Grief and other losses

freddieIt’s been nearly a decade since somebody close to me passed away. Anyone who has endured loss knows it never fully goes away, but I still managed to forget how hard it is in the beginning, when thinking about anything else feels like major progress.

On Sunday, Ian and I drove up to Thousand Oaks to see Freddie, whom I mentioned in my last blog post. She was my 88-year-old childhood babysitter/adopted grandma, and on Monday morning, the very next day, she died. She’d been suffering from a host of problems forever: diabetes, COPD, heart failure, arthritis, etc. A little over a week ago, she decided to abandon the exhausting battle and let herself go. That meant entering Hospice, halting use of medication, and waiting for the body to completely shut down. It wasn’t an easy decision for her, but she was tired of being so uncomfortable all the time. She deserved better.

When we arrived on Sunday, she was much less responsive than five days prior. She had trouble stringing together coherent sentences, and it was unclear that her vision was still working. At first I was worried she didn’t even know I was there, but a comment she made towards the conclusion of my visit proved Freddie was more aware than I thought. When I said Freddie appreciated having her daughter Gerie present, Freddie looked right at me and mumbled, “Both of them.” That was her thing, to call all the ladies she loved her little girls. So she recognized me, even in her hazy last hours of life. I felt good that she knew I came up once again, and that she got a chance to see my boyfriend Ian.

Selfish or not, I truly believe she held out to meet Ian because she knew how important it was to me. Until the very end, she kept her word to me, so I shouldn’t feel this upset about having to say goodbye. She was there for me throughout my childhood and on her own deathbed, so why can’t I just be happy about the time we had and move forward?

Freddie and me, 1989
Freddie and me, 1989

I lost my dad at the very end of high school, and while that certainly threw me off for a couple years, I didn’t have this heavy cloud of sadness weighing down on me. Sure it was tragic, but I had college and one awesome last summer at home to look forward to. That and a rekindled relationship to distract me from the reality of losing a parent at 17. Adulthood brings fewer distractions. I once wrote that I was lucky to bury my dad as a kid, when adults expect you to be devastated and needy when it comes to death and dying. Now that I’m 26, it’s kind of like, “Well, you’re a grownup now, and she was pushing 90. Circle of life, man.” It isn’t that simple. This cuts deeper, and I forgot how intense and shocking the whole process is.

It’s both helpful and not-so-helpful that I also stopped working three days before getting the text that she was ready to “go home.” If I were busier, I’d probably push all the grief out of my mind and focus on work. Maybe that’s how it is for Freddie’s granddaughter, who’s in her first year of college and loving every second of it. But I also know downtime hits you that much harder when you’re swamped and running away from the pain. It’s impossible to know how I’d respond to all this when occupied. I’m alone all day, so I don’t have to restrain myself anytime I have to feel sad. I don’t need to keep it together for anyone yet. It’s either the perfect way to grieve or the absolute worst way to grieve. By the time my boyfriend returns from work every night, I’m even happier to see him than usual because I can finally verbalize my emotions rather than let them swim around in my head for hours upon hours. He’s been so great throughout this, and really, I couldn’t be more grateful that he got to meet Freddie, even though he never had the privilege of knowing the version of Freddie near and dear to my heart.

musso and franks 2Ian and I are so in sync with each other because we were raised by adoring figures. His parents always tell me how much he enjoyed being held as an infant. I was the same way, and when Freddie watched me, she cradled me for hours. Even after I’d fallen asleep on her lap or shoulder, she didn’t relocate me to the crib. She let me stay put because cuddling was my favorite thing, and she didn’t want to let me go. Though my parents were amazing as well, I remember rejecting them more than once as a toddler, crying inconsolably every time Freddie had to go home (sorry, mom!!!). To this day, Ian and I are big-time cuddlers who don’t want to part ways in the morning, and I chalk it up to Freddie, my parents, and his parents spoiling us with hugs all those years.

Perhaps the biggest struggle is saying farewell to one of the few grownups who never made me feel small or irreverent. Unlike various teachers, school administrators, and daycare supervisors, Freddie didn’t label me as a sour kid who refused to listen, attracted drama, and made myself a target for bullies. Freddie viewed me as a person who knew what she wanted (to be a writer) very early in life and sometimes let excitement of all kinds get the best of her. She said that my passion for writing was threatening to others, namely adults that still struggled to establish their identities and interests. Her true calling was to be there for the children she nannied, and mine, she said, was to write. I had to own it. I had to allow myself to be different, creative, and confident about what I could do.

Even when I actually did stir up trouble, Freddie didn’t act like it was the end of the world or that I’d become a monster. She understood that people, particularly young ones, can be multifaceted and complicated, and all she cared about was the bigger picture. One time in high school, I thought I’d be really cool and swear up a storm on the phone with her (not at her, of course!). While my mom and even my dad at times would think to punish me for spewing foul language, Freddie didn’t take the bait.

I couldn’t get a rise out of her if I tried. I could say whatever I wanted but none of it surprised or offended Freddie, who had 62 years on me and seen it all. She was a tough girl from Arkansas. Swearing here and there didn’t impress her, or make her think I’d turned into a wayward soul. I was probably just going through something that would pass.

And this too shall pass. A Christian from the South, Freddie would agree. It won’t fade anytime soon, especially as I keep dwelling on it, but soon enough my mind won’t constantly replay memories of her. I’ll be able to stop thinking about the time she and her late son George bought me Tommy’s Burgers and let me watch cartoons at their apartment, where I laughed harder than I’d ever laughed in my young life. I’ll box up the nostalgia and hilarious Freddie sayings (my all-time fave being “Y’all don’t kiss my ass for nothin’!”) for later and eventually reopen them with fondness, not sadness. I quickly learned it was OK to giggle about old times involving my dad. I’ll get there with Freddie someday.