My father passed away recently, unexpectedly. I've been thinking a lot about the importance of goodbyes, both in life and after a loved one has died. I think we, as humans, need to know that we have conveyed our respect and goodwill when parting. The need is especially strong after a loved one has passed, and even more so when there wasn't a significant or adequate goodbye beforehand. I'm no psychologist, so I can't begin to explain exactly why we need this. I suspect it has something to do with accepting the major change that has occurred, allowing ourselves to acknowledge the blessings of a shared life despite the grief of loss, and giving ourselves permission to carry on with a life that can, indeed must, involve some joys. And, of course, it has everything to do with recognizing and honoring strong bonds between people.
The tricky part of this is the how -- while I have come to believe that the goodbye is very important for all of us, it is also clear to me that our needs as to the type and form of goodbye are extremely different. Some people want to say goodbye in a church, where ritual and tradition run deep. Some want to say goodbye in the company of others who also loved, admired, cared for the one who has passed. Some want to say goodbye out in nature, where the air is fresh and the sounds pure. Some want to say goodbye privately, where they cannot be seen or heard. I'm not sure how we can know what our needs are at such a difficult time, but I do know that it's an important question to ask ourselves.
Because I've been thinking about goodbyes, I want to share a story that I wrote many years ago. My sweet aunt reminded me about this story at my dad's memorial service. I hunted high and low for weeks and finally found it.
My Grammie was my father’s mother. She taught me that freckles are angel kisses and red hair is beautiful. She bought me Easter dresses, took me to the zoo, sought out the city's finest chalupas for our dinners out, and let me sleep in her bed when I was young. She cooked delicious meals of squash casserole, fried okra, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese. She sneaked me Cokes when my dad wasn’t around, and she never told him that I liked them. More importantly, though, as I got older and began to visit her when no other family was around, she became my friend. We talked for hours about life, love, politics, religion, and family. I got to know my Grammie as a person, as a woman who had experienced heartbreak and loss, who had learned self-reliance and perseverance, who loved life. This is my Grammie and me at her 80th birthday party, right after the mariachis serenaded her:
My Grammie was proud and strong-willed, feisty, opinionated. She had to be – she lost her husband (my grandfather) when she was a young woman, and she was left to raise four children on her own. She worked as a secretary at an army hospital, assisting hard-to-please generals. My Grammie was an old-school secretary who typed 90+ words per minute on outdated, clunky typewriters and took authentic shorthand. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that my Grammie was very much in charge behind the scenes, but she let her bosses believe that they were calling the shots. Until she retired years after she hit 65, she wore pantyhose, heels, and business suits to work everyday. She wore bright colors and big clip-on earrings. Why bother with neutral colors and boring work clothes, she thought, when you can wear clothes that announce, “I am here.” So she chose to wear gold pumps and emerald green suits, bangle bracelets, and necklaces that couldn’t be missed. It wasn’t everybody’s taste, but she looked put-together and proud, and she was noticed when she walked into a room.
There’s so much to say about my Grammie, but the point I want to emphasize is that she made the most of every day and every situation, and she lived without regrets. I realize this about her more and more as I get older and face my own life struggles. My Grammie loved to laugh. She enjoyed sports and could recite statistics for most of the players of the local NBA team. She organized groups to go to dinner and the theater. After she retired, she took classes at the local college. She didn’t mess around either; she took tai chi, Shakespearean literature, art appreciation, and classes about writing an autobiography. She continued learning and growing, experiencing new things, as long as it was possible.
In early 2001, my Grammie began to slow down. Her heart was weak, and she was not getting around as well as before. This troubled her greatly because she was one to do and go and see, not one to sit and watch. There were many doctors and many medications, but her health was deteriorating. Though in increasing pain, she remained stubborn and fought for the life that she loved. I saw her around May or June of that year, and she was a shadow of the woman I had come to know as my friend. She was pale and thin, she lacked strength in her body and her voice. But, in true Grammie style, she wore bright red that said loudly, “I am here.” We talked about many things that day, including a trip to Europe (my first trip abroad!), that my boyfriend and I had planned for July. I think she was as excited about the trip as I was, and she encouraged me to enjoy every moment of that experience. Before I left her house, my Grammie told me that she loved me, that she was immensely proud of me, and that she knew I was happy. She said that I would marry that boy who was taking me to Europe (she was right, I did!). She told me that she had lived a full and rich life, and she wanted me to know that she had no regrets at all.
