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.