“Time to see what Santa brought,” my dad’s voice said, cutting through the fog of sleep blanketing my brain. My father was always kid-like at Christmas, no matter who was getting the presents and no matter what else was going on. I remember smiling at the thought of the packages that had been multiplying under the Christmas tree over the past days. I had crept out of bed the previous night to peek into the living room while my parents did last minute wrapping and arranging. I had spotted a shiny red tricycle under the branches and even in my current half-asleep state, I was longing to take a spin around the house.
Dad scooped me up in his strong right arm, carrying me into the living room. My mother joined us in the hall as we paused to look at the big fir next to the fireplace, glowing with lights and dripping with icicles. “Where’s Ma’maw?” I asked, wiping sleep out of my eyes. I felt my father’s shoulder sag slightly. Beside me, my mother began to cry softly. That’s when I knew: Ma’maw was never coming home again. That red tricycle suddenly didn’t matter.
Elizabeth Stallcup, whom I called “Ma’maw,” was my grandmother, my primary care giver, my roommate, and my best friend. Ma’maw had long silver hair she wore pinned up into a bun. She sported rimless glasses. She had a regal posture like only a person born at the end of the Victorian era could have. She was a kind woman with a loving word for everyone. Even now, more than half a century after her passing, the elders in my family speak of her in hushed tones as if she was a demigoddess.
But her kindness and grace could not save her from what I now realize were TIA’s (transient ischemic attacks), or mini-strokes. She had them for months before The Big One took her away from me on Christmas Eve of my 3rd year. Though I grieved for her deeply, she continued to visit me. Our interactions were sharp and clear for a long while after her passing and I spoke with her often during my childhood.
As I aged I saw her less and less. By the time I was in my teens I spoke with her only in my dreams. Our interactions did not return to their original waking sharpness and clarity until a rather traumatic experience in my late 30’s. She physically touched me during this experience, shaking me out of a deep hypothermic state, saving my life. I still remember opening my eyes to see Ma’maw shimmering in the moonlight, smiling down at me and saying, “You have to wake up now. It’s not time. They are going to be calling for you soon.” She was right. This shifted my awareness and reopened my eyes to the intersection of the physical and non-physical realities that our culture edits out of conscious waking awareness.
Some years later, after the break up of an 18-year relationship, I sought out a therapist to help me sort through my wreckage. To my surprise, we talked only a little about the breakup, but a lot about my grandmother, my early loss of her, and how that had affected my whole life. It may seem strange to say it, but until then I had never really thought about how this grief had shaped me and how I related to others.
One afternoon, my therapist asked me to invite my grandmother into the room with us. I was extremely hesitant to do this. Though I had long been a frequent flyer on the Dead People Express at this point, I didn’t really talk about it much because I wasn’t sure if I was 1) making it all up with my notably vivid imagination, or 2) hallucinating the entire set of experiences. Before I called my grandmother in, I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably the session where she recommends psyche meds.”
Despite my misgivings, I took the plunge anyway. I invited Ma’maw into the room, sending a kind of shout-out to her in my mind. She arrived next to the door into the office with a small “pop.” She crossed the room diagonally and sat down on the sofa across from me, crossing one leg gracefully over the other and sitting upright with her impeccable posture.
To my complete astonishment, my therapist described where she entered the room, the path she had taken, where and how she sat down, what she was wearing, how her hair was arranged…every detail down to the rimless glasses she wore. This was my first inkling that others might be able to see what I saw. I wasn’t losing my sanity. After the initial surprise, I felt elated and free. Over the following months I was able to accept and appreciate more about myself. I also talked to my grandmother more frequently and with no underlying fears that I was inventing or hallucinating our conversations.
On the 40th anniversary of my grandmother’s physical death, a rainy Christmas Eve, I was able to help both of us move forward. Alone on the holiday for the first time in years, I called to her and she came to visit. I started by telling her how much I missed her, how hard it was to be without her, and how much grief I had after she left. I found myself finally expressing my long-held anger at being abandoned, left with people who didn’t “get” me, who steeped me in self-hatred and shame. I told her how the loss of her and the fear of being abandoned again had fractured all of my relationships. I let all of the ugly things with which I had been poisoning myself out into the light.
She never flinched, never got defensive, just listened without judgment. When I stalled she simply nodded and urged me to continue. Finally, I ran out of both words and tears. After a pause, radiating incredible kindness, she said, “I wondered how long it would take you to tell me that. You’ve needed to admit this for a long time.” I agreed. I’d never allowed myself to even think these things.
We talked a little more. I thanked her for letting me say what I had needed to say, to feel what I needed to allow myself to feel. I felt clearer and lighter than I ever had in my life. At last she cocked her head to one side, paused, then said, “Are we finished?” I knew what she meant. We were. The loose dangly endings of our relationship were cleanly knitted together.
The moment was bittersweet. I knew I wouldn’t see her much for a long while. She had been waiting for me to grow to the place that I could embrace all of this. Our business was complete and she could move on.
We all know the classic children’s storybook ending “and they lived happily ever after.” This is a neat little wrap up to a story and, while it may be true that Cinderella and the Prince were able to dwell in wedded bliss for the remainder of their days, it certainly glosses over the inevitable challenges of being in relationship. ‘Living happily ever after’ edits out inevitable realities of life such as disagreements over what color to paint the throne room, their children’s “terrible twos,” complaints from unhappy citizens, seven year itches, Prince Jr.’s teenage rebellious period, and Cinderella’s menopause.
This is similar to what happens with descriptions about what happens after death. Neat wrap-up descriptions such as dying and going to heaven (or even dying and going to hell) put a convenient veneer over the post-mortem realities of finishing up the loose ends left after one dies or of waiting on a spouse (or others to whom one feels intense loyalty). Our loved ones do move on after death, but they may not move on at the speed we are taught to expect.
And sometimes they don’t move on because they are caught in the confusion surrounding their death. Those souls need some help understanding what happened to them and what their options are. But that’s a topic for next week’s blog post!