I am not really quite sure how to address death. I don’t believe that it is something that you “get over” or ever forget. I think the loss of a loved one is something from which you must move forward. But when I imagine losing someone who is terribly close to me, continuing on still does not yet seem a possibility for me. Even though I know it is a necessary tool in order for each one of us to live our own lives, the thought is still too much for me to bear.
Twelve years ago on this very day, my mother’s father died. At the time, I was eleven and, although I am not very good at recalling childhood memories, that is a day that still sticks in my head, fresh as this morning’s cool air.
It was my first experience with death, and it was one that had a large impact on me. Now, as a first child, I was well aware of the responsibility that went with my position amongst my family. I was the eldest child, the one who was “expected” to step up to the plate, the child who had to take the brunt of her parents’ first experimentation with raising kids.
Don’t worry, mom and dad — I welcomed then and still do today all of the “baggage” that came with being your first kid. You did A-OK — just look at me now!
But the loss of my grandfather meant excess responsibility, and, with that, I gained a perspective of oldest sibling life that I may not have discovered otherwise.
After my mother’s father died, my dad’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died very quickly — he was gone by August 3, 1996. That whole summer became a fast blur, and before I knew it, I was moving through the motions of my life. I had not even totally stopped to mourn because I was too young to truly realize what was going on, and to busy being the oldest to stop and look around for a few moments.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to really cry. I now understand and embrace all of the things that I learned during that time in my life, and I would not have chosen it to turn out any other way.
Last year, I wrote an essay about the death of my two grandfathers, and in honor of my mother’s father, I would like to share it with you today. I hope you enjoy, and take something with you:
I don’t remember being 12 years old.
I mean there are bits and pieces. But there are more bits than pieces, and the bits are more like flashes of a dream rather than something I remember as a part of my life.
I remember that I was in sixth grade and English was my favorite subject.
I remember making a family tree for a class project.
I remember meeting my first best friend, Michelle.
But those are just bits.
Before the bits I remember Sunday, March 24, 1996.
I knew something was wrong as I walked halfway up the stairs leading to our living room and passed the phone from my hand to hers. It was the tone of my grandmother’s voice on the other end; the way the freckles stood out on my mother’s suddenly pale face.
It was one of those moments where the hurt hits you before you know why you’re hurting.
I remember just standing still on the steps. I remember leaning against the wall and gripping the banister, holding it tightly, prepared for the fall. My mom kept saying, “No, no, no.” Her face was in too much pain to feel the tears making their way down her cheeks.
Her voice started to echo. I felt like I was outside of my body watching her tell me that he was dead.
Her dad, my grandfather, was dead.
I don’t remember crying. I just remember going upstairs to sit with my two brothers and sister.
That spring and summer were where the bits came in. I do remember the big things. But those are the pieces.
My grandfather’s viewing. I wore a black dress with a silk ribbon that tied behind my back. When I stood at his casket, I touched his hand; it was so cold. I remember the smell of the flowers. I still walk quickly through flower aisles, so I do not breathe in the Stargazer Lilies. Their scent is strong. I remember thinking they smelled like Band Aids.
Taking a breather. My dad and I took a drive to go see his dad in a play. We rode in his green Triumph Spitfire with the top down. I had experimented with tanning lotion the night before, so my legs looked like they had been rubbed with Cheetos dust. When the play was over, I hugged my grandfather. I remember thinking his skin looked a bit yellow.
My dad’s father being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – he had three months to live. I took care of my three younger siblings, and had become a pro at making Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I tried every tactic possible to occupy my hyperactive, 3-year-old brother. One day, I looked out the window and saw that he had taken a shovel to the backyard. He was digging a hole to .
I remember going to an amusement park in August, only to hear my dad’s pager – he had lent it to me – beep half way through the day. Six weeks of battling cancer and my dad’s father was dying. I went home to be with my brothers and sister.
I had engaged in a crash course on responsibility, and didn’t even remember requesting to enroll.
I guess I always knew that my first child status would give me that inevitable second-mother-role anyway. But I don’t know if I ever thought it would be at this magnitude; this place where my brothers and sister looked to me for answers, and I felt it necessary to give them a proper response.
When I was in college, a journalism professor told my class that the best question to ask someone during an interview was: “What is the best or worst thing that has ever happened to you?”
He had us try the exercise. When my partner questioned me, I was sure I did not have an answer. But the words started to come out of me so quickly, I hardly realized what I was saying.
“Mine is a bit of both,” I said. I explained that my summer of loss had been one of the worst things that had ever happened to me.
“It was my first experience with death,” I said. “How could it not be?”
But these losses, I had figured out – perhaps, just in that very moment – had turned out to bring me one of the best things in my life:
Who I am today.
I do not feel resentment, but instead pride that my now 14-year-old brother requires me to be at soccer games and swim meets – his solution to impeding excess energy. If I cannot make it, he looks at me as if I am leaving him without parental supervision. And I look at him and feel that way, too.
I laugh when my mom tells my 12-year-old brother that he cannot have a cookie, so he asks me instead.
I tell him to chew fast and quietly.
I know my still college-engaged, 21-year-old sister is a great resonation of my influence. I am one of her most esteemed role models. And like a mother who continues to learn from her children, that feeling is reciprocated.
I did not choose for it to be so tough. Or so fast. Or so sad. But it happened that way; that is, the coming of age of Caroline Shannon.
And that’s where the bits and pieces come together.