January is a snowy month with numerous power outages sweeping across the city of Colfax. The month also signifies the beginning of the Spring semester at Sierra College and my entire being overflowing with excitement and a hint of dread. It’s been months since I’ve gone to school, having taken a break due to the ongoing pandemic, and want to reunite with the person I fell in love with.
Even before class started, my mind raced with ideas I wanted to write about: romance, video games. I even had a working title, Digital Love.
“Oh, I have so many ideas for my story for the semester,” I text my fiancé with hopes of praise and acknowledgment.
“I know whatever topic you pick you’ll do well in,” he replies back.
Encouraged by his simple message, I present my ideas to the class for what I had in mind for the semester.
In spite of that, weeks go by and the sentiment I shared at the beginning of the semester changes drastically. I’m no longer confident in myself and I’m left feeling empty, unsure, and entirely dull.
February means melted snow, dreary rain, and frigid winds. Once more, the month signifies the experience of loss within my family. It begins and ends with my grandma, her terminal illness, and her passing. The first Saturday of the month was the end, leading my dad to tell me the news of what happened. It wasn’t a new experience, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.
Having given my professor a heads up about the family situation, I introduced a new concept. A story about my grandma and the memories we shared. After much thought, I was okay with writing about the experience, but I was a bit stuck. As a natural overthinker, I had no idea where to start. I presented every single jumbled thought I had to everyone I knew.
“You write well, so just write” is what my fiancé had to finally tell me.
So, through my tears and heavy heart, I did.
Grieving a Grandpa
Nineteen was the age I experienced death for the first time. As an emotional person, I’ve sobbed heavily for animals I have lost and relatives I wasn’t familiar with. Nonetheless, experiencing the death of a grandparent I’ve shared memories with created new emotions. Unexpectedly, my grandpa was the first person to pass in my family.
George Hamilton was a Vietnam War veteran with numerous health problems despite being relatively young for his age. It wasn’t surprising to hear about the multiple doctor visits to help with the pain in his back. It also wasn’t unusual for him to undergo procedures to stabilize the pain.
Before his typical procedure, my grandparents were visiting on a Sunday in August for dinner. The procedure itself went quite well and grandpa was recovering smoothly. Things were looking up for the family, until August 16th came. The news of my grandpa’s passing came racing through the door from my parents.
At the news, all I could muster was shock and tears. Everything became even more numb while sitting in sniffled silence surrounded by family in my grandparent’s home. Every memory that I could grasp on to at the time swept through my mind as if not wanting to be forgotten. Mispronouncing crab as frab, hoarding seashells collected on the coast, a bag of sand dollars, card games, blowing straw wrappers at family, purchasing important milestones like my driving lessons and prom dress.
The funeral came and went with no recollection of what day it was. All I can recall was the breakfast before that grandma treated us to. The entire family shuffled along into some iHop, some silent, some laughter at the memories. Without even thinking, I knew I wanted to order grandpa’s signature favorite, strawberry crepes. Once plates were placed in front of us, a glimpse at my grandma told me she recognized the sentiment, having ordered the same thing. We shared a disheartened smile between us.
Now, I am twenty-three experiencing death for a second time. The emotions from the previous experience are just the same; nevertheless, the process couldn’t be any more different. My grandma was never the same after the sudden passing of my grandpa and declined even more rapidly two years ago after her diagnosis.
Conversation and Separation
My desk used to be up against the wall with the window in the basement. It allowed me to peek over my monitor to witness family coming home. It wasn’t unusual to see my mom finishing a conversation in the driveway, but sometimes I was nosey. With just a crack of the front door open, I could hear the muffled voice of my aunt, but it wasn’t until I went and slid into the passenger seat did I realize the extent of the conversation. My grandma has a potential cancer diagnosis.
My throat immediately became tight at the news, silent tears rapidly falling down my face. Once the call ended, all I could do in the moment was sob and babble nonsense to my mom. The following day, it was confirmed the mass spreading rapidly was cancerous and that grandma was already in stage four. We didn’t get a name until months later, Renal Cell Carcinoma, cancer of the kidney.
Linda Hamilton was a blunt and stubborn woman the older she got, but she always had a soft spot for her grandchildren. After the passing of grandpa, it wasn’t unusual to hear her tell us she was ready to be with him.
Maybe it was selfish of me; I knew she was ready to go. But I wasn’t ready to not have her anymore.
With the ongoing pandemic, borders were closed with Canada until they announced they would allow exempt visitors to enter. Grandma was diagnosed with cancer while I was in the process of finishing the application to visit my fiancé, Caleb, in Canada.
