Holding On And Letting Go

Being an expat makes losing loved ones complicated. You can't always have the traditional closure you seek so you need to find peace in other ways.

Three years ago right before Easter, I booked a flight to go home and say goodbye to my Grandmother who was dying. The night before I was scheduled to leave, she made a miraculous recovery.

I cancelled the flight for a full refund and made it a point to visit the US for thanksgiving. I considered it a great gift to be able to see her ‘one last time.’ We had turkey, I took her shoe shopping, I asked her about her life and she told me about the farm where she grew up.
The visit conjured up a million more questions about her life. There was so much I needed to know and not enough time, especially because we lived on different continents.
A year later, right before Christmas she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. A death sentence. I felt like I was losing her all over again and it physically hurt. Turns out it was a misdiagnosis, she indeed had cancer but a much less aggressive form. The pain for our family was tangible as it felt like we lost her twice...but then we got two more chances to appreciate her.

The following Christmas my Grandmother gave me the most valuable gift I had ever received. She knew about my interest in her history so she gave me a handwritten memory journal. It's super retro-looking so she must have had it for ages. The little album has questions about her childhood, teen years, marriage and children. In her true matter-of-fact style, she does not wax-on emotionally but answers simply, sometimes with one or two words in her secret (barely legible) handwriting.

When I start missing her now, I open the little book and it reminds me of how down to Earth she was. She would probably tell me to cheer up- that death is part of life, that she was lonely, ready to go, and that I should just get on with it. Oh and to pray. She definitely would definitely tell me to pray.

One question that struck a chord with me was "What fads do you remember best?"- and she writes that in the 1940's they wore rolled up jeans and men’s white tee shirts. How cool is that? I love the rebelliousness and the androgynous confidence such an outfit embodies. As a way to reconnect with her I’m going to rock this simple look with the bright red lipstick she wore when she was young.

Doing my best to channel her strength

After she died I mourned all the conversations we would never have, especially about parenting because I'm so new to the game. Then I found this letter she wrote me years ago- right before I married Matt, when my Mom was having trouble coming to terms with me permanently living in Australia.

My grandmother said “give your Mom some slack, she misses you and knows she won’t see much of you or the grandchildren. She will accept whatever makes you happy. We, Moms, think we know that is best for our children but we are not always right.”

Words of wisdom
Now that I'm a mother myself I see her point from an entirely different perspective. A little snippet of the parenting advice I craved just sitting around in my nightstand for me to discover at just the right time (I had been using the letter as a bookmark.)
The last time I saw my grandmother, one year ago at Easter, she had gone downhill. Our visit was cut short due to her poor health but I was able to snap the only two photos  I have of my-sweet-Lavinia in her great-grandmother’s arms.

On my trip to Tasmania in January, I found a vintage spoon with the Sydney Opera House on it. My Gram had a souvenir spoon collection of her travels so I bought this one for her. I remember talking to the postal worker (he thought spoons were an odd thing to collect) and we chuckled about how the postage costed more than the spoon itself. Amidst our chatter and corralling my toddler, I almost forgot to include the little handwritten post-it note I wrote to include in her package.

My Grandmother's collection

That little post-it note would become my last words to my grandmother. Had I only known when I wrote it, I would have penned her a novel, told her how much I loved her and how she was one of my strongest role models growing up. I would have promised to tell my daughter where she gets her hands and eyebrows from, how her Great-Gram was a pillar of the community being an elected official and working mother in the 1950s, how she was funny and beautiful without realizing it.

She took a turn for the worse in late February and again I found myself willing her to hang on for just one last time. Unfortunately my 'just one last time's' were all used up.

My grandmother died in March and it was killing me that I couldn't remember when we had last spoken or what we talked about specifically.
I was beside myself because I didn't know if my Grandmother received the gift I sent her before she went into the hospital for the last time. Eventually, my Mom sent me this photo:

She found the spoon and my note next to my grandmother's favorite chair. Gram would have seen it just a few days before she passed away. I would go out on a limb and say that this would count as our last conversation, as one-sided as it may seem. But she knew I was thinking of her and I was able to have my 'one last time.'

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16 comments on “Holding On And Letting Go”

  1. Oh Dawn, this is so beautiful. It has me remembering how much I didn't get to talk to my nanna about, the things we had in common that I didn't know until she died.
    I'm so sorry your Mamie is gone but admire the beautiful way that you honour her.

