A Personal Post: Finding Meaning Between Joy and Loss
Image by Cassie Sullivan.
In a surreal alignment of coincidence, have you ever been presented with a moment that moves you in such a way that afterwards, from a deep place within, you realise that something has shifted, and the world from your point of view starts to appear a little differently?
This time last year I got to experience a moment like that, yet so strangely it was gifted in a juxtaposition between what was meant to be one of the most exciting and joyous times of my life, and the most heartbroken I have ever felt.
Six weeks out from our wedding, my grandma, my mum’s mum, had a fall, one of many in her latter years, but this one, after fracturing her hip bone in three places, would take her into hospital for what would end up becoming the final time. First learning of her fall over the phone yet unclear on what the outcome would be, I realised that there was no longer any possibility for Grandma to be able to physically attend our wedding in Tasmania – a place that she had dreamed of one day visiting. Creatively trying to cloud over both mine and her disappointment with optimism, I called Grandma and told her that it was ok because she could instead watch the ceremony via zoom on a borrowed device from the comfort of her armchair with a family member who would stay with her. I imagined her smiling and proud face chatting with the newly announced bride and groom to give us her well wishes. It was going to be ok because even though she wouldn’t be there, she would still be there celebrating with us, if you know what I mean.
Growing up my grandparents were my idols for the kind of relationship I wanted for myself. I used to love observing the way they were with each other, the caring gestures, the banter and laughs, the unwavering emotional support, the solidity of their relationship, and also the strong feeling of cosiness that came from being within their company because you could easily sense how deeply in love and devoted to each other they still were, even after 60 years of marriage. Grandma, ever stoic, was the rock and the grounder to my always worrisome yet joker of a Granddad, even in his final days when he was overcome with anxiety during the end stages of cancer, she was right there beside him, holding and stroking his hand as he had passed away. For me personally, after a few uninspiring years on the dating scene, I had found myself becoming quite cynical about whether or not the right person was out there for me. One day I had told myself that if there ever was and I was lucky enough to find him, I would know he was the one by the presence of the little signs of affection I constantly observed in my Grandma and Granddad. In 2015 I stumbled across that person, and one day he would become my husband.
Accepting the Reality
As the days grew closer to our wedding, a heightened time for celebration that was split across two cities (that’s what happens when a Melbourne girl weds a Brissie Bloke), the medical updates of Grandma’s condition gradually became less hopeful and more solemn as the doctor and nurses tried to help us in preparing for the worst. Coinciding with end stage kidney disease, it was becoming clear that Grandma’s body could no longer summon the fight or the energy to keep going, and the pain she was experiencing was unrelenting, with there being many limitations on what she could be medicated with due to her failing kidneys. She really hated being in hospital, and her one last wish was to go home and be in the comfort of her own bed. The staff at the hospital were amazing and genuine in their desire to try and make that happen for her.
It was soon becoming increasingly difficult for me to face the reality of her not being a part of our wedding day at all, after all the influence Grandma and Granddad had in helping me to understand who my person would be. Even more so was the pain at no longer having both her nor Granddad around, a chapter of our lives that was just too heart-breaking for any of us to close. I buried that quietly deep within myself though, because all that mattered to me now was the time I would have left with her.
The Greatist Gift is Time
A short week after being in Melbourne for my hen’s night, I flew back to Melbourne from Brisbane in an anxious rush to spend time with Grandma in her final her moments, focused and without distraction of wedding festivities or planning. After being unwell and then slipping into a deep sleep shortly after my arrival after what felt like forever in commuting to get to the hospital on Saturday evening, I thought this was it, I had missed my chance, this was going to be the last time that I had spent with her. When I went back on my own the following morning though, she surprised me by waking up and being bright, sharp and fully alert, giving me the gift of quality time with her that I had so desperately craved. At one point Grandma told me, in her old school way of words, “I’m really cross with myself for all of this happening right before your wedding”- a woman who had always hated making a fuss and who was excellent at being discrete, stoic even, about her own suffering so that she wouldn’t cause any worry to anyone else. “Oh Grandma, don’t be silly and don’t even stress about that! All I want is for you to be ok!” I told her.