“You have to live your life. Grandma would want you to live your life” was what my mom said to me exasperatedly one day after I conveyed my fears to her for the millionth time. Finally getting the hint, I gave Caleb the okay and in January of 2021 I was off to spend several months in Canada. I gave updates when I could to grandma about my flights, finally landing in Canada, and the inevitable engagement ring Caleb proposed to me with.
Grandma even got the update about me changing my physical appearance, cutting, and dying my hair an unusual color. It was so simple; my bangs were colored teal, but I don’t think my grandma was as thrilled about it as I was. She was quite old-school, only interested in what she called “oldies” music and rejected the rock and metal music that I liked, stating it “gave her a headache.” Surprisingly, she was okay with the piercings that I had, but I think she realized her oldest grandchild was a bit alternative at heart.
“But why do you only have your bangs colored?” she would text me.
“It’s just something trendy right now” I replied back.
“Well, as long as you’re happy about it. It looks good,” was the response that finalized that conversation.
Looking back, I wish I shared more. With the ongoing pandemic at the time, it was hard to tell her anything of what was happening. We were mostly confined to the house, only going out at certain times to the mall or just grocery shopping. Right now, I wish I just gave her random pictures no matter what, whether it was the rabbits I saw that made me incredibly excited or even the meals we cooked.
Even then, I felt guilty at times. When we talked, she always asked when I would be coming home. All I could tell her was that I wasn’t too sure, that flights are tricky with the pandemic and my flight home keeps getting changed. When I finally did come home in October, I went to see her as soon as it was safe.
Walking through the door, I immediately went to my grandma. With a hug so tight, she said to me, “I didn’t think I would see you one last time.”
Those words stuck with me and from there on I just wanted to tag along as much as I could. Even if it resulted in a sigh and, “That’s fine, just know we’re leaving early tomorrow”, I just wanted to spend time with my grandma.
Fortunately, my grandma didn’t have too many hospital stays. While she had a few surgeries here and there, she mostly lived in the comfort of her own home. It wasn’t always fortunate, especially with the heightened pandemic when she did have hospital stays. My dad would be granted the right to see her, and our solution was to sit out in the parking lot waiting for the facetime call just to see her.
Anything just to see her.
The New Year passed, and January was the month I received her wedding ring. My family told me how she wanted to pass it down, especially since I found my special someone, but that she didn’t want to until she found the original box my grandpa had. I felt so nervous on the drive to her family home when it was announced she was ready, my throat in a constant state of tightness. Arriving, I didn’t hesitate to see her, wanting to spend as much time as possible before having to leave.
“Hey, you, did you come here yourself?” She asked as soon as she saw me.
“No, everyone else is outside stretching and smoking” I responded.
I immediately turned my attention to the Hallmark movie she was watching, which became a signature occurrence when I visited. We would just watch in silence, Christmas being the major theme for the vast majority of shows we watched. I fidgeted with my own engagement ring until my parents came in.
“All right, you knew it was coming” she started, sliding her wedding ring off, “Whatever happens between you and Caleb, I want you to have this regardless.”
To mask my tears, I defaulted to joking while I bent down to hug her, “Well, I sure hope we’ll be okay after all this time.”
“I will always love you and now grandpa knows I’m passing it down to you,” she said, clasping my hand with a final sob, “Please, I hope you take care of my ring…”
“Of course, grandma. I’ll take good care of it, I promise” was all I could choke out. With a final squeeze, she let go.
My family theorized that once she gave me her wedding ring, she was ready to reunite with my grandpa. While already on the decline, it got worse quickly after that day.
My grandma was fond of trinkets, even more so after her diagnosis. She always bought gifts, jewelry boxes with engravings to mark how much she loved me, or jewelry itself with poetic note cards. I received a necklace in the mail, a tiny ribbon-shaped pendant that I can’t help but wear everywhere now. The notecard this time stated, “I squeezed this necklace really tight and filled it with my love. If I’m ever not here and you need a hug, just hold this close to feel my love.” When I got the call of her passing, traveling to her home, and then witnessed her being carried out, I couldn’t help but squeeze onto my little necklace tight just to give her one last hug goodbye.
“Search Discover! For Articles, Books, and More!” I stared at the search function on the Sierra College Library trying to assemble words into sentences to get the results I wanted. I’ve already procrastinated this part and it was time to find articles with similar experiences.
“Death in the Family” was the first attempt, leading with various articles and books relating mostly to death in several forms. Even after applying the appropriate filters, it still didn’t narrow my selection down, so I moved on to the next search term. “Experiencing Death in the Family” came up with different articles that, while appropriate, didn’t fit my own experience.
