Rest in Peace, Grandma

My grandma died at around 3 a.m. on July 3rd. (She was my last living grandparent. That’s a new feeling.) She reportedly went peacefully in her sleep. She had been in the hospital with pneumonia and fluid around her heart, but it seemed like she’d be okay–from what I understand there were even talks that she’d be going home within the next couple of days. Then–just like that–she was just gone.

I was off work that day and slept in. I woke up to the message on my cell phone from my uncle. Or rather I eventually noticed that I had a message. Unfortunately my phone doesn’t really grab my attention with a flashing, neon, “someone died” light or anything. So I was late in finding out. Very Derek. So a few phone calls later and I was alone in my house just thinking about it for a while.

I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts on what to say about Grandma. My uncle was kind enough to ask if any of the grandkids wanted to say a few words at her funeral and at first I thought I would, but when I started trying to write something it just felt self-indulgent and not in tone with what I would WANT to say at her funeral, so I declined. It’s almost midnight after the wake with the funeral to come at 11a.m. and I’m just now typing this, so I feel like that decision is valid…but if anyone sees this prior to the funeral and insists I could be tempted to read it, for the record.

…but basically I didn’t think a room full of my relatives needed to hear me say, “she was right–I should’ve called more.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. But yeah, it’s in my nature to think back on how I could’ve called or visited more. At the same time, Grandma didn’t call me that often either–I think she thought I live a busier life than I do–but that’s a two way street and I know I tend to just kinda park once I get home from work. Still, every time I looked at the caller ID and it was Grandma calling, I did pick up. I don’t pick up for everybody.

This is already too self-judgemental. See why I didn’t want to do this in the room?

I have good memories of Grandma. I have some that make me sad and regret stuff too (those are my default settings!), but I have a majority of good ones. Grandma was kind. That’s such a small word for a big thing, but it’s a good one. That’s who she was.

When my mom died in 1994, I remember how hard it hit Grandma to lose her daughter. I remember someone having to bring her a chair during the wake while she fell apart and her legs grew weak upon the initial viewing. That’s a sad memory, but it’s an important one…because I also remember how freely and generously Grandma welcomed Susan into our family as Dad’s significant other in 1995. It was never an issue or a problem. There was never any standoffishness. Dad had found someone new that he loved and Grandma welcomed her. She told me once that she was glad Dad moved on because after her husband (Mel Herweck) had died she kind of didn’t and it took her a long time to start having fun again. So she was glad Dad had friends and a girlfriend because she knew what it was like to feel alone. I don’t know if I’ve ever told Dad that. But that was Grandma. She was happy to see Dad happy. Because that’s who she was.

And I remember how excited Grandma has been at every wedding for her grandkids. She was all about spending time with family and loved seeing it increase. The grandkids’ husbands and wives were new grandkids to her. Because at her core, she was happy that we’re happy…that’s who she was.

In hand with that, I remember how for years almost every time I talked to her, Grandma would ask me when I was going to find a nice girl and settle down. I’m not sure what kind of lifestyle she thought I led… Usually my weekends consist of sitting quietly and reading until it’s time to go to work again. There’s not much more “settled down” that I can get. But that’s the phrase she always used. I had a variety of answers. In better times, “well I’m working on it” and in worse, “well I’m pretty settled” would be go-to replies. It took me a long time to realize that she wasn’t being a busy-body or pressuring me. She just wanted me to be happy. That’s who she was. (For what it’s worth, now that I’m 40… Grandma, I’m working on it…but I’m pretty settled.)

Grandma did know that the great love of my life has been music, though. And she made it a habit to ask me about that too. Are you still playing your guitar? Do you still play at church? Do you have any gigs coming up? (Although she always called them “digs.” She misheard the word and went with it…much like she always called K-Mart “K-Mark.”) Grandma was unfamiliar with my songwriting–thank GOD!–but she knew I loved doing it and would ask about it because she knew I found joy it in. She took joy from hearing about the things that gave YOU joy. That’s…who she was.

I have a memory of Grandma that I’m not sure is true. I ran this story by a couple of the cousins and my brother earlier and none of them remembered it…but I think I’m right. Grandma went to Arkansas to visit family a lot. There’s a family farm that kind of connects everybody and it’s typical for there to be a bed there waiting for any family member who needed it. In years gone by, Grandma went there a lot and often on her own. On one such trip her car broke down and she needed to get back home so she caught a ride with a truck driver–and the reason I’m so sure that’s true is because I specifically remember it being a Prime truck (they’re a specific delivery company for those who don’t know). After getting home she later was riding in a car with one of her brothers and every time they passed a Prime truck on the road, he locked the car doors to make sure Grandma wouldn’t get out and hitch a ride, as a joke. Years later, I now work in commercial trucking insurance and Prime trucks come up a lot in conversation. Every time they do I briefly think, “better lock the doors so Grandma doesn’t hitch a ride!”

Grandma, for all of her proper Southern Baptist-ness, was a free spirit when it came to traveling. She took a lot of trips and had a good time. My cousin Cory was out of town when she died and cut a trip with his new wife short to come back and he commented that he knew if it was up to her she’d want him to keep traveling. And he’s right. Because that’s (say it with me) who she was.

I last talked to Grandma two weeks ago. My birthday was May 29th and she sent me a card with a check in it for $25, but a mail SNAFU meant that it didn’t reach my house until a couple weeks later. It arrived and I called to let her know. (Of course, being Derek I called two days after I should have.) She seemed in good spirits. She was glad I got the check and wished me a happy birthday again even though we’d already talked closer to the date. She knew, of course, that I’m 40 and it wasn’t necessary to send me a check at this point…but she wanted to. She wanted to make sure I had a little extra pocket money to spend on something fun. She wanted me to enjoy my birthday. That’s who she was.

In that last conversation I am very proud of the fact that I said “I love you” quickly enough that she didn’t get the chance to say it first. I think you should always make it a race to say “I love you” to somebody. I won that one. I didn’t call enough–I know I didn’t. But I hope the “I love yous” always felt real. She didn’t know it…but I think I have the last 10 years of birthday cards she sent. (But I cashed and spent the checks.)

There are a dozen other things I want to talk about and a dozen other memories coming to mind. One of the things that knocked me over earlier this week was the realization that I’m never going to have another piece of her banana nut cake. That’s my favorite cake. At all or at least most of the family gatherings when she knew I would be there, Grandma made SURE I would get a piece of MY banana nut cake. Because that’s who she was. And that’s not going to happen again. And no…you don’t know how she made it. You don’t have the recipe. You aren’t sure you know a great recipe that will remind me of Grandma any time I eat it. And even if you do…respectfully, I don’t want it. I want my Grandma’s banana nut cake.

And that’s okay.

I know she’d want me to have the recipe–that’s who she was–but sometimes losing something means more than having it.

So…

I guess if I have any message I’d like you to take with you from this post it’s this. Be kind, be accepting, be generous, take pleasure in the pleasure of others…

And enjoy every slice of cake.

Make that who you are. I’ll try to, too.

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