It was New Years Eve 2019, and my (now estranged) husband and I were walking through seemingly endless arrondissements of Paris. Macron was fighting with his people again, and as a result, the metro was running intermittently at best, but in reality, it was entirely shut down. We had a solid hour-long walk to our hotel, and in order to fill the time, we started with philosophical chats and it wasn’t until we sat down at a café to refuel that we started discussing mortality over pastries. It seemed appropriate, given that we were in Paris, after all.
“Wait… so you’ve never had someone you know die?” He looked at me inquisitively, wiping stray croissant crumbs from his face. When I admitted that no, I had thankfully never dealt with a loss like that he muttered, “I’m not looking forward to being there when it happens.”
To his credit, I’m existential at the best of times, and knee-deep in a miserable crisis at the worst. It’s been that way since I was ten years old and wrote in my journal, “Things have been chaotic lately, sometimes I wish I had a secret hiding spot where I could be alone,” and it doesn’t seem to be improving as I get older.
He was right, by the way. He would not have enjoyed being there for it, and I’m glad that for his sake, he wasn’t.
In January I lost my grandmother, without warning, within the span of a week.
Maybe not entirely without warning. I started to prepare to lose her in 2018, when we got confirmation that she had Alzheimer’s, and ever since then I have been slowly prepping myself to deal with the shock of losing her, whether due to a diminished mental capacity, or something more permanent.
I went so far as to buy a book on dealing with grief, naïvely thinking that I could strengthen myself in preparation. As if the brain works like that… but I tried. I imagined it. I spent time meditating on it and therefore pre-emptively crying over it.
Once, in August of 2019, I was having a particularly aggressive breakdown thinking about the future loss. My phone rang and I picked up, holding back the telltale quiver in my throat, and said, “Hello?”
“Hi, you messaged me about the typewriter for sale. You can pick it up tomorrow if you’re still interested.”
I immediately confirmed. “Perfect,” she replied, “By the way, my name is Carmen. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I hung up the phone and looked upwards. I laughed at some great unknown joke, wiped my face, and got up to carry on with my day.
She wasn’t gone then, but I still chose to see it as a sign. My grandmother’s name was Carmen.
I called her in December, as her birthday had just passed. We spoke in length because she was having a good day, it seemed. She sat on the stairs in the house lovingly designed and built by my grandfather and gazed tenderly into the phone. “I love you, I love you, I love you.” I repeated the sentiment, full of emotion, and we stared at each other in silence for a moment.
“Okay,” she said, with an air of finality, “Let’s not say it again in case we start crying.”
It was the last conversation I would have with her.
Everything went downhill from there. First, the message that she was having a “bad day,” which was to be expected given the advanced stage of Alzheimer’s she had by this point.
Then, another message. She was incoherent and put to bed. She was out of it. She’d had a stroke. Several strokes. She was in the hospital. Early morning hours my time, squinting into the harshly illuminated screen. “There’s no easy way to say this…” Crumpling back into bed. She’ll never be the same. No chance of recovery. Crammed in a hospital hallway because the rooms were too full of Covid patients. Endless tears, the thought of her alone in a sterile hallway swallowing me whole. They found her a room. They aren’t feeding her anymore. Pain management. Palliative care. She’s resting comfortably. She’s surrounded by loved ones. She can still hear, send a voice message, send anything, make your brain create poetry, conjure up a happy memory through this fog of pain and send her something hopeful you fuck, you’re going to regret this. Consumed by guilt. Why didn’t you visit for almost two years? You selfish bitch. She loved you, she missed you. What else in the world could have been more important? Anxiety, crying, pain, waves of worry. Reminiscing. The priest is in there with her now. Her breathing is shallow. No, no, no, pumping imaginary brakes on a sure-fire implosion. I’m so sorry you lost her. No. She’s at peace now. No. I’m falling apart. I lose touch with time. Reality. Senses. It all comes crashing down in tidal waves of regret.
And pain. The most exquisite, gut wrenching pain I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. A sneaky pain, that sometimes vanishes entirely, letting me think maybe I’ve dealt with it, until it comes barging back in, and it’s brought friends! Resentment, guilt, anger, denial, rage, sadness… and pain, the ringmaster of it all.
Now that the thread has been pulled, it isn’t just pain, but fear. I know what it feels like, so now, who will be next? Who will I lose? Embarrassment eats me up because after three decades this is the first loss I’ve been dealt, living my own sheltered existence, but the ultimate lesson in finality has arrived.
My pain isn’t a path to an eventual ending point. It never is. My pain is a wave. Sometimes I can adjust and ride it as it swells, and allow it to sightlessly carry me forward. Other times a small misstep drags me under, and the current sweeps me into an endless whirlpool of sorrow, a hollow cacophony of sadness.
Every call we had she asked me to come home and I always laughingly changed the subject. Now I lay in bed most nights, full of self-loathing, knowing that I invested my time and energy in the wrong things, the wrong people, and that the clock has run out on my ability to change my choices.