Getting a bit more morbid, I started just looking up death in general and trying to find ways to describe the meaning of life and death itself. Most of the search results bestowed peer-reviewed journals which were interesting to read but were very much off track. It helped in coming up with the search term “Grief and Loss in the Family” which didn’t necessarily give me anything on the Sierra College Library site.
However, I can’t discredit the Sierra College Library too much as the website did lead me to an article labeled Cheating / Death by Laura Bernstein-Machlay. I believe the more morbid search term led me to find this article.
Laura Bernstein-Machlay begins her article with a story about her daughter and allowing her to win in whatever card game they played. Bernstein-Machlay goes on to recount her own childhood experiences with her Bubby and Zaidy, playing different card games that she was allowed to win.
It reminded me of all the times I watched my family play various card games: Poker, Pinochle, Guts. At a young age, I was always fascinated by the heavy, all-white plastic bottle filled with coins that my grandparents had. As I grew older, I just sat in the living room and listened to the conversation about whatever card game they decided to play at family gatherings, but my grandpa wanted me to be involved.
Screw Your Neighbor was his preferred choice, the objective requiring the lowest card possible, King card being the highest while Aces are the lowest. With laughter and smirks, I was used to hearing my family’s groans and my grandma’s tsks when I gave them my bad cards. When Caleb came into my life, my grandpa wanted to indoctrinate him into the card game schemes as well, even if he wasn’t that good at it.
Nonetheless, there was more to Bernstein-Machlay’s article as I continued reading. She mentions the funeral of her Zaidy and being approached by a woman, Sadie Braverman.
“Just to say, your grandparents were proud as can be of you, of all their granddaughters.”
It was the quote that stuck out to me the most. Something I have struggled with since the passing of both grandparents. I wonder if they’re proud of the woman I am becoming. Knowing I will never hear their love and praises one last time eats away at me. In spite of that, it made me smile and I was comforted by the simplicity of another person’s words.
After reading Cheating / Death by Laura Bernstein-Machlay, I couldn’t find anything else that resonated with me on the Sierra College Library website, so I set off to Google. There were way too many sentences I came up with, yet they all led to articles helping people with their grieving process. They were all about the same, albeit nice to read. Fortunately, I stumbled upon an article titled Losing a Grandparent as an Adult Can Be Incredibly Isolating by Megan Ward.
Ward’s article highlighted the emotions that came with losing a grandparent as someone in their twenties.
“I was lucky to have the relationship I did have with my granddad, but I know it’s not something everyone can understand. For those of us experiencing this loss, it’s made all the more isolating by the fact that in your twenties you are apart from those who feel it as hard as you do.”
Ward’s article allowed me to confront myself with the emotions I had. Indeed it felt isolating, but why? I was surrounded by family, even if we were small in numbers. While Caleb wasn’t with me for this passing experience due to being a Canadian citizen during Covid, my family was still there to support me and witness my ugly faces as I try hard not to crack into tears with just a mention of my grandparents. They know I’m sensitive and cry at the smallest things, and I don’t want to burden my emotions onto others. The feeling of having to swallow down every emotion I have is quite strong. I don’t want to mention it out of pity, but just as a thing that unfortunately happened. I’m still trying to fix my instant tears with this notion in mind.
It’s also incredibly awkward to speak about Even while writing this, the people I hang out with on a daily basis that keep me sidetracked with video games and laughter don’t even know that my grandma passed.
I just didn’t want to hear another “sorry to hear that.”
Backing out of Ward’s article, I clicked on Why People Don’t Take the Death of a Grandparent Seriously a few links away. Written by Emma Taylor, she calls attention to the less sympathetic and awkward comments friends can make. However, Taylor put into words what I couldn’t understand until now, saying “As grandparents go, they’re the gold standard. They were a continual solid presence, and I probably took their unconditional consistency in my life for granted at times.”
My grandparents were an “unconditional consistency in my life” too, even if we went months without seeing them. I knew of their unconditional love for me, the lengths they went through just for me and that has been kicked out from underneath my feet. Reading all of these beautifully written articles made me weep and understand my feelings just a little bit better.
Stories in the Garage
“You should get an interview with your family” is what my professor told me when I shared the family dynamic we had. It wasn’t too hard; we lived together and see each other every day. But I procrastinated once again quite a bit.
The wound of loss was still open, and I was nervous to speak up. Weeks prior, I mentioned it offhand to my mom that I would need an interview with her and my dad about my grandparents.
“What would you even be asking?” she said.
