“In the dark, picture me in your mind. And I’ll lay with you, so you don’t have to be scared at night.”
-Kathleen Edwards, “Scared at Night”
Nineteen years ago, on February 6, 1993, my paternal grandmother, Patricia Carey Burt, succumbed to pancreatic cancer. She was 71 years old. I was eight years old and in third grade at elementary school.
That night, my father came home late in the evening, just as he had been for some time now. He spent most nights after work visiting her in the hospital with his brother and sisters.
As he walked up the stairs in the frigid night, with only a bleak porch light guiding him, I saw him through the window and greeted him as normal. “Hi, Dad. How is Grandma?,” I remember asking, probably in between getting a snack and thinking about what TV program was on next.
His face looked grim but he said, “O.K.” and walked to the bathroom.
I went downstairs to join my brothers and twin sister, who were watching TV. A few moments later, dad came down to talk to us.
“Your Grandmother died today,” he said solemnly. I am sure he added something more eloquent and profound, probably telling us she died peacefully and was in a better place now, but I can’t remember his exact words.
My siblings and I were all of course sad. This was the first time we experienced the pain of losing a family member, and our Grandmother was always so energetic and loved being surrounded by family. Like many grandmothers around the world, she loved her children and grandchildren more than anything in the world.
“So, Grandma died…” I said to my brother, Kevin, a few hours after my father broke the news. He was 2 ½ years older, so I looked to him for some sort of reaction. But we played video games and didn’t talk about it much.
I don’t remember crying that night, but I felt strange, as if some sort of energy in the universe had been altered.
Of course, though, I was eight years old and couldn’t process my feelings the same way as I do now. I most likely hugged my teddy bear and fell asleep peacefully.
Sometime before her funeral, I wrote a small letter to her and placed it in a frame behind my favorite picture of her. In the picture, we are celebrating her birthday, and she is surrounded by her grandchildren and homemade pie.
To this day, when I think of her, I remember that night, especially her soft cheeks as I gave her a kiss, her warm fur coat I always wrapped my arms around, and the smile she gave everyone who visited her.
Her smile was one Hollywood stars dream of on Oscar night – glowing and perfectly natural, as if no muscle was ever forced to make such an infectious facial gesture.
It never occurred to me that she had a difficult life, losing her mother at an early age, and losing her first husband, my dad’s biological father, in WWII. All of these tragedies happened in her teens or early 20s, an age now many women associate with self-discovery and career decisions, not finding yourself suddenly alone with a child to raise. But even with these pressures, she persevered and never gave up on life or her family.
She met and married a very kind and stoic man, a Navy veteran, who raised my father and with whom she had three more children. They were simply Grandma and Grandpa to me throughout both of their lives. They lived in a comfortable house in a suburb of Chicago and worked hard to provide for their family.
Although I did not know her intellectually, I knew my Grandma loved all of her grandchildren equally, and she was always content just to see us, never asking for anything in return. It is not until my adult life that I have started to think of her as an individual who suffered through so much but still found ways to enjoy life. My dad often reminds me how much my Grandmother would have loved talking to me as an adult, probably about my travels or the latest books I am reading. She probably would have been apprehensive about my decision to move to Japan and teach English for two years, but I like to think that she also would have eventually embraced my decision, eagerly awaiting postcards and listening to my stories about the culture.
Although I unfortunately don’t think of my late Grandmother as much as I would like to admit, there are strange ways I still feel a connection to her.
These past two weeks have been incredibly stressful on me, much like my last February in Japan. I love my life here, but winters don’t seem to agree with me. I spent last week worrying about my re-contracting decision and an appointment I had at a Tokyo hospital for some tests. As a result, I had a series of sleepless nights where my head felt like a giant inflamed balloon. If I rested it on my pillow, it only felt like concrete.
Finally, one night around February 6th, I managed to fall asleep somewhat quickly. That night, I had a vivid dream where my Grandmother appeared to me. I was surprised to see her at a family event at my parent’s house. It was summer and everyone was relaxing outside.
“Grandma, you’re here,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her she had died. I stood motionless but she just kept smiling.
“Yes, I’m here Sheila,” she said.
A few days later, my twin sister Brigid, who wrote very eloquently about our Grandmother’s first love for a high school essay, reminded me it was the anniversary of her death.
I had completely forgotten.
As soon as I got off the phone with my sister, alone in my Japanese apartment and an ocean away from Chicago, I thought for a moment of her life and what she would be like if she were still around. I smiled at the blank wall.
I hope my Grandmother saw it.