (three of whom are still alive), largely to cultural rather than religious values.

    One of my sisters had a conversation with my parents recently, about acceptance, wherein my father (lifelong agnostic) declared he would disown any grandchild of his who was gay – and my mother (who converted to the RC in her teens, but has lapsed in recent years) said that she wouldn’t disown them, but “I would tell them that they are wrong”. Which, to my mind, pretty much IS disowning them.

    (There being 13 grandchildren, statistically at least one is likely to be queer).

    I’ll never be able to tell them that I’m trans.

    I have been inspired to do better with my own half-dozen grandchildren, and their half-siblings. (Leaving the RCC has helped, of course). I don’t want to adore them for being the people I think they are, but for who they actually are.

  4. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Death and our reactions to it are nuanced and complex despite the rituals and conventions that societies use to try and tidy up the inevitable. This is one of the best bits of writing on the subject I’ve read, and beautifully articulated as well.

    I was going to say that it had fortuitous timing for me, but that’s not right. Coincidental is a better word. The first anniversary of my mother’s death is in a week or so. Recently I’ve been signing things and faxing them back across the ocean as the final loose ends are tied up. I couldn’t avoid that anniversary if I wanted to, each new correspondence has printed somewhere on it a cold, officious reminder.

    I never made it home. From that first kick-in-the-stomach phone call, pancreatic cancer providing the boot, to the final “She’s gone.” was five days. Had I the resources, had it not been winter, had I earned my living outside of the seasonally affected business that I own, I could have made it back. I could have said goodbye. I didn’t.

    My last spoken words to her were: “I’m on my way.” they were a lie, as much to myself as to her. I didn’t call again. She was being transferred from her small town to the big city. She was being operated on, she was in recovery, she was suppose to have up to three months…

    And for all that pain, all that guilt that I drag from sleep to sleep, at least there was no part of me that I had to hide from her. Privilege. It’s the way of the world, to be fought and changed, and always, always to be acknowledged, especially when it provides one such as myself a comfort that is denied to other people.

    I truly believe that shared pain is lessened, just as shared joy is increased. And that both parties are the stronger for it. But you’ve reminded me here that there can be lessons beyond that, even in the worse sorrows of life.

    Thank you.

    And please allow me, an internet stranger who’d never before considered a tea cosy, to say that I’m so very sorry for your loss.

  5. says

    Dia Duit (yes, that’s all that remains of an entire year of Irish)
    I have been extremely lucky in having a family that mostly doesn’t do religion*, but I can relate to your experience of losing grandparents in different ways. Both my grandfathers kind of stole away in the night. And I’m glad for them. My paternal grandfather, whom I still miss fiercely, did this “doctor, the hypochondriac in room 214 died” thing, and it was a complete shock, nobody had expected this. We went to the hospital and said goodbye and it still hurts, but I’m glad he died like that, because usually when miners die they die slowly, suffocating piece by piece until one day it’s over. That would have been easy for us. We would have felt relieved, right? But how cruel on him.
    His wife is the person with dementia. She’s still alive, but most of her is gone. She still recognizes her close family, but my husband and partner of 14 year is gone from her memory. Her death will be different, but I will always remember both of them as the oldest regulars at the Chinese restaurant. As the people who made the error ofovergeneralisation and thought that all my friends were gay, and very welcome at our home. As the people who got caught “stealing” mushrooms when they were well over 80…

    *My paternal grandfather did “submarine catholicism”. Which means that he showed up for his own catholic funeral. And it was horrible. At that point I’d only been to humanist funerals and I was used to something completely different. How anybody is supposed to find condolence in that ceremony is beyond me.

  6. loreo says

    “Silence that feels like shame”. Damn. That’s the thing that has kept me from ever being fully part of my extended family. “I love you guys, but the passionately-felt center of your emotional and intellectual lives is the thing that made me feel I deserved death as penitence for my human ‘failings’.”

    I feel you. Thank you for writing this. I hope your grief won’t be deeper than your love.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Aoife O’Riordan, finally, writes a charming blog named Consider the Tea Cosy on ‘feminism, queerness, wheelyshoes, Ireland, what she cooked last week or any combination of the above.’ I’m thrilled as could be to have another colleague this side of the Atlantic (though not of the Manx Sea), let alone one who writes so well – read her her moving, vivid account of her Catholic grandmother’s death. […]

  2. […] When My Nan Died: Religion, Closets and Love.–”There were so many things my nan never knew about me. I couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t have understood. She would have worried about me endlessly. My meaning and her understandings would have been too different.” […]

  3. […] “There were so many things my nan never knew about me. I couldn’t tell her. She wouldn’t have understood. She would have worried about me endlessly. My meaning and her understandings would have been too different. So I never told her that I was queer, or that I didn’t believe in the religion that she built her life around. My meanings- that here is how my heart is made, that here is where my love of understanding and truth took me- would not have been what she heard. That disconnect, and how much I know it would have hurt her to hear those things, kept me from ever sharing them with her. I couldn’t inflict that worry on someone I love so much. That tears me inside.” When My Nan Died: Religion, Closets and Love – Consider the Tea Cosy […]

Leave a Reply