As planned, I traveled to Europe that July with the boyfriend, who is now my husband. After a short stop in London, we flew to Trieste, Italy and took a bus to Slovenia. On our second or third day in Slovenia, we walked up the coast of the Adriatic Sea to Piran, a tiny fishing village with narrow cobblestone streets, ancient walls around the city, Venetian architecture, and Mediterranean charm. We were drawn to the Church of St. George, whose bell tower stands guard over all the rooftops of Piran. On the way up the hill to the church, in a little alley of a street, we stopped to photograph this above the door to a home:
I knew at that moment that our trip to the Church of St. George would be special and meaningful. The outside of the church is plain and unadorned, boring even:
But the inside, while cozy and simple, contains an exquisite combination of Renaissance and Baroque artwork in vibrant colors:
Photo courtesy of Sailing Choices.
As I studied the paintings, I thought of my Grammie and how much she would love that church. Although I have never been a very religious person, I lit a candle for her at the altar and said a prayer thanking God for my Grammie and all that she gave to those around her, and I asked Him to take away her pain. After we left the church, and all that day, my mind kept returning to my Grammie and her fight against a weakening body.
From Slovenia, we traveled north to Austria. We found a wonderful little inn in Salzburg called Hotel am Dom, which was steps from the Residenzplatz in the center of the Old City. From the inn, we could see twin green domes of the Salzburg Cathedral, or “der Dom.”
We went into the church, with its intricately carved columns and carefully painted archways. Where the Slovenia church was intimate and warm, this church was grand and ornate, a magnificent and impressive example of Baroque architecture. Mozart was baptized at that cathedral and played organ there for two years.
As I looked around the Salzburg Cathedral, my heart grew heavy with thoughts of my Grammie. I lit a candle and prayed for her. It was a vague prayer asking God to watch over her, to take care of her and make sure that she was okay. After wiping away a few tears, I sat under the main dome of the cathedral and looked up. This is what I saw:
What does not appear in this photo are the gorgeous paintings and windows that line the inside of the dome. But at that moment, as I sat there thinking about my Grammie, all I saw was the dove at the top of the dome. The dove of the Holy Spirit. It took my breath away. I meditated on that dove for a good long while before moving on to explore other parts of Salzburg and later Munich.
The day we returned Europe, my father called to tell me that my Grammie had passed away while we were gone. Although I knew when I left that there was a possibility that could happen, nobody thought that her health would deteriorate so quickly. Once I got over the initial shock, I asked my father for details. I learned that she died the day that I visited the colorful little church in Slovenia, the day that I asked God to take away her pain. She was buried on the day that I visited the Salzburg Cathedral, the day that I sat entranced by the dove of the Holy Spirit who rose in a beautiful golden display at the top of the dome, the day that I asked God to take care of my Grammie and watch over her.
In her last days, as her health was failing, my Grammie made certain wishes known to the family. She wanted a simple funeral without much ceremony, she wanted family to be together, and she wanted me to play Amazing Grace on my flute. I wasn’t there to fulfill her wish, and I cried countless tears about it for years.
I miss my Grammie. I miss our talks and her stories. I miss the way her sheets and towels smelled, and I miss her perfume. I miss her big hugs. I even miss her sharp little comments about how I should do something different with my hair. I cried at my wedding when an aunt told me that my Grammie was there with me and again when a cousin gave me one of my Grammie's bangle bracelets. I still cry when I think about the fact that she was not able to see me marry the man she somehow knew I would marry.
Three years after she passed, my husband and I went to visit my Grammie’s grave. Although I knew exactly how to get to the cemetery, I previously had not been able to face her headstone and the guilt I felt for not being with the family when she was buried. I guess I grieved and mourned in my own ways, which did not involve a cemetery. But, years later, I was hit hard with an undeniable desire to visit.
So, years after lighting a candle in Slovenia and watching a dove rise in Austria, I finally played Amazing Grace for my grandmother.
I fought tears and played a pitiful sounding first verse. After a deep breath and a pause, I took it up an octave and played the second verse loudly and with gusto. I played it for my Grammie, for her bright colors and gold shoes, for her "I am here" spirit.
That was the goodbye I needed. As I look back now, I realize that I was also playing for me, so that I could let go of the guilt. So that I could heal.