“I’m not sure yet, I’ll have to look into it,” was all I could say at the time.
I didn’t have any ideas until I was researching about family loss and mindlessly clicking around leads me to see an article based on obituaries. Reading the article helped me understand how to conduct an interview with my parents on this topic.
Noticing my parents were gathered in the garage, I took a deep breath and made my way inside to sit with them at their smoking table. A bundle of dogs greets me immediately and my parents take notice.
“Finally ready to ask us those questions?” my mom says.
“Yeah, I guess so,” is all I said with a shrug.
Maneuvering through all the dogs, I take a seat while explaining what I was doing and what this was for.
“Okay, ready for the first question? How would you describe grandma and grandpa?” There was a small pause between them before my mom started.
“Well, grandpa was a shy and quiet man who enjoyed being around family” with a chime in from my dad, “He was also a hardworking yet serious man.”
On that note, my mom also mentioned, “There was always a gleam in his eyes around the family. You know how grandpa was, never smiled in pictures but when he was with family it was all laughs and jokes.
“So then, how would you describe grandma?” was my next question.
“Very serious” mom said, looking over at my dad.
“But she was a motherly figure in all regards,” he added. Grandma was also described as very stubborn and wouldn’t hesitate to say what was on her mind.
“A total spitfire,” my mom said, laughing, “but definitely had an emotional and sensitive side. She turns to my dad, saying “Don’t you remember when your mom would get so mad at your dad, and she would just give him the silent treatment for days at a time?” With my dad nodding his head, I smiled. That definitely sounded like the dynamic they had.
“So then what are your favorite memories?” was my next question.
My mom turned to my dad, so he gave his responses first. “Definitely the fishing, hunting, and camping trips.” Turning to my mom, I asked for her favorite memories in turn.
“I loved the family get-togethers, spending time with them and playing poker. When your dad went hunting with grandpa, I spent those days with your grandma. She made the best chicken and dumplings. It’s the one memory I look back on fondly.”
That was one memory I remembered my mom sharing with me after grandma passed.
Smiling, I asked my next question, “Can you recall what their favorite hobbies were?”
“Grandpa definitely loved fishing, hunting, and playing poker,” was my dad’s response. For grandma, he said, “She was into knitting, baking of course, which is where you got your love for it.”
That made me laugh, saying “I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as grandma though, I just kind of wing it… He also mentioned that grandma was so proud of her baking, taking classes at Cake Castle Bakery. That was new information to me, only knowing what she taught me and witnessing the beautiful wedding cakes and desserts she made.
“Oh, and the mochas. If that was a hobby, grandma would win,” that made the three of us laugh. It reminded me of all the times my grandparents would visit, and she would constantly get us Starbucks, specifically the blended mochas. Whenever we visited, however, she always made those drinks for us. A little nudge with her elbow, a wink, just to ask, “Do you kids want a mocha?” She also tried indoctrinating Caleb like grandpa into her schemes, but in the end, I had to finish off his drinks.
“Then what was the thing you loved the most about them?” was my final question.
My mom went first, saying “They always treated me like a daughter. Never judged, always accepting of me when I first started dating your dad.” Then she laughed, “They told me I set him straight” which made me laugh in return. My dad just shook his head at her comment, picking up the dot laser to start playing with the dogs surrounding us.
“Anything else you want to mention?” I asked, watching the dogs jump against the walls.
My mom thinks for a moment before finally saying, “They were both family-oriented and were always there for us and even you guys.” She finishes it off with, “All of the grandchildren were favored immensely. You were basically the sparkle of their eyes.”
My mom has always made that comment on and off, but in this setting, it pained me knowing they were no longer here with us. I watched the dogs chase around the laser dot trying not to let my tears spill.
Love & Loss
Two years were spent mourning over the woman I would be losing. Each emotion that circulated in my mind and heart was complicated. A part of me was relieved, knowing she was no longer suffering from the pain and that she was reunited with grandpa. After mindlessly scrolling through so many grieving articles, I finally understood one thing. I have so many regrets. I regret the years I spent stalling marriage for fear of going too fast in life. I regret decisions made in life that kept me in school. I regret the days spent not taking the time to send her a message or to check up on her.
Each regret just stacked up the more I thought of it, along with many more complicated emotions. I wanted her back, to witness me marry the man I love, to witness my graduation, and to just witness me live life in hopes of her being proud of me. My grandparents were a consistent love and support in my life and now I will have to cope with not knowing. Every single memory is kept closely guarded in my heart. I hold my necklace close to feel their love.
Written by Taylor Hamilton | Featured photo provided by Author