When You Cannot Hold Her: What Grief Has Taught Me

By Lyndsey Bourne

Courteous of Kelsey Martens

Courteous of Kelsey Martens

I remember swing sets, I remember summers filled with macaroni and cheese. Mid-day, my grandma would stand on the porch with a cigar in her hand and call out to us kids swimming in the lake to come inside for lunch. Those early summers on Skaha lake were filled with laughter, sun tan lotion, swimsuits and fresh picked peaches. Every night we’d play cards, drink iced tea (or “kids beer”, as we called it), and all seven cousins - Danny, the eldest, was too adult for this - would crawl into bed and watch Jumanji, Madeline or The Adventures of Robin Hood. The house was filled with mismatched pillowcases and furniture left over from the ‘70’s. We loved that house. When I think of it, I feel warm, and slightly sticky from all the melted ice cream-stained shirts. I was happiest in that house. I still am, though now my visits are few and far between. The air there is now sullied, tinged with grief and nostalgia. My grandma is dead, but I can see her everywhere on Skaha Lake, and I can tell the house misses her footsteps.

She’d been sick for a while, but time seemed only to intensify the pain. The summer before my freshman year at NYU was especially awful. I was depressed, overwhelmed and confused about the future. My grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, lived with us for part of that time. This detail is particularly important, because the memory of that summer clouded my four years at NYU. Often I was left alone with her, expected to help take care of her. I could tell my dad resented the time I spent with friends. Taking care of her was difficult to say the least. She was restless, despondent and incredibly unhappy. She knew she was sick, though the how’s and the why’s, like everything else, eluded her. She fought, she needed something to hold on to, something to ground her.  Keeping her away from the phone was the hardest. She obsessively dialed the disconnected numbers of her dead parents and siblings. Keeping her occupied was a challenge, a frustration.

 That summer, I watched myself grow impatient and tired of looking after her. She wouldn’t eat. She couldn’t sleep. I remember the moment I knew I was changed by this. The moment I hated myself. My hair was dripping wet, soaking through my t-shirt as I sat her down on the couch in front of a rerun of Bewitched. I was unfocused, in a rush waiting for my dad to come home and relieve me. I turned on the stove to heat up a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. A few friends and I were about to meet for lunch. I packed up my bag and returned to the soup, which had come to a boil. There were tiny, white specks swimming in red. I had left the rubber spatula in the pot, and it had partially melted. I looked at the numbers on the clock and out at my grandmother, who was now obsessively rearranging the objects on the coffee table. I should’ve made a new pot of soup. I should’ve, but I didn’t, and reaching for the strainer I cursed myself for not taking better care of her.

I worry you can’t see her. That right now, I’m conveying only the pain. There’s no one I’ve loved more than my grandmother. She was magic. She looked at you and showed you all of herself. She looked at you and made you feel like the most important person in the world. Now, lying in bed, I realized how hard a spirit is to capture. How - when someone dies, you can still feel them, see them, hear them, but what I can’t seem to remember is that she keeps being dead.

My grandmother was stubborn and impatient, she loved to laugh. She had the biggest smile. She was restless too, she could never sleep. Her hands – like ginger roots – were always busy making cookies or kneading dough for her famous biscuits. She worked all her life, taught her sons to be feminists, and poured me my very first drink. She was opinionated, feisty, and intensely loyal. She loved my grandfather with a kind of fervor I’ve yet to experience or even understand. At five, she caught me snooping through her bedroom. With confusion, I held up the prosthetic breast I had just discovered from the inside of a dresser drawer. Without shame, anger, or condescension, she held my little hand to her chest and explained to me what a mastectomy was. That’s the other thing about my grandma – she understood pain better than almost anyone I’ve ever known. She carried it with her, never letting her misfortunes perceived as weaknesses.

It’s been two years since her death. I was studying abroad in London and my friend Bubba and I were at a local pub, already a few beers in, when I got a phone call from my dad. I don’t know exactly why I chose to answer his call. He was with my grandma. He asked if I’d like to speak with her. I hurried outside into the cold London air. She barely spoke, in a voice frail and distant, but I could hear her breathing. I was suspended in that moment, my own voice becoming small and naïve like a child’s. I told her I loved her, again and again and that I missed her. And that was it. I went back inside and finished my beer, tried to insert myself back into the night. Two days later, she was gone.

Of course, this wasn’t my first experience with death yet is still feels new, and different. I can’t look at my dad without seeing her. I can’t step into our summer house on Skaha Lake without expecting her to walk through the kitchen or call out to me from the back porch. I have to keep reminding myself that she’s dead. I know that I’ll never be able to articulate loss with the same fluidity and finesse as writers like Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis. All I can do is try to wear my grief with the same kind of grace and truth that my grandma did, try to remember to love more, love better and look at people with tender eyes.