Don't let her be nothing
Buckle up—it’s been a minute, I'm rusty, and this one’s about death.
My grandmother was in hospice for about 6 months beginning just as Covid hit the US. My mom called and said, “This is it.” “This” had been it a few times before, but she always pulled through, and my dad even said that she would outlive him with her track record.
She kind of pulled through this time, but she became bed-ridden—something that hadn't happened before.
Congestive Heart Failure.
She was perfectly coherent, in her bed, but she couldn’t walk, and she had episodes of difficulty breathing. My husband and I were able to go see her a few days before our COVID wedding—she would not make it to the ceremony, even in a wheelchair. A part of me thought it would happen on my wedding day, but it didn’t.
It didn’t happen for almost four more months.
A few times, my mom called and said, “This is it.” She said goodbye to her mother at her bedside a handful of times. We knew it was coming, but then again, I thought, “My dad could be right. She could outlive us all at this rate. She’s stubborn, and she has some sort of unfinished business to deal with before she’ll allow herself to go.”
Weeks later, I knew this was actually it when it was my dad doing the communicating. He asked if I could make it to my hometown—a 19-hour drive away—to be with my mom and be at the funeral. That kind of travel isn't usually a problem for me—a soprano on the road—but the pandemic brings in a few more determining factors, especially when it can affect your spouse's job. My husband and I talked about it, but it was all so hypothetical because she still hadn't yet left us, and part of me felt like she would get herself out of it again.
Then, I woke up to the message, “she passed.” All I could think was:
Where is she now?
I felt a little relieved that my mom could rest. After all, this had been a long time coming. It wasn’t until I saw my grandma a week later in her beautiful, Tiffany-blue casket (color-coordinated with her Tiffany-blue outfit from her 80th birthday party (14 years ago) AND the Tiffany-blue glass backdrop behind the altar at St. Jude) that I realized: I hadn’t yet grieved. The tears started pouring out, and they didn’t stop. I looked at her, and wondered,
Where are you?
My biggest fear, hands-down, is that there is nothing after life. That makes me cry even when no one is lying before me in a casket.
My uncle, the youngest of seven, delivered the eulogy which was full of what the family refers to as “Helen-isms.” My grandma‘s name was Helen. He had written down some of the recurring things she said in her last few days and weeks. Things like,
“I’m going to be okay”
“I don’t want to be any trouble”
“I’m the luckiest person in the world”
He said that even though her final days were mostly spent suppressing the pain in deep sleep, she managed a smile on the morning of her death. If you knew Helen, you knew goodness and kindness. No one has ever heard her utter a negative word. That’s not an exaggeration. My cousin said that it was impossible to walk away from that funeral and not want to be a better person. She was right. In fact, the only time I ever heard her something not explicitly positive was when I was being a nightmare of a rambunxious child, and she'd say, "Come on now, or I'm going to get cross."
After the mass and burial, the family ate food and reminisced at the house that hadn’t changed since the 1960s. I walked through every room, looking at everything that had been the same for my entire life, knowing now that it would never be the same again. As I looked at all of the random things that had so many memories attached, the question still pervaded my thoughts.
Where is she?
Towards the end of the evening, it was announced that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had passed. It was a gut check, to be sure. Another woman who was goodness incarnate, who fought long and hard to survive in order to do more good. Regretfully, I didn’t have a personal relationship with her the way many of my friends and colleagues did—opera was a central part of her life—but it hit hard. I couldn’t stop thinking about how impossible it seemed that they were gone from this world.
Where are they?
Before I go on, here are two facts about me.
1. I am very afraid of dying. It’s not debilitating, (a good thing for number 2) but I’m not ready for it, and I want to avoid it at all costs.
Ironically, I would die not to die.
2. I think about my death a lot. Most of the time, my imagination takes me there, involuntarily. Every time I drive a car. (That could be due to a really bad wreck I was in a few years ago) Every time I fly. Every time I’m at a crosswalk. It just happens. Sometimes I worry that I’m crazy, and maybe someone will send me a nice message with a diagnosis after this trip through my mind, but it’s just a thing that has happened for a very long time, and I’m okay.
After the funeral, I had a long drive back home. At one point, after dark, I went through a tunnel that goes underwater. I was really awake, and so close to home that the excitement for seeing my husband would have overpowered any tiredness I would have or should have felt anyways. But, like clockwork, I pictured the tunnel having a leak that slowly grew until the whole thing caved in and crumbled on top of me, filling with water.
