My second year of college my grandmother, who was a widow for several years by that point, was diagnosed with dementia and hallucinations. My grandmother and I never really understood each other, but I loved her. She loved me the best way she knew how. Her husband was Kirk. If you read this blog regularly: you know that man understood me and vice versa in a way most people never will. We were closer than close. I LOVE him like crazy and miss him all the time.
Grandma Kate witnessed our relationship, and my guess is it hurt her to see. Grandma tried to bond with me, but it was difficult because she wasn’t open with her feelings or relaxed. She spent most of my life with her searching for happiness and fulfillment, I think. Her happiness was right in front of her: her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and me. She and Kirk worked to give dad a good life, and he worked to give mama and I a better one.
When grandma was diagnosed it was because she was terrified. She was certain her next door neighbor was breaking into her house. No matter what we said to her to calm her down and assure her that was not the case: it didn’t matter. Her doctor put her on medication to try and help. In addition: he suggested she move in with us.
Those three days she tried were nothing short of a disaster for all of us. Mama had to teach me to lock my door for the first time, so she didn’t barge in during showers or doing homework when she had a hallucination that terrified her. She couldn’t adjust to our schedule or vice versa. She went home after three days. She demanded it. Grandma Kate was very short. She passed her height to me, but I’m taller. Her stature should fool no one. She was feisty, stubborn, and determined to do everything her way.
The second night of the four she stayed with us: I was doing homework to the radio when “Fallen” by Sarah McLachlan came on. The DJ said it was her new single. Obviously, I knew who she was but had been a casual fan to that point. When Fallen came on: I went from causal to big fan in about 30 seconds. The lyrics were like she was crawling inside my head and brought out my grief about watching grandma struggle and deteriorate. I started balling a minute in. Once I started: I couldn’t stop. Behind my closed, locked door: I had been given permission to feel my pain and grief. It was comforting and profound.
It was the first time I’d dealt with grief as an adult. It felt like I was alone. These were the pre-social media and everyone having cell phone days. I had no way to reach out to the friends who became my family except the occasional e-mail. I didn’t know how to process my feelings, so I stayed silent. I didn’t reach out. Instead I prayed, wrote in my journal, and sang. The day the Afterglow album came out: I purchased a copy. Those were the days people actually bought CDs. Seems quaint, now, doesn’t it? That album became my soundtrack for dealing with grandma’s condition. It is a glorious, beautiful, album. If you haven’t heard it: do yourself a favor and do so ASAP.
A few weeks after grandma went back to her house we had to move her into an assisted living faculty. That required selling the house she and granddad had lived in for decades. It was bittersweet, but the only right decision. She would feel safe, be looked after, and still able to have independence. For several months: she did great there. Then she had to have surgery for a blood clot in her leg. The anesthesia made her symptoms worse and she needed to go to a rehab faculty after to get stronger as well. She never went back to her assisted living. She chose not to eat and do her rehab. We begged, we pleaded, and bought her anything that sounded good to her to eat. Grandma Kate was determined to go be with Kirk, though. I told y’all she was stubborn.
During that crazy, hard, summer: I bought all of Sarah’s back catalog. The rest of her albums were as cathartic as Afterglow. When I found out her tour included a stop in Atlanta: I immediately purchased a ticket. The show fell on grandma’s birthday. We celebrated with her early in the day and then I went to the show. Y’all that show was better than anything else I could have done for myself at the time: I was able to just be a typical college student, finished with summer classes, and just be present in that arena letting go for a few hours. It was perfect.
Grandma continued to get worse in the next few weeks after the show: I was the one to tell the staff I thought she was going. Mama was in the room with her. She asked me to get help. I remember them just standing there looking at me as if they didn’t care what I had just uttered. I remember screaming and crying at their lack of movement: I screamed at them some more. They finally got a clue. I went back in her room with someone to give her something to ease her pain. I remember just holding her hand and telling her all the things I wanted her to know. I told her I loved her very much and I got it. I understood. I didn’t feel angry, or hurt. I wasn’t mad. She needed to do things her way: a very Kate way to transition to Heaven…stubborn to the very end.
She always loved to hear me sing and often asked me to sing for her hair clients…even when I was embarrassed to do so. It was her way of telling me she was proud of me. I know that now. She also used to brag how smart I was to anybody she could. Also her way of expressing pride in me that she couldn’t say to me.
I started singing Sarah’s song Angel as I held her hand. I sang it over and over. I hoped she could hear me and be comforted. It comforted me. A few hours later: mama, dad, and I were in her room: she opened her eyes and clearly said my great aunt’s name. My great aunt had been in Heaven for years by that point. I never knew her. Grandma and my great aunt had a falling out several years before she transitioned to Heaven. I think Grandma saw her in Heaven and was asking for forgiveness. I wonder what or who else she saw. It was a remarkable, miracle, chill bump, inducing, moment to witness. It was a gift.
It was heavy moment that scared me a bit. I had never watched anyone take their last breath. I wasn’t sure I could, now. It was the last word she said. Mama told me to take a breather. I did. I came back and kept singing to her. Hours later we went home with her still fighting her transition. Typical Grandma Kate stubbornness, on display, pure and simple. Mama went back to stay with her.
Early morning August 2nd she went. My heart hurt, but I knew she was at peace with her husband of over fifty years. Who could be angry at that? No one, most especially not me; I missed him, too. It was wonderful to know she wasn’t in pain anymore. I laughed at the image of Kirk fishing in Heaven and trying to get her to eat what he caught. She HATED fish, and he loved it. He was never allowed to cook it where she could smell it. He teased her about it, often.
In the days and weeks after her funeral: Sarah’s music, and the music of my other favorite artists, helped me process my grief. Music was my therapist and medicine. It still is. It always will be. I’m eternally grateful to Sarah for sharing her musical talent and ability with the world. Her music helped me through one of the hardest times of my life. Her music still helps me through tough stuff. It’s such a joy and pleasure to listen to.