My family are an unusually close-knit bunch and Grandma and Granddad’s house had always been the drop in place where we would often bump into each other and catch up in their lounge room. That night, as if to relive it one final time, Grandma’s private hospital room became like that lounge room. While a few of us sat by Grandma’s bedside reminiscing and laughing at old memories of her and Grandad, my aunty joked, “has dad ever come and visited you in hospital, mum?” We laughed, but then noticed Grandma going quiet for a few moments before she replied, “Yes, the other night,” in between the deep breaths of her struggling lungs. “What?! Really?!” We were all surprised. Grandma, incredibly honest and grounded, was never one to believe in ghosts or to conjure up stories captured by her imagination. We all leaned in closely, falling silent as we watched Grandma’s facial expression transcend into a glowing smile, with her cheeks flushing into a soft pink as she spoke – an expression that I will never forget. “I felt him laying down here on the bed with me,” she said. Glancing excitedly at each other, someone asked, “Really Grandma? How did you know it was him?” “I knew," she said, "there was a certain way he used to put his leg over mine,” giving us all a rush of goosebumps as she said the words. Feeling my own heart skip over a few beats, I instantly thought of all the times Gerrard had put his leg over mine at night, and how I used to get annoyed at him for it, bantering back and forth while I tried to wrestle my legs out to stretch them, “you ice queen,” he would joke to me.
We sat there in awe of what we had just heard, and I can’t describe the closure I felt, having her share that experience with us in her final moments, so close to our wedding. Whether it was hidden within her body’s own memory, or something more, Grandma sensed, in her final hours, that Granddad was there comforting her, like she had done for him, and now she was ready to return to him, an ending of a love story I had always admired. We left to let Grandma rest after a big day of visitors, my aunty jokingly told her off – “Well, I’m glad you told us that. You wouldn’t have even told us about Granddad if I hadn’t asked!”
A Final Good Bye
The next morning, I drove back on my own to keep Grandma company, yet had fumbled around in a store beforehand trying to find something to give to my dad for his birthday that was three days before and had missed to spend time with Grandma. When I got to the hospital and entered her room, Grandma seemed to have been sleeping peacefully with her T.V. on and the speaker resting gentle on her chest. Sitting down on the chair beside her though, I studied her face before my eyes being drawn to her chest, noticing its lack of movement, with only a slight twitch of her mouth every so often. I went to grab the nurse. The nurse entered the room full of excitement to share with me the news that they were able to organise for Grandma to go home that day, and told me about a special mattress that they had organised to loan out to her to keep her comfortable. “Oh that’s awesome, but” I hesitated, “but I noticed that Grandma’s chest isn’t moving.” “Oh, really?” She said in shock, and then ran to the door to call in the other nurses. Four more entered the room, and one quickly picked up Grandma’s wrist to check her pulse. “There’s no pulse,” she said, and as she did, Grandma seemed to gasp one last, final breath. We stood there stunned for a moment. “It’s so strange,” one nurse finally said. “I only chatted with her two hours ago. She sat up, had her breakfast and told me that she wasn’t in any pain.” It was so surreal to me, the casualness and peacefulness of it all, the T.V. playing in the background, tuned into channel 10 so she was able to watch The Bold and the Beautiful. Grandma had always loved and was committed to her shows. It was weird for me to sit there with her on my own for a while as I made the phone calls out to let my family know the news.
Working Through Grief
I stuck around Melbourne for a few days after that to support my mum in preparing for the funeral with my aunties and uncle, and returned for the funeral after a Brisbane get together to celebrate the lead up to our wedding. The day after Grandma had passed, I was desperate to get out for a walk to try and work through all of my emotions of the last few days. I felt like I needed to clear through this strange, confusing entanglement of my grief from losing Grandma, and the joy I felt to be marrying the man I loved. Listening to an artist radio playlist on Spotify, a song came on by an Autralian duo called Holy Holy that had absorbed me into the lyrics of its chorus.
Teach me about dying
Show me how it feels
Teach me about dying
So I can learn how to live
This is weird for me to say, but I knew it then. Probably in a way that would never make sense to anyone else, and I wouldn’t force it to, something resonated personally for me that weaved its way into the celebration of our wedding, as if being given a gift that I could only have had received by the close proximity of this timing. Grandma and Granddad’s love for each other and influence, even in their final moments, taught me how to love, and I wondered if I would I have ever recognised that Gerrard was the one for me without it? On our wedding day I felt strongly that they there with us, but they weren’t there, if you know what I mean. Were they there celebrating and watching proudly in a non-physical presence? Or was it just within the entangled web of genes and memories of their children and grandchildren, a family that they had created? It may have just been the latter, but its comforting for me to wonder. After everything that had happened, the wedding had gone better than I ever could have imagined.