One of my most vivid memories of my grandmother — my MomMom — involves her ironing furiously behind me in the family room of my childhood home as I sit staring blankly out the window into the dark with my knees curled up around my body. It is late at night and I am twelve. We are waiting for the coroner to come take my father’s body after he had finally succumbed to cancer. As she irons – clothes, underwear, sheets, everything – she keeps saying, “Life goes on.” Her mantra infuriates me. What kind of comfort is this to offer a half-orphaned child? But the outrage never expressed itself past the numbness which won out over all other emotions that night. And like it or not, she was right. Life did go on.
In recent years, I have thought about that memory and realized that perhaps that statement was not intended for me that night, but rather – in cooperation with continuing the chores in the face of unspeakable loss – the way that she coped with death. She comes from a long line of Swedes who live well into their nineties and one hundreds…in fact, at one point in time, her uncles were the oldest living twins in the United States. I’ve heard her say that phrase more than a few times over the years – as each of her siblings passed away, at my grandfather’s funeral and in times when friends who she’d known longer than I’ve been alive went to their great reward. If ever there was anything truer for MomMom than that life goes on, I can’t think of what it has been. At 95 and 73 pounds, she is still here while almost all of the people who share her life-long memories have crossed over.
A little over a year ago, my mother decided it would be best to move MomMom from Nebraska to Missouri so she could be closer to her remaining family – namely my mom, my sister and myself. It appears to have been the right decision, although sometimes it’s hard to tell what MomMom thinks about it because she has withdrawn into herself so much these past five years. Some of it has to do with the fact that she has profound hearing loss and can’t keep up with conversations. Some of it might be the medications she takes. And I think a lot of it is that she’s just stuck between two worlds…one foot in this one and little pieces of her disappearing into the next one bit by bit, quite literally pound by pound.
An interesting thing has happened recently. She’s started talking a little more again, mostly about the big questions of life, especially about whether or not there is a world after this one. As a devout Christian, MomMom has never been thrilled that I am a devout agnostic, so I’m guessing she doesn’t ask me these questions because the uncertainty of my answer would be unsettling as she draws closer to that journey. But in our own way, we had that conversation this weekend.
My sister and I were in Fulton on Saturday for a belated Mother’s Day celebration with MomMom and our mother. We gathered in MomMom’s little apartment at the assisted living home where she lives. After brunch, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and sit on the shaded patio. As we were sitting and talking about birds, I caught the sight of a butterfly flapping its wings helplessly on the burning hot concrete parking lot. I went out, intending to guide it onto a plant in the shade. Instead, it climbed into my hand, so I carefully brought it up to the porch to show everyone…especially MomMom.
After I took it around for everyone to view, I put it on a plant in the shade. MomMom shared a memory of a butterfly migration many years ago where she watched butterflies of all types descend onto one of the trees in the backyard of the home where my mother grew up. “Butterflies aren’t like birds, you know,” she confided. “You can go right up to them…birds will fly away if you approach them.” Then she asked me, “Did the butterfly fly away yet?”
I went to check up on the butterfly, to find that the trauma of the hot cement had been too much and it was dying. I gently picked it up and brought it back to show MomMom one last time. I took this picture of the big, beautiful insect on my sister’s hand. “It’s almost dead,” my sister said. “I know, but don’t say it too loud,” because for some reason it seemed important to MomMom that the butterfly would be okay.
After I took the picture and let MomMom take a last look, I took the butterfly to a nice shaded tree to spend its last moments in peace. Several times she asked me, “Did it fly away yet?” Finally, I decided to go look, hoping against hope that maybe it had regained its strength…but as I approached, I saw that it had died. When I came back, though, I told MomMom, “He’s flown the coop!” She seemed pleased to hear that.
Why I felt compelled to protect her from the truth of what happened is still something I’m not sure about. It felt like the same mechanism that kicked into gear when my boyfriend’s young children were in the car with me and we saw a goose that had just been hit by a car, helplessly flapping its broken wings in the middle of the street. A man had stopped to help the poor bird and I’m sure it died, hopefully more humanely with that man’s intervention. But when the children and I discussed it, I left hope in my scenario for the goose. “Perhaps that nice man was able to save it,” I said, knowing that it was unlikely. But I felt like they needed to believe that life goes on. And so, in my own way, I’ve adopted MomMom’s mantra and I’ve used it to soothe children and very old grandmothers who need to be reassured of the possibility of life continuing, even when it clearly is breathing its last breath.
At 95 and in failing health, I think MomMom is struggling with the inescapable flipside of her mantra.
From the questions she asks of each of us, it is clear she is flapping her own fragile wings as she struggles with how to accept what is next for her. At 73 pounds – bone, flesh, sinew and not much else – the only thing keeping her with the living has to be sheer will. I don’t know what answer to the questions she is asking us and asking herself will finally set her soul on flight…but I know that time cannot be too far away.
I hugged MomMom as gently as I held the butterfly as we said goodbye, feeling the bones in her frail ribcage spread out against my fingers like delicate wings. I am quite aware – as is she – that each goodbye could be the last. And each time I walk out that door I am reminded that life goes on with or without us…but hopefully enriched because we were part of the continuum.
*Note: My cousin, Alan, identified the “butterfly” as an Antheraea Polyphemus moth after I posted a picture of it on my facebook page. But for the purposes of sharing this story, it needed to stay a butterfly for just a little longer.