That’s a way I could die.
How many people drive through this tunnel every day? How long has this tunnel been here? Does it undergo frequent inspections? Who am I to know...? What a freak accident that would be.
Of course, the tunnel was followed by a really long bridge over water.
Again, the imaginary bridge collapses, and my car plunges into the cold water and it’s too late to roll down the electric windows in this rental Volkswagen about which I know absolutely nothing.
This one went on for a while. Could I kick out the bottom of the windshield? I’ve seen that in movies. Or was it an instructional video? For how to handle your car crashing into the water? Is that even a real thing? I really don’t trust that I could, seeing the inside of the car filling up with water, hold my breath, and kick hard enough to break free. I'm strong, but it seems truly unrealistic.
I accepted my imaginary fate.
I’m not the indestructible superhuman I used to think I was. Realistically, I’d probably die. And, realistically, I’d probably enter into nothingness. I say “realistically,” because no matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the gut feeling that there’s nothing. That’s not a dig at whatever you believe in, it’s just my gut feeling after a few philosophy classes in college and my unshakeable need to be the smartest in the room. For the record, I think believing in something is much smarter. Everyone who does seems much happier. I’d love to believe in literally anything else, but my every attempt has been unsuccessful.
Cue overwhelming sadness as I’m still grieving the loss of my beautiful grandmother.
I’m a goner, and I’m nowhere.
Why even try for anything? Death will get me. Death is a certainty.
I felt so weak.
Then, as if the good lord of the universe pulled my puppet strings before I knew it, I rolled down a window... Boom. I can escape. This train of thought all happened in the very first instant of being on the bridge, (brains are insane) so I had my window down for what felt like at least a mile over water. IF the bridge collapsed and I couldn’t hit the breaks in time and the car hit the water, it might hurt, but I had a way out. If I survived, I evaded the nothingness. Even if I still died, I would’ve done everything I could've in order to escape it.
Someone would see that, maybe. A headline:
"Cadie, 27, was able to get the window down, but the current was too strong, and it swept her away."
But no, I can swim. I've flipped a car on the highway before; I know what it feels like. I could swim away if my life depended on it.
One little change—an open window—and I was ready for a fight.
Then I thought of my grandma again. Even if it’s nothingness, she's not nowhere. She's still present, here in my thoughts. Her words are still here. Her positivity and her kindness are still here. Her sheer will to survive as long as she did is here and telling me that I am not going to die on this bridge.
Both she and RBG fought until the end, like a sleep-deprived nine-year-old at a slumber party trying to stay up all night with the best of them. If they can do that, I'm going to make it.
I recently shared an article from the post-war 1940s about life in "Vet Village" with Vernon and Helen Daigle (Vernon was my grandfather, a WWII navy vet, whom I never met). At first, I read about the hardship, the rationing, the raising a child on campus while your husband works for a music education degree. They could eat one egg and one piece of toast for breakfast, minimally represent every food group at lunch, and then Vernon would eat lunch leftovers for dinner while Helen and baby Mike had cereal. Canned fruit for dessert—canned by Helen and her mother-in-law. One payphone at the end of the street. Rent was around $30 a month. His GI bill barely covered that and food, so he worked at a co-op and led a campus dance orchestra for a little extra cash, and she was a bargain shopper.
This all sounded so foreign, and frankly, so difficult to me. I can't imagine my mood swings and my stress over whether or not I'd be able to feed my husband and child. But all she says in the article is,
"We don't eat fancy, but we have good, nutritious food."
I can just hear it! "I'm the luckiest person in the world." To be able to live is the greatest gift. She is beaming with joy in every photo surrounding the article, and reading it is like her funeral all over again. You can't possibly walk away not wanting to be better, not wanting to be more positive.
I think about her every day. When I think about death these days, I think about her, and RBG too, and I think that I'm going to make it. I think about kindness and how if I'm not going to make it much further, I better be able to say I was kind. I better be able to say I worked hard and saw the good in everything. When I'm scared, all it takes is a memory of Helen to pull me back into reality and find the good around me enough to press on. This is how we live after life. Maybe there's more, and that would be so great, but this I know with absolute certainty. Helen is here, and she's still helping me through this very complicated life.
That's quite a heaven. Maybe it only lasts as long as people remember you. Thankfully, RBG is in no danger of being forgotten. My kids will know about Helen along with RBG. I guess that's why I'm sharing this. So you all can remember Helen too.
Don't let my grandma be nothingness.