It wasn’t my grandmother’s passing that traumatized me, but rather the reactions to her passing by the rest of my family. I had fully expected my grandfather to come and kneel gently beside me when he came through that door and I had absolutely no context for understanding his reaction. It started out serene enough, with him inhaling the aroma of the bread and donning a very familiar expression of peaceful bliss, but chaos quickly ensued. To my horror, his familiar expression was instantly transformed to a very alien expression of terror as he quickly surmised the absence of life in Grandma. He howled the pathetic howl of a grief stricken old man. He fell to his knees, and then onto his face at her feet. He reached as far as he could to put a shaking hand on her knee and he sobbed and wailed in tones that sent shivers down my spine. For the first time in my life I was truly terrified.
As best as I can reason, that fear resulted in large portions of my memory of the following days being blocked out. I have no idea when my mother, aunts and uncles arrived, but I do remember them wailing in every room of the house. They didn’t bring any of my cousins to the house on the first day and so I was alone with the adults and their behavior continued to bombard me with confusion and fear. They kept telling me over and over that Grandma was “in Heaven now” and that I shouldn’t be sad or scared. They kept repeating the same words through choked sobs as they tried to steady me with their own shaking hands. I don’t think anything could have frightened me more than frightened adults telling me not to be frightened.
I never thought for a moment about heaven as my grandmother slipped away, but I guess I also didn’t realize that I would never see her again either. As each aunt and uncle choked back their sobs to tell me that Grandma was happy and in Heaven, it became more and more clear that they didn’t believe their own words. I wondered why they were lying. I wondered how they could be so certain that Grandma wasn’t in Heaven.
For the rest of the week I spent a lot of time in the living room, hiding between an upholstered chair and the wall. It was my favorite place to find solitude during big family gatherings. My little nook was just under the telephone so I could eavesdrop on all calls as I watched everyone in the room without them taking note of my spying. I watched all of the adults very carefully, trying to figure out what was going on and why they were behaving so strangely.
I can’t begin to count the number of times they consoled each other by saying, “She’s in a better place now,” as their tears kept flowing full stream. I wondered who they were trying to convince, for none of them seemed to notice me in my hiding spot. I slowly came to realize that they weren’t really trying to convince me or each other so much as they were each trying to convince themselves. Once I came to this understanding, the rest of their behavior made perfect sense.
They were afraid because they really didn’t know where Grandma was, and that meant that they had no idea where they were going to wind up when it was their turn. They were frantic to have their lies about Heaven affirmed in order to affirm that they themselves would end up in such a place. None of their tears were actually for Grandma. They were crying for themselves.
It was all too much for me to absorb at that age. Up until that week, Heaven had been a very real place for me; more real than England or Germany. I had no reason to think that I would ever visit England or Germany, but Heaven had always been a definite destination. I knew more about Heaven than New York or Los Angeles. Heaven had streets that were paved in gold and big mansions for everyone. I had heard about it at church and Grandma had told me about it herself as though she had been there.
I thought about Grandma’s eyes as she slipped away. I vividly remembered the feeling of life fading from her hand. Where did she go? The question echoed over and over in my mind and I knew that I couldn’t ask the adults while they were so desperately trying to convince themselves that she had gone to Heaven. I might have been able to block all of it out if it weren’t for what happened at her funeral.
My next memory is of walking past Grandma as she lay in her casket. She looked wonderful. She was a bit pale, but she no longer looked gray. I looked up at my mother and asked, “Who closed Grandma’s eyes?” The resulting gasps and shrieks completed my trauma. It only got worse when I explained that Grandma never closed her eyes when she left. The rest of the proceedings are a blur, at least until they lowered her into the ground and began to cover her with earth.