More than twenty years ago, and more than ten years after the fact, I wrote about the death of my grandfather, Shirley Francis Pyles. It was written at a time when his wife, my Grandma Mary still lived and I was far from being a grandmother myself. As I look back, I realize I have for some years lived longer without Grandpa than with him. It is a startling revelation. For some time, a family is gathered around the bed of their dying mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Edna Mae. Ministering to them and coming across what I wrote back then makes me think on my own times of loss, of family gathered around a bedside.
When Shirley Died
How well I still remember Grandpa’s dying, much more than his funeral. What a time. Grandpa died slowly and held on to each struggling breath even at the last. I know because I was there. We all were: a family sleeping in hospital chairs, I on the floor outside his room.
Looking back, I’m not even sure why I was there; but at the time, I knew it was important. Not to Grandpa – he was asleep. That’s how I think of it, anyway. But to Grandma and my dad, there was no question of where I would be, so there I was.
How startled I was at his funeral. The casket was open. The service was comforting to some, not to others, as those things always seem to go. But at the end, it suddenly occurred to me as I saw the men from the funeral home striding up the church aisle, that the casket lid would be closed on Grandpa as we sat there and watched.
Up to that moment in my life, I thought I was strong. In that instant as the lid came down, however, I wanted to scream, to run, to cry out, "No!" But I was Grandma’s girl. I said nothing, did nothing, allowing only the pressure of my fingertips in Mom’s arm to give me away – our little secret.
Whether time brings wisdom or not, I do not know. But I do know that I can look back and understand that Grandma needed to see the lid close, needed the finality of that good-bye. The more I think on it, the more I think we all need such simple and final good-byes in our lives.
Every time I leave Grandma’s house, she stands at the porch, the inevitable dish rag in hand, and waves good-bye. Even after she’s gone, that’s how I will always see her. And as I watch the next generation grow, I picture myself as somebody’s grandma. I wonder if my granddaughter will pause and watch me standing on the porch and waving goodbye.*
*I have become the grandmother I imagined I would someday be. It is a grandson, beautiful Rowen, who sees me waving now and I wonder if somehow, he sees the shadow behind me of my grandmother waving us all on. I know I do.