  2. Thank you Lila and what a lovely thing to say. I try not to have too many regrets and I feel good knowing how much time I spent with her growing up but it's still hard thinking about the last five years and how little I saw her. She will always be with me. <3

  3. So many beautiful one last times, Dawn. There's no such thing as ever having enough time to say it all. How precious to have that memory book!

  4. Thank you Rachael, I'm going to make copies of the book for all my cousins. It really is a precious idea. I bought my own Mother one so she can fill it in and give to my daughter someday...makes a fantastic Mother's Day gift.

  5. Dawn what a moving and beautiful post. Reading about your experience and your relationship with your Mamie brought memories and feelings and tears. I had an experience where I missed out on seeing my Grandad by two days, I had booked the flight well in advance, but he was in his late 90's and his last day came two days too early for me. It made it so much harder to say good bye. We never know when the last words or moments will be and that is just the way it is, but then we do have the memories of the words and moments. Thanks for sharing, your words have brought all of my Grandparents a little bit closer to me today. Emilyxx

  6. Oh my. Dawn, this was such a moving post - it made me teary! I can definitely understand the desperation for grandparents to hold on and to have those conversations. I only have my grandpa left on my mother's side and he is very dear to me. He's 91 and very stubborn! But I've found myself often worrying about not seeing him often enough and not asking all the questions I want to ask him.

    That book though - what a treasure! How sweet of your grandmother to give it to you. And that photo of her with your daughter is the perfect shot. Beautiful post, Dawn - I'm sure she would be very proud x

  7. Emily, I can't believe you missed out by only two days! Life is so odd that way at times. The only thing that gives me solace is trying to take some sort of lesson away from it. Sometimes maybe there is no lesson, only crappy timing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and words with me. It makes me feel wonderful that you feel like you want to hold your Grandparents a little closer after reading my post, and it makes the slight awkwardness of sharing something so personal completely worthwhile. xoxo

  8. 91 what a legend! I think at the end of the day it will never really be 'enough.' Especially as we get older and busier with life and our own families. I'm sure you cherish the memories you have of your Grandpa growing up. But maybe take some time to write down a few questions to ask him and see if you can get him talking. You never know what could come out! My Gram ended up telling me a few things that my Mother didn't even know about.

    I felt so honored to have been gifted that book. It definitely needs to be shared so I'm working on getting copies made for the rest of the grandkids (and I certainly hope none of them are offended, I think she gave it to me because I am so far away.) What a treasure. xxoo

  9. Dawn, this is so beautiful, so filled with emotion and closeness and specialness. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story. Much love to you in this difficult time as you navigate life without her. xx

  10. Thank you so much for your lovely words of support Sarah. I'm really lucky to be feeling the love from so many places right now. xoxo

  11. I'm so happy my feelings translated to the page (screen). I was working and reworking it until I could barely feel them anymore. I cried writing the first draft, it's been cathartic and the support I've received since posting is giving me the warm and fuzzies. Thank you xoxoxo

  12. That totally counts as a conversation. My husband's mother passed away 2 years ago. The evening of her fall which lead to a quick decline my mother in law took our then 4 year old out to visit. The three generations had a beautiful time together and I know my daughter cherishes this. I get a little sad that Nanny didn't ever meet our youngest, but as our daughter says, Nanny is all around us. X

  13. What a wonderful woman she must have been, and how special the love between you seems. Thank you for sharing this, it must have been difficult. Very, very precious. x

  14. How beautiful, "Nanny is all around us," what an incredibly pure insight from your daughter. I told my Mom yesterday how a few days after my Grandmother passed, my daughter woke up looking around the room saying "Nana, Mamie, Nana, Mamie (She only met Mamie once when she was six months old)," so I think my Gram came all the way to Australia to say goodbye to us. My Mom told me that children are more in tune with the spiritual world because they just came from there. I believe that with my whole heart. xoxo

  15. Thank you so much Naomi. My Grandmother and I did have a special, inexpiable bond. This post was hard to write but also incredibly helpful for me to put my thoughts down- and I think it helped me heal in a way. I was a little nervous sharing it but so, so, glad I did. Everyone's comments and support have been uplifting at the perfect time. Mother's Day will be bittersweet. xoxo

let's hang on the